Behind the News

Bartlett Park community garden spurs City Council into ‘garden zoning’

commgardenartIf you haven’t had a chance to drive by the Bartlett Park Community Garden in St. Pete, I’d urge you to stop and smell the cabbage. The year-long effort has already paid off with a bountiful harvest of vegetables and fruits, as well as promoting some goodwill and friendship in a tough neighborhood.

But beyond the food and fellowship, the Bartlett Park Community Garden is paving, er, clearing the way for other community gardens to follow in its footsteps.

When I wrote about the community garden last year, I mentioned that St. Petersburg land use codes prohibit a nonprofit from operating in a residential area. And though many cities offer exemptions for community gardens, St. Pete does not. Undeterred, the folks at Green Florida worked with the city to gain a temporary use permit for the site. But they also circulated a petition and reached out to elected officials to change the law.

Now that hard work is paying off. District 6 City Councilmember Karl Nurse recently directed city officials to draft new land use regulations that would permit community garden. So far, preliminary rules would require interested citizens to apply for a permit and have at least a majority of neighbors on board with the plan. This is a good example of — oh, I have to say it — grassroots activism. Ha! Although, I must admit, the rules seem a little bureaucratic to me.

Personally, I’ve always loved guerilla gardening.

Behind the News

Newspapers’ death spiral continues: Seattle P-I stops the presses

44969988_af46b72fe6Looks like I have more friends in low places. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s last print edition will hit the newsstands tomorrow. Then, they go online-only with a reduced staff. This is the second major U.S. city to lose a daily — Denver’s Rocky Mountain News went down a few weeks ago. The San Francisco Chronicle may be next.

My former colleague Anthony Salveggi called this scenerio back in January.

So, Seattle reporters, let me know if you need help making your signs.

UPDATE: Newspaper Death Watch is reporting that the Tuscon Citizen‘s last day may be Friday.

Behind the News

The St. Pete police chief interview I’d like to see

chief-harmonI like St. Petersburg Times‘ columnist Bill Maxwell.

As a dorky newspaper-lovin’ teen in the mid 1990s, I often read Maxwell’s columns. When I moved back a few years ago, I was oddly comforted by seeing his mug again in my daily paper. I’ve always enjoyed his frank demeanor, to-the-point writing style, and mostly, his conservative, tough love approach toward St. Pete’s racial problems.

But his recent interview with St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon? Gag me.

Maxwell’s fluffed up interview with the city’s top cop is so PR-friendly, I’m tempted to call police PR flack Bill Profitt and ask if he’s retiring. Is Maxwell positioning for a job as the newspaper industry falters?

Here’s why a tough interview in the city’s top daily is important:

Behind the News

Developers lobby to dispute county impact fees

There’s an oft-used addage in community activism thrown out by pessimistic folks of both political persuasions: “You can’t fight City Hall.” This nugget of civil wisdom comes from the belief that taking on your city government is cumbersome, complicated, tiring and, ultimately, expensive.

After all, city governments seem to have a limitless supply of money to throw at any lawsuit. It’s money from taxpayers, and by extension, money from the person seeking justice. In short, they get you coming and going.

But I think there is an even better truism for 21st century community activism: “You can’t fight Big Business, not even City Hall.” My reasoning? For as much money as a city can throw at a lawsuit, Big Business seems to throw even more and it sticks better. In Florida, I’m specifically refering to developers. Any local community activist knows that developers and their lawyers not only spend big bucks on any challenge to their plans, but they buy politicians as well.

This is why House Bill 227 is a real problem for community activists. Sponsored by four House representatives (including local Rep. Ed Hooper from Clearwater), HB 227 (SB 580 in the Senate) seeks to allow developers to challenge impact fees imposed by local governments.

What are impact fees? They are imposed by local governments to hold developers partially responsible for the infrustructure needs brought on by the developer’s project. Impact fees typically go to building or widening roads, installing more traffic lights and sometimes building a school. Community activists and governments see the fees as promoting smart growth. Some developers see it as unnecessary taxation.

Most county governments have some sort of impact fee, though many times the amount has lagged behind present-day costs. So, during the nationwide housing boom, many counties raised their impact fees. Some developers have sued.

