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WEEK IN REVIEW

By Compiled by Times staff writer SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


Sheriff gets static after backup offer

LARGO -- With Largo's police chief ending some tense investigation-fueled months by announcing his retirement, the timing seemed perfect for the Pinellas County sheriff to offer to take over the department, as he has in numerous other municipalities.

But to many in Largo, the timing was a bit tacky.

Police Chief Jerry Bloechle on Tuesday abruptly announced he is retiring after 20 years, admitting that allegations of officer misconduct with members of a youth Explorer post took a toll on him.

The next day, Sheriff Everett Rice offered to keep Bloechle's seat warm and save the city 40 percent of the Police Department's $11.2-million budget.

None of the city leaders he approached has been willing to bite yet, and City Manager Steven Stanton said the offer was in "bad taste" at a time of turmoil for the police department.

Rice said he was not trying to act like a scavenger, but he remains adamant in his belief that Largo would be better off dropping its police force. "I'm sorry (my comments) gave the impression I was trying to take over," Rice said.

Fireworks become latest victim of the drought

Sparks won't be falling on Independence Day in the bay area unless some raindrops fall first.

County governments in Citrus, Hernando, Pinellas and Pasco counties joined Hillsborough last week in banning the sale and use of fireworks until the area gets some significant rainfall.

Meanwhile, state fire chiefs are begging Gov. Jeb Bush to ban all fireworks sales. But Bush declined to impose a ban Thursday, saying the move would be premature.

"Our feeling is, they banned open burning statewide, why not ban fireworks statewide?" said Larry Scovotto, executive director of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association. "Our resources are stretched to the limit. It's even worse drought conditions now than it was in 1998."

That year, Gov. Lawton Chiles banned fireworks sales statewide, sparking two lawsuits from fireworks companies that are still pending.

Motor vehicles barred from the Green Swamp

DADE CITY -- With the Green Swamp turning into a brown tinderbox, state wildlife officials closed the 50,000-acre preserve to all vehicle traffic last week, shutting out anglers during the last two weeks of fishing season.

"It's mostly dry anyway," said Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Larry Campbell. "There just aren't that many places to fish."

Jim Swann, owner of Swann's Fly Fishing Outfitters in Dade City, said the closure wouldn't bother his customers. While there are good fishing spots in the swamp, most of them have dried up during the drought, he said.

"It'll rain," he said.

Swann said he recalls a bad drought a decade ago that drained the lakes.

"The fish came right back," he said.

The Green Swamp borders east Pasco County and includes parts of Polk, Lake and Sumter counties.

Congressman vows to make EPA answer for snub

TARPON SPRINGS -- The booing and jeering of the Tarpon Springs crowd may still be echoing in the halls of the Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, is "outraged" by the snub he received last week when two EPA officials abruptly walked out of a community meeting he organized.

They were there to talk about the toxic waste cleanup of the Stauffer chemical plant Superfund site. Neighbors and the EPA's ombudsman's office have been critical of the cleanup plan, fearing it could pollute the water supply if sinkholes develop, among other concerns.

The officials said at the start of the two-hour meeting Monday at Tarpon Springs City Hall that they would leave after making a brief presentation about the cleanup and taking 10 minutes of questions. Some of the 70 people at the meeting jeered and booed as they left.

Now Bilirakis says he intends to launch a congressional investigation of the EPA and its possible interference with the agency's ombudsman's office.

And he branded as a "whitewash" a letter he received from EPA Regional Administrator John J. Hankinson Jr. who tried to explain the walkout and offer assurances "there was no intention to offend you or the public."

Airport parking woes boil over as the days heat up

TAMPA -- As summer sets in, so do the extra cars at Tampa International Airport.

Parking staffers are wedging them in as TIA's growth continues to outstrip its capacity to accommodate its customers. And there is no relief in sight until at least August .

This is the worst time of year for abusive drivers, said Joe Hills, director of parking and ground transportation at TIA.

"People expect crowds and delays during the holidays, but they don't expect it in the summer, especially with the tourists gone," he said. "They're much quicker to anger."

In August, the airport plans to open an outdoor, remote lot that can handle 2,100 more cars at a cheaper rate than either garage. Passengers would ride shuttles to the main terminal.

Until then, airport officials say motorists should leave plenty of extra time to find parking and follow Republic employees' instructions.

The most backed-up times are around noon and shortly before 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays in the short-term lot.

The long-term lot begins to fill up on Thursday and remains congested until late Saturday.

Coming up this week

Gov. Jeb Bush has until Tuesday to decide whether to sign the bill into law that would end all emissions tests, which are currently mandatory for car owners in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Duval counties. The tests are part of an EPA-approved program for dealing with Florida's air pollution problems. The air has improved in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Duval counties. But Pinellas and Hillsborough's air has not improved. The issue is a hot one for environmentalists and for motorists. The EPA has received more than 700 letters, mostly opposed to ending the tests.

Opening arguments in the murder-for-hire trial of Allen Blackthorne are expected to begin Monday in San Antonio. Blackthorne is charged in a federal indictment with interstate conspiracy to commit murder for hire and interstate domestic violence. He is accused of planning the murder of his ex-wife, Sheila Bellush. Mrs. Bellush, 34, mother of quadruplets and two daughters, was shot and stabbed inside her Sarasota home in November 1997.

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