Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Mayor Iorio snubs CAIR

It’s the hottest story on for the last few days: After pressure from “interest groups,” Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio renounces “CAIR Day,” the annual recognition of the city’s Muslim-American community. The mayor has proclaimed “CAIR Day” every year since 2005.

For those who may not know, CAIR stands for the Council of American-Islamic Relations, a “civil rights group” that attempts to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding,” according to their Website. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, CAIR has been a controversial organization that some say is anti-Semetic and sympathetic to terrorist groups.

But the Tampa chapter, while in the news frequently over two high profile cases, hasn’t garnered the outrage that some other chapters have. Nonetheless, the mayor’s spokeswoman says, Iorio is distancing herself from the group. But she won’t give any specifics.

This is an interesting move on Iorio’s part. As I’m sure she is well aware, she risks losing this political constiuency. Plus, it could make her look intolerant and bowing down to some anti-Muslim activists with a clear axe to grind. So what could she have found that made her wary of endorsing this group?

After a little research, I think I know why: According to some news outlets (of the semi-true, right wing variety), the FBI severed some ties to the group back in January over suspected funding of Hamas. This has always been a backdrop to some CAIR criticisms, but seeing it in national news is a new one.

From FOX News:

The FBI is severing its once-close ties with the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, amid mounting evidence that it has links to a support network for Hamas.

All local chapters of CAIR have been shunned in the wake of a 15-year FBI investigation that culminated with the conviction in December of Hamas fundraisers at a trial where CAIR itself was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator.

An official at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington confirmed to FOX News that his office directed FBI field offices across the country to cut ties with local branches of CAIR.

The new policy marks a major shift for the FBI, which has long been close to CAIR. The agency has previously invited CAIR to give training sessions for agents and used it as a liaison with the American Muslim community.

I couldn’t find this info on any other news source. Is it because FOX scooped them? Nonetheless, the FBI has distanced itself from the group. And with Iorio weighing a political run in the next several years, if CAIR turned out to be related to Hamas, she’d have an instant attack ad ready for her Republican opponent.

But also recognize this: There are always two or more sides to every story. For example, CAIR claims the FBI deceived them, so the group stopped cooperating in some investigations. Perhaps they are referring to the myriad of informants hovering around that community.

Dispatches from the Sunshine State, Wanderlust

St. Petersburg OKs community gardens; related: benefit at Shuffleboard courts

It’s another great day — for community gardens — in St. Petersburg: The St. Pete City Council approved zoning for community gardens in the city, provided a few conditions are met. A great step for the city, environmentalists and especially those intrepid gardeners in Bartlett Park. (Of course, I prefer my community gardens to be guerrilla affairs, but that’s another blog post.)

So, to celebrate, the group behind the veggie liberation front (Green Florida) is holding a fundraiser at the Shuffleboard courts tonight. Catch all the info here.

(In case you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, here’s a link to the first article ever on the Bartlett Park community garden. Let’s just say I know a good thing when I see it.)

Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

City leaders destroy Central Avenue, now complain about it

600 central

Oh, how St. Petersburg’s city leaders love to ignore history.

I read with interest yesterday’s St. Petersburg Times article on the 600 block of Central Avenue. Basically, city leaders are scrambling over themselves about the sorry state this block is in.

A little memory refresher: This block is the one in downtown St. Pete that has all the vacancies and “No Loitering” spray-painted on the storefront glass. It’s become a haven for some downtown street people, graffiti taggers and hipsters in various states of inebriation after a visit to the Emerald.

So what’s our fair city to do? Well, they want to “revitalize” the block. But they don’t mention that back before 2006, this block was already thriving with unique local small businesses.

There were bohemian joints like the Surreal Bowl and eccentric boutique shