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    Metro week in review

    By Times staff writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 17, 2002

    Chief moves to keep guns in holsters

    TAMPA -- Tampa police may soon be slower on the draw, but their guns will be a little tougher to swipe.

    After two incidents of guns being snatched from officers, Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder decided to drop the old "thumb break" style holsters the department has used since the 1980s.

    The department has been considering new holsters, which will cost an additional $40 to $80 each, for years. But two separate incidents in January gave the issue priority, administrators said.

    On Jan. 15, a suspect took a gun from Officer Richard "R.D." Pemberton and shot Pemberton and his partner. Both officers survived. On Jan. 26, a suspect snatched a gun from Officer Robert D. Cole. Cole managed to get his gun back and was not injured.

    In the past decade, Tampa police continued to use the "thumb break" style, which is easily accessible, while other agencies, including the sheriff's offices in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, had converted to newer and more secure holsters.

    Despite concerns by some that a new holster will mean a slower draw, most officers welcome the change, union officials said.

    Attorney lifts blackout on development's records

    INVERNESS -- As if the controversial plan to put a 54-unit condo on Halls River wasn't touchy enough, the Citrus County attorney's order to withhold documents from the public has fueled new suspicion and anger.

    County Attorney Robert Battista, who had closed the documents because of pending lawsuits, quickly issued a reversal Tuesday after it was challenged as a violation of the state's open records law.

    Under the law, county government documents are presumed to be open to the public unless covered by a specific exemption. One provision exempts certain records if the topic is under litigation, but only those prepared "exclusively" for a pending or impending lawsuit.

    The incident has bred further suspicion among the condominium project's critics.

    "His first reaction was to seal off all the public records," said Ron Miller, president of the Save the Homosassa River Alliance and the local Audubon Society. "There must be something there we haven't seen."

    Ousted principal gets a warm welcome back

    TARPON SPRINGS -- Tarpon Springs High School held its second homecoming celebration of the year Thursday as students and teachers welcomed principal John Nicely back to the school he left last week.

    "He must have got hugged by about a million people," said Shea O'Neil, a junior who helped to film Nicely's return for her television production class.

    The principal came under fire over a senior who had earned B's and C's in her classes but was given failing grades under the school's absentee policy, which is stricter than the school district's policy.

    Nicely worked out a deal with the student and five others that allowed them to keep the grades they otherwise would have earned if they had no more unexcused absences through the end of the year.

    Nicely also allowed her passing grades to be sent to colleges but kept the F's on her transcript at Tarpon Springs High. The discrepancy between the two sets of grades created a "credibility problem" for the high school and the school district, administrators said.

    Superintendent Howard Hinesley said his change of mind was influenced by the overwhelming support Nicely received. The principal will stay at the school through the end of the year and take a reprimand.

    Plan to save wildlife could be too large a pill to swallow

    NEW PORT RICHEY -- With the woods of Pasco County disappearing under concrete and asphalt, a consultant last week suggested a comprehensive -- and expensive -- plan to buy large blocks of wildlife habitat.

    But Commissioner Steve Simon said he found unrealistic a key suggestion by consultant Jay Exum to buy sensitive land.

    With the cost of some land at $25,000 an acre, Simon put the price of privately held land at more than $2-billion.

    "There's no way on God's green earth that money is going to be available," Simon said.

    The study completes one of the requirements of a legal settlement reached with environmentalists two years ago.

    The county staff will take the study and work with county planning boards to incorporate feedback before trying to draft an ordinance.

    Administrator admits accepting more gifts

    BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County commissioners were again stunned by reports that County Administrator Paul McIntosh accepted gifts from vendors during his tenure as administrator -- gifts he had previously failed to report.

    McIntosh acknowledged taking a list of perks that included a luxury seat on the 15-yard line for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game; a round of golf at the exclusive Black Diamond course in Citrus County; professional baseball tickets; and paid entrance to charity golf scrambles.

    McIntosh maintained the gifts were not intended to buy influence and argued that county policy governing gifts is internally inconsistent.

    "None of that had anything to do with my judgment, my action or a vote," he said. "It didn't sway me whatsoever."

    What the revelations mean for McIntosh's future in Hernando County remains uncertain.

    Last week, McIntosh survived a 3-2 vote to keep him on the payroll for at least six months. The vote followed a dispute over the Emergency Management department. Before that, McIntosh weathered a storm over accepting a free golf outing from a consultant.

    In short . . .

    LARGO -- Pinellas County commissioners struck down proposed settlements that would have given two billboard companies more time to remove their large signs from county roads. Lamar Co. and Viacom Outdoor have more than 50 billboards that would have been affected. A 1992 county ordinance gave the companies seven years to bring down billboards that didn't meet new rules.

    ST. PETERSBURG -- St. Petersburg city leaders got a look at a plan that calls for closing Albert Whitted Airport and using the land for city parks and a condominium project. The project could bring in some $20-million in new property tax, but airport supporters are well-organized and have been monitoring the issue and lobbying the council.

    Coming up this week

    Things will get even stickier in Tallahassee as the legislative session winds down to its last scheduled day Friday. It has been a particularly prickly year with open animosity between the speaker of the House and Senate president over tax reform. And they still have to pass a budget, complete redistricting and reorganize the Cabinet.

    The head of a three-person committee from the American Association of University Professors will return Thursday to meet with faculty members and others who may have been away during the previous week. The committee is deciding if it should censure the University of South Florida over the treatment of suspended professor Sami Al-Arian.

    It's Election Day in Tarpon Springs on Tuesday, with referenda on repealing term limits and making it more difficult to fire a city manager on the ballot.

    -- Compiled by Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne

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