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  1. Life & Culture

Sand, sea and sunsets aside, 'Mad Beach' just can't relax

A view of the businesses at the corner of 150th Avenue at Gulf Blvd and Madeira Way in Madeira Beach. Citizens opposed to dramatic changes in the city's low-slung downtown core succeeded in restocking the City Commission, but debate rages on. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times ]
A view of the businesses at the corner of 150th Avenue at Gulf Blvd and Madeira Way in Madeira Beach. Citizens opposed to dramatic changes in the city's low-slung downtown core succeeded in restocking the City Commission, but debate rages on. [DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 4, 2017

MADEIRA BEACH — In a town where a playful wind tosses sand across Gulf Boulevard like summertime snowflakes, they're talking about death threats. They're serving up blackened grouper sandwiches at Dockside Dave's, and lawsuits and ethics complaints down the street at City Hall. As tourists call for room service, residents call for the heads of elected officials.

Welcome to self-anointed "Mad Beach," where sleepy-town politics have grown so serious the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office posts two deputies at City Commission workshops. So volatile are the public meetings that one man, dressing down commissioners this month in a sleeveless shirt, called them "Jerry Springer, Judge Judy and WWE all mixed together."

Civics are so uncivil that one commissioner had the good idea of bringing in a therapist.

"For the first time in the 30 years that I have lived here, I'm embarrassed to say I live in Madeira Beach," said Ginger Tolliver, 81, a regular spectator. "We have become the laughing stock of the whole area."

They're fighting, many say, about what their slice of paradise should look like in the future. But recent months have been so contentious that folks have trouble keeping up with the issues.

There was the election of two new commissioners and a mayor, who quickly moved to suspend the popular city manager and fire his wife, the city clerk. There are the numerous allegations of nepotism, ethical lapses and Sunshine Law violations. There is the claim that a video exists of a certain drunken commissioner behaving badly at the King of the Beach fishing event.

All this on a 1-square-mile island where shorts and Hawaiian shirts far outnumber slacks and neckties at public meetings. The new mayor, Maggi Black, has gotten used to shouting "Point of order!" over the boos and catcalls as pelicans dive into the Intracoastal Waterway outside City Hall's windows.

Civil shenanigans have become as routine as golden sunsets.

"It has definitely gotten personal around here," said Jeff Brown, a.k.a. Jeff the Jeweler, who came from Texas 12 years ago.

"It's really, really rotten," said Sam Baker, 85, who retired here in 2002.

"There's animosity," said Steve Kochick, 70, a former city commissioner. "Everybody knows everybody, so once you start to draw sides, things get personal."

The root of the consternation, many here say, is development — specifically, two proposals to build hotel and condo buildings taller than some residents want. The sites are along 150th Avenue, which connects the beach to the mainland over the Tom Stuart Causeway.

The developers have spent millions to buy property and design their projects. They've even agreed to downsize from the originally proposed 11-story buildings. And before the recent election, the ventures — valued at some $200 million — seemed like a go.

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But a group of citizens opposed to the projects, which would dramatically change the city's low-slung downtown core, has found success in getting out the vote.

"There's two factions in the city," said Kochick, the former commissioner. "It just seems like for forever the two sides just don't agree with anything. Some of it has to do with business. Some of it has to do with personalities."

Known as Madeira Beach United, the group turned up enough signatures on a petition to schedule a referendum to repeal the proposed zoning ordinance that allowed the massive projects.

"We got 1,071 signatures, more than required," said Sam Baker, who retired here from the Northeast in 2002. "We had a grievance."

That's 1,071 signatures in a town with a population of 4,263.

But the City Commission approved the projects anyway. After the vote last June, Pat Shontz, 83, who had served as mayor or commissioner for some 40 of the 54 years she lived in Madeira Beach, resigned unexpectedly, citing the actions of "vicious, nasty, disrespectful people."

"Tonight I am ending that career," she told the crowd. "I am way too old to be thinking about this nasty stuff."

She died in January, but even the death of the town matriarch was cause for controversy. Her family addressed the commission at a recent public meeting, making clear that the rumors were wrong about the city manager trying to steal from Shontz's estate.

With the projects approved, Baker and his Madeira Beach United peers pushed ahead with their activism, challenging the projects in lawsuits and fielding a slate of three like-minded candidates to oust the incumbents.

"Once again, we hit the bricks," said Baker, sitting cross-legged in the living room of his modest retirement home with a wooden dock on the Intracoastal. "We got about 60 percent of the votes."

Mayor Black and the two new commissioners, John Douthirt and Nancy Oakley, faced scorn at their first three-hour city meeting in April, before a standing-room-only crowd. Little has changed with each subsequent meeting.

"There's a few retired folks who want to run the town," said Brown, the jeweler, whose business marquee now calls for the recall of the three new politicians. "And they don't want us business folks to have anything to do with it."

And the way he sees it, the retirees won. This time.

"You can throw a wrench in the best machinery and screw it up," he said. "They changed the direction of the city. You've got to go hats off to them. No matter how they did it, they did it. A lot of us don't like that. Sometimes crow doesn't taste too good."

Baker said Madeira Beach United wants smart development, and a commission that residents can trust. And he and like-minded residents are just trying, legally, to make sure their voices are heard.

"I think we're right," he said. "I'm heavily convinced we're doing the right thing."

While barbs have been thrown, Baker sees most residents' activism as passion. Folks want a better future for Mad Beach, they just have different ideas about what that looks like. No fists have been thrown, he said. And many others agree that the division doesn't spill out onto the streets.

But what happened last month rose to a new level of nasty.

Suspended City Manager Shane Crawford told the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office that he received death threats on his cell phone. The anonymous caller, he reported, said he would rape Crawford's wife in front of her children.

The Sheriff's Office opened an investigation and traced the anonymous calls to a man named Steven Barrett, 30, of nearby Treasure Island, the same man who publicly compared the commission to Jerry Springer, Judge Judy and WWE. Barrett told a sheriff's deputy that he had been watching City Commission meetings online. He initially denied calling, then admitted he had called Crawford to tell him he "was fired."

The case was forwarded to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office for prosecution.

While there have been periods of public peace in the past, people here have a hard time remembering exactly what that was like.

"This has been going on forever," said Kochick, a retired New York Fire Department lieutenant. "Sides were drawn, and it's been going on ever since. For a little community, it's like a fiefdom. These people were powerful people in their little monarchy."

At a meeting last week, a woman passed around a photocopy of a newspaper article about intense discord in Madeira Beach politics as the city manager's job hung in the balance. The article was published in 1958.

Contact Ben Montgomery at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

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