In these legal challenges, HB 227 would put more of a burden on city governments to prove their impact fee assessments are correct. It gets a little complicated, but the Florida League of Cities has a good overview:

SB 580 (Haridopolos), HB 227 (Aubuchon) change the burden of proof in a legal challenge to impact fees and remove any judicial deference to the local government’s decision. The bills were amended in committee to provide that the government has the burden of proof in an impact fee challenge.

An impact fee ordinance is a legislative decision that should be accorded the same level of deference given other legislative decisions – including decisions of the state legislature to impose fees and taxes. The change proposed by these bills means that even if reasonable minds could differ about the wisdom of the legislative decision, the city could lose the challenge. Neither bill proposes to change the burden of proof with respect to any fees or tax levied by the State of Florida, or any permit conditions imposed by the State of Florida or its agencies – all of which are legislative decisions.

But HB 227 isn’t the only bill involving impact fees moving through the Florida Legislature. SB 630 wants to put an outright moratorium on impact fees, something Hillsborough County is already looking at. For more on the complete idiocy of that move, read Mariella Smith’s recent blog post: “Your county’s solution to the housing glut: more houses.”

Instruction Manual Not Included

How to get your FBI file

I’ve always been a little paranoid. But, like the popular shirt says, “You only have to be right once to make it all worthwhile.” And so, last year, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking for my FBI file.

I fantasized about what would come back. Did they know about the protests I attended during college? What about the prank calls in high school? I knew I shouldn’t have egged that old man’s house …

Here’s how I did it:

1. File a Freedom of Information Act request. There are several sites that give you the basic format, but use the FBI’s own form. Basically, you have to formally request your file and then give several pieces of identifying information like your Social Security number, birthdate and last few addresses.

2. Sign, date and put a stamp on it. E-mailed requests are ignored.

3. Wait. And wait. And wait some more. I waited close to five months. Use that time to read up on famous people’s FBI files. Did you know Dezi Arnaz, of “I Love Lucy” fame, had a file? So did Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court.

4. Don’t get your “hopes” up. Despite what your crazy college roommate might tell you, the FBI (officially) does not keep a file on every U.S. citizen. That being said, who knows what you’ve done that they know about.

After several weeks, a thin envelope will arrives.You’ll probably rip it open, half-expecting it to be a handwritten note asking you to meet an agent on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge for “some questions.” But, alas, most likely, you’ll receive a single sheet of paper, simply stating: “No records responsive to your FOIPA request were located by a search of the automated indices.”


5. Try to avoid attracting any more attention. Now you know the FBI isn’t interested in you. Keep it that way.

Behind the News

The South loses again (but this time Confederates sue)

FloridaConfederateFlagThis was a small story early in the year, but garnered few headlines. After all, with the huge Confederate flag at I-4 and I-75, Tampans are probably tired of hearing about the Civil War.

But, alas, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are angry again. This time over license plates.

Last year, the SCV petitioned the Florida Legislature to approve a license plate bearing the Confederate flag. They found a sponsor — Panhandle Rep. Donald Brown, who, by the way, looks like a 19th century throwback himself — and the race was on to join other Deep South states with similar license plates. The money would have funded “educational and historical programs” from the SCV.

The bill never made it out of committee. So, in January, the SCV sued the state of Florida.

Talk about sore losers!

But, what can you expect from a group still angry over the Civil War, right?

In a press release, the SCV says it “did everything that was required by Florida Statute to have the Confederate Heritage plate approved by the Legislature and we were not given the time of day by the Florida

They are being represented by the Rutherford Institute, whose biggest claim to fame was representing Paula Jones in her suit against former President Bill Clinton. Big players, these guys.

But lest you think this was some crazy conspiracy on the part of intolerant legislators who HATE Confederate veterans, puppies, the Gandy beach, and all things sacred … the SCV wasn’t the only organization snubbed by lawmakers. Last year, a number of organizations petitioned for their own license plates: Tennis players, Christians, horse lovers. Choctaw Indians wanted free license plates, but they didn’t get their wish either. Considering the U.S. government committed genocide against them, I’d think they’d deserve a few free license plates. But no, and surprise, they aren’t suing over it.

Get the full text of the federal lawsuit here.

