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Sarasota news

By Stan Zimmerman

City turns Walmart down

After eight hours of public testimony and another hour of legal advice, Sarasota City Commissioners voted to overturn the advice of its citizen planning board and reject a site plan for a new Walmart Supercenter in the middle of town.

The corporation wanted the store at the site of the almost-abandoned Ringling Shopping Center three blocks east of the historic courthouse. About one-third of the 98,000 square-foot facility would sell groceries; the other space would sell general merchandise.

The company was founded in 1962, and today is the second-most-valuable publicly traded corporation in America. Nearly half the stock remains in the hands of the heirs of the founder.

The city commission was voting on an appeal of the planning board’s 3-2 vote in favor of the company’s site plan. The reversal, by the same margin, means Walmart must take the city to circuit court in order to pursue its plans.

City voters prune candidates to three

About 17 percent of eligible Sarasota city voters went to the polls on a rainy Tuesday March 12 to cut the slate of candidates from six to three. The survivors will contest for two at-large city commission seats on May 14.

Emerging from the fury ahead of the pack were incumbent Commissioner and Mayor Suzanne Atwell, neighborhood activist and attorney Susan Chapman, and newcomer retiree Richard Dorfman.

In the dust were two three-time challengers – Linda Holland and Pete Theisen – and the only political neophyte the the field, Rev. Kelvin Lumpkin.

Dorfman was the major fundraiser, with his $40,000 war chest equal to all the other campaign accounts combined.

Chapman emerged as the top vote-getter, with Atwell second and Dorfman third. Their yard signs will be a reminder through April to mid-May the city election is still underway.

Local robot builders win state award

Students from five Sarasota-area high schools won state recognition in March at the Orlando Regional Robotics Competition.

Sarasota’s Jungle Robotics Team received the chairman’s award to recognize students’ achievements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The award qualifies the team to attend the national competition in late April in St. Louis.

The “Jungle Team” is composed of 30 students from Riverview High School, Suncoast Polytechnical High School, Venice High School, Pine View School for the Gifted, and the private Out-of-Door Academy. It will be their second trip to the nationals.

City budget nearly $5 million in the hole

Sarasota City Commissioners will spend the summer wrestling with the consequences of a $4.8 million shortfall in the preliminary budget proposal offered by their staff. Whatever they do will go into effect Oct. 1.

At a workshop, staff asked for guidance to fill the deficit. Commissioner Terry Turner, a lame duck who declined to run for re-election this year, suggested, “Reduce police positions, I think we have to.”

The city’s long-time Finance Director is leaving city hall too, headed for medical retirement. He noted the staff is already proposing to reduce seven police officer positions and five other city employees. “That’s $3.5 million, leaving $1.3 million,” he said. “Use more revenue stabilization funds (e.g. “savings”)? That would use it up. Without a [property tax] rate increase, it will come out of the general fund.”

A second workshop is planned for July, and there will be one – and perhaps two – new faces on the five-person commission. Mayor Suzanne Atwell is running for re-election, and Turner is stepping down.

City witch hunt ends

It started with a tip from a former state senator that emails were being erased by senior city officials. It resulted in the resignation of the city manager, the firing of a department head and the 14-month furlough of a senior staffer (with pay). It kicked off investigations by the FBI, the Office of Housing and Urban Development, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a city-paid consultant.

In the end, no charges were filed and none of the allegations were substantiated. It was Sarasota’s version of a Sen. Joseph McCarthy witch hunt, but half-a-century later. Instead of insider Communists, it was government sunshine-law violators.

It was a costly witch hunt. More than $72,00 was paid in legal fees; the consultant cost nearly $130,000; severance pay for the departing city manger added an additional $112,000; and the 14-month furlough cost nearly $120,000. Throw in the expense of hunting for a new city manager and information technology department director, and their moving costs ($53,000) and the grand total comes to more than a half-million dollars.

Nik gets the nod

With our beaches and our arts and our upscale ambience, it can be easy to overlook the city’s authentic heritage. But on Jan. 29, Nik Wallenda reminded us we’re a circus city as he strolled the high steel wire across US 41. You could see it on national television, but locals with their hearts in their throats saw him in the flesh.

Commemorating Nik’s jaywalk across the Tamiami Trail from 200 feet above, the Sarasota City Commission presented him with a framed mid-walk photo called “A man and his city.” When he asked commission approval for the feat, he said he wanted to spotlight his home town. To show the blue bay waters and the downtown skyline. His Sarasota wirewalk received more than 150 million media impressions.

After walking the wire across Niagara Falls in 2012, he plans to traverse the Grand Canyon in June. At 1,500 feet above the Colorado River, it would be his highest wirewalk yet.

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