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    Week in review

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 6, 2002

    Some birds no-shows in annual count

    INVERNESS -- Despite a higher species count, some birds have flown the coop in the annual Audubon census in Citrus County, perhaps because of urban sprawl.

    The red-cockaded woodpecker, burrowing owl and scrub jay were no-shows.

    They were lost at least from the 7 1/2-mile radius covered, spanning from Crystal River Airport. The area is a good representation of the diverse county habitat, which includes uplands, woodlands, wetlands and coastal waterways.

    The red-cockaded woodpecker and burrowing owl have not been spotted in five years, said Ken Spilios, who helped coordinate the census. This was the second time the scrub jay did not make the list.

    "They are victims of growth," Spilios said of the three species. "As our area becomes more and more urbanized, we have a loss of habitat and increasing number of domestic animals."

    Hernando consultant's contract under scrutiny

    BROOKSVILLE -- County commissioners are alarmed and prosecutors are asking questions about Hernando County's employment of utilities consultant Hartman & Associates.

    County commissioners asked the state attorney for an opinion two weeks ago amid reports that their administration had split a single contract into five for services to avoid public scrutiny.

    There are reports of other possible improprieties, such as allowing Hartman & Associates to write a job description for a job on which it might bid.

    Hartman also completed work and submitted bills to the county before it formally was hired.

    County Administrator Paul McIntosh said he did not see anything wrong in the way in which the contracts were handled.

    "I operated on the basis of legal advice from the get-go," McIntosh said.

    The state attorney's office's public interest unit will conduct an informal inquiry, a spokesman said, to gather information that would help it better understand whether anything illegal occurred in the county's handling of several contracts with the Orlando-based firm.

    Final last call chimes for legendary bar

    TAMPA -- South Tampa barflies were crying in their beers after the Chatterbox Lounge, a neighborhood lounge that has stood on the corner of Swann and Howard since Prohibition, was closed last week.

    [Times photo: John Pendygraft]
    George Ford, a fixture at the Chatterbox for 46 years, shoots pool during happy hour last week. The landmark bar closed last week.
    Every election night, the Box was packed, with candidates filtering in. On Gasparilla Day, a line wound around the parking lot.

    The Chatterbox used to be jacket-required. Ray Charles played there in the 1940s. Elvis, the story goes, was carded there in the 1950s, before he played at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, the Ice Palace of its time.

    Originally, during Prohibition, it was a general store called the El Dorado Club. "Groceries" were sold out the front.

    It was first called the Chatterbox in 1940, and it was a hangout for airmen from the Drew (later MacDill) airfield.

    New owners have bought the land on which the Chatterbox stands, and in mid January the bar will be bulldozed, along with the other buildings on the 11/2-acre site: the doctor's office next door and the old Hyde Park Travel building. This summer, SoHo Pointe, a strip mall, will rise, housing an ice cream shop, hair salon, coffee shop and Panera Bread, a sandwich and bakery chain.

    It will be the 38th Panera in the Orlando-Tampa Bay market. Alcohol will not be served.

    Fiery crash still leaves commuters stuck in traffic

    TAMPA -- Drivers in northwest Hillsborough continued to suffer the effects of a fiery crash last week that knocked out part of the Veterans Expressway.

    State road officials are working on a half-mile, two-lane temporary detour for southbound traffic, but that is about two weeks away.

    Two months from now, it will all be torn out again. That's how long the Florida Department of Transportation thinks it will take to rebuild a bridge that normally carries southbound traffic but was scorched and rendered impassable Dec. 27 when a gas tanker truck caught fire.

    "It would be very difficult to find a place where something like this would be worse," said Mike Washburn, DOT spokesman. "That's why we're working with such great urgency to get this road available to residents."

    The logjam is expected to get worse Monday when schools reopen and the last of the holiday vacationers return to work.

    Arsenic fears may lead city to replace lumber in parks

    TREASURE ISLAND -- After finding arsenic and chromium deposits in the soil of three city playgrounds -- many times more than the state allows when polluters clean up neighborhoods -- commissioners will consider replacing all of the wooden equipment at their parks.

    City commissioners will take a formal vote at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday on the proposal, which is backed by the city manager.

    Public Works director Don Hambidge tested the playground equipment after concerns were raised locally and nationally about the safety of pressure-treated lumber, the greenish wood that is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA.

    In many playgrounds, including those on Treasure Island, the lumber is leaking arsenic into playground soil. Arsenic can cause cancer and other health problems.

    State and federal officials are waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency's preliminary findings, due this spring, before placing any standards on the treated wood.

    City Manager Chuck Coward said the arsenic levels in the Treasure Island play areas "were higher than what people anticipate will be the standards. Given what we know, we decided it would be in our best interest to move now, even though there are no regulations yet."

    In short . . .

    TAMPA -- Lawrence Singleton, on death row for the murder of a Tampa prostitute, died of cancer in prison at age 74. In 1978, the notorious killer raped a teenager, hacked off her arms and left her to die. His story became a symbol for groups nationally that oppose the early release of violent criminals.

    ST. PETERSBURG -- St. Petersburg on Thursday became one of a handful of Florida cities to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and it did so with far less rancor than other, similar efforts in the Tampa Bay area. After the four-hour hearing with only one opponent speaking against the plan, the council voted 6-2 to add sexual orientation language to its law, becoming at least the sixth Florida city to do so. Mayor Rick Baker, who has consistently opposed adding the sexual orientation language, said afterward that he does not plan to veto the change.

    INVERNESS -- Prosecutors say they plan to conduct a thorough two- to three-week investigation before deciding whether to charge Butch Ramsey, the owner of Happy Dayz Diner, with misdemeanor battery for allegedly shoving Inverness police Chief Joe Elizarde during a New Year's Day confrontation over a lost hamburger order. The hamburger hubbub is expanding as people are sending support to the restaurant owner and another complaint about the police chief has surfaced.

    Coming up this week

    Some professors are fuming at the University of Florida over the winter break firing of Sami Al-Arian, a computer science professor who once headed an academic think tank and charity the FBI accused of being fronts for Palestinian terrorists. Calling it an attack on academic freedom, the USF faculty senate will hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the firing, which some said was hastily called during the university's winter break, meaning faculty members couldn't attend.

    Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta on Thursday will decide the fate of Robert Pettyjohn, 19, who pleaded guilty to killing two bulls with a bows and arrows. He still awaits trial in Pinellas County in the killing of a pet llama. Ficarrotta postponed his decision so he can hear from a doctor about Pettyjohn's mental health. At one point, though, Ficarrotta suggested that prison might help him.

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