Behind the News

Baywalk loses its protesters

Looks like Baywalk is losing more than just its tenants. Downtown St. Pete’s bastion of corporate America is now without its most frequent patrons: the protesters.

For the last four years, St. Pete for Peace has rallied on the sidewalk in front of Baywalk protesting everything from the Iraq War to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. But, as the crowds around the downtown hotspot diminished, the protesters decided to move on.

In a blast to like-minded souls on their e-mail list, St. Pete for Peace announced the decision:

Due to the dramatic drop in business at Baywalk, we no longer find it to be the best use of our time and energy to continue our monthly protests there.  We believe we can reach more people in venues other than Baywalk, but if business at Baywalk increases or there are future attempts to restrict demonstrations on the public sidewalks near Baywalk, we will then reevaluate our decision.

There is no doubt lots of folks who will happy over this, but the store owners at Baywalk have to be sweatin’. By my account, the protesters are the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

The Unemployed Life

This is the best time to be unemployed

2241985233_e0d9ebca5fUnemployed brothers and sisters,

I know times are tough. Joblessness is a real heart-wrencher. But something occurred to me the other day, while sitting on my porch, drinking coffee, enjoying a perfect 70-degree day of unemployment in Florida:

Really, this is the best time to be unemployed. My evidence: The stimulus package passed last month.

In case you haven’t heard, President Barack Obama’s first success (depending on how you define it) has gobs and gobs of greenbacks for a slew of industries, homeowners and, us, the non-working people.

Of course, our bailout isn’t of banking industry quality, or even GM, but we do get a piece of the action. Specifically, about $25 a week.


That’s an extra $100 a month, baby. In addition, many people won’t be taxed for the first $2,400 in benefits they claim. That’s good news for those of us who didn’t have taxes taken out of their unemployment checks. (By the way, this is only for unemployment since the stimulus passed, not the money you’ve received before this.)

But the most beneficial aspect of the plan, especially in this economy, is an extension of benefits. Last year, Congress already approved up to 33 weeks of extended benefits for those workers who exhaust the regular 26 weeks of benefits. That deal was set to expire, but under the stimulus package, laid-off workers can still claim those extra weeks in 2009.

But it gets better: Under the stimulus package, workers in some high unemployment states can claim an extra 13-20 weeks of benefits. Are you keeping track? That’s an estimated 18 months — a year and six months! — of benefits. And, under some economists projections, we should be out of the recession by then.

So, honestly, my fellow men and women on the dole: It could be worse. You could only have 26 weeks to find another shitty job.

UPDATE: Even those of you workers that are forced to take an unpaid “vacation” can also get benefits. That includes all you 5,600 Media General employees.

The Unemployed Life

I’m baaaaaaaack!

It’s been nearly two months since my last column ran in Creative Loafing and nothing makes me realize this fact more than missing an amazing cycle of news over the last two months.

A crime wave in St. Petersburg. Early political jockeying in the city’s mayoral race. More criminalizing of the homeless even as more mainstream Americans are closer to poverty than anytime in the last 20 years. Buddy Johnson’s election foibles and a land deal that might have federal implications. Oh, and nobody will forget McNutball for months to come.

On a more personal note, I missed the chance to publicly eulogize Richard Shireman, one-half of St. Petersburg’s Homeless Outreach Team, who died in a car accident on Jan. 9. Whenever anything regarding the homeless went down in Pinellas County, I called Shireman. He was a tireless advocate for a compassionate and common-sense approach to Pinellas County’s homeless problem.

But, as the About Me section of this blog will tell you, I can’t sit back and watch the world pass me by for long. So, I’m doing what millions of other 21st century humans do when they want to their small voice to be heard throughout the world: Start a blog.

“Will Report for Food: Tales of an unemployed journalist” is my newest writing venture, meant to bring some of the same news and commentary that I offered in the pages of Creative Loafing. But unlike the vast sea of navel-gazing blogs out there, I hope to offer readers original news reporting and compelling narratives about notable people, places and events in Tampa Bay. Well, maybe a little navel-gazing, too.

Feel free to comment on the blogs, e-mail me privately or pass along some juicy news tidbits. Mmmmm… juicy news tidbits. And visit here often. In return, I promise to never add those annoying drop-down banner ads the St. Petersburg Times‘ website uses. I fucking hate those.