By SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
Road relieves more stress than traffic
HUDSON -- Open a new road with a lot of fanfare and marching bands and you know what to expect: a bunch of smarty pants reporters clocking the expensive road and finding that the time difference is minimal.
With the Suncoast Parkway open, reporters in the Times offices in Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas counties made test runs on the $507-million toll road at various times and days last week to see if it topped the region's other north-south routes.
In runs to the airport from Hernando, and the next day from Pasco, the parkway saved eight minutes compared with Interstate 75. In a run from St. Petersburg to Roger's Christmas House Village in Brooksville, I-75 was actually a minute faster than the new parkway.
But all the road wordsmiths reported that the gridlock-free Suncoast Parkway was easy street for drivers' nerves.
Responding to environmentalists' opposition to opening up rural areas to urban sprawl with a new road, state Rep. David Russell said the highway was a sign of political farsightedness.
"We didn't wait for gridlock to occur on Highway 19," Russell said at the road's opening ceremony. "We didn't wait for traffic fatalities to skyrocket."
BROOKSVILLE -- Freaky Friday, a 1972 children's book that was the basis for two Disney movies, survived a challenge Tuesday from a parent who wanted the Hernando County School Board to ban it.
Although board members did not endorse the book, they said banning it would be tantamount to censorship.
The rarely challenged book by Mary Rodgers is about a girl who wakes up one morning in her mother's body. Through the day, she learns what it's like to walk in her mother's shoes. It was made into a 1977 Disney movie that starred Jodie Foster and a 1995 remake with Shelley Long.
A parent of a third-grader asked for the book's removal because of its references to alcohol, smoking, ethnic slurs and dirty movies.
Several board members said the mother took the passages out of context. They said smoking and drinking were cast in a negative light, as were the racial slurs.
TARPON SPRINGS -- Marion Cody lived near the Stauffer Chemical plant off and on for 10 years, and she vividly remembers the days when Stauffer workers would clean the furnace.
Clouds of fumes would typically drift south, right across her property. They would leave a residue of white ash that would cover everything, said Cody, 76.
Now a community group that monitors the cleanup of the Stauffer Superfund site has asked the federal government to try to determine whether there is a scientific basis for the suspicions of Cody and others who used to live near Stauffer who blame their cancers and other illnesses on Stauffer's fumes.
The Anclote Citizens Advisory Group has proposed using decades-old weather data and air samples to determine how much pollution from the former phosphorus processing plant might have ended up in the surrounding community.
At the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, spokeswoman Kathy Skipper said the level and type of past air emissions is one of the issues the agency is looking at, but she did not know whether some sort of modeling is being considered.
TAMPA -- Despite a year of scandals at the Hillsborough County Courthouse, Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez beat back the first challenge to his leadership in a decade.
Hillsborough's judges re-elected Alvarez to a two-year term as chief judge by a vote of 35 to 11.
The challenge from Circuit Judge Debra Behnke -- Alvarez's first in 10 years -- came after a troubled year that included a grand jury report that criticized Alvarez's leadership and called on his fellow judges and the Florida Supreme Court to review his conduct.
The scrutiny centered on how Alvarez quietly handled allegations against two judges, who both resigned in disgrace.
NEW PORT RICHEY -- It's time to soak the wallets if we want to see some water conservation, Pasco County commissioners said.
Commissioners want to impose higher water rates to encourage conservation, and they hope their example prompts Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to do the same.
"Somebody's got to start," Commission Chairman Steve Simon said. "We'll shame the rest into it."
The city of Tampa, facing drastically low levels in the Hillsborough River, needs extra water to meet customer demand. In light of a proposed pumping increase by the regional utility Tampa Bay Water, most of which would be borne by ecologically stressed Pasco well fields, commissioners are seeking ways to reduce consumption.
Asked whether the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, could force Tampa Bay Water member governments to adopt steeper water rates, Swiftmud executive director E. D. "Sonny" Vergara said his agency can require conservation rates, but can't set the exact amount.
TAMPA -- Some local defense attorneys and several prominent African-Americans released a letter Tuesday defending Hillsborough Circuit Judge Florence Foster against racism charges.
The 13 people signed the letter to counter a national flurry of criticism Foster has received about comments she made about a white drug defendant.
In November, Foster said she would not send defendant Paul Hamill to prison because his size and his race would make him a likely target of sexual abuse. Civil rights leaders denounced her comments.
The letter, addressed to local news media, said Foster treats defendants in her courtroom equally.
"The Judge Foster we know treats all who appear before her with respect and compassion while dispensing justice without regard to race, sex, national origin or financial status considerations," said the letter, which was signed by Bob Gilder, a longtime Tampa civil rights leader and former president of the Tampa NAACP, and Walter L. Smith, a former president of Florida A&M University, among others.
Student athletes who show themselves to be boorish and belligerent may face more than a bench seat. The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday will hold a public hearing to consider fining athletes ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Get ready to pay more for your favorite grouper sandwich. From Feb. 15 to March 15, there will be no grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, the first time such a ban has been imposed in the state. The Atlantic already has a regular grouper ban in place for two months each year. The ban has some restaurants wondering whether they will be able to serve the fish because it will be in such short supply and so expensive.
- Compiled by Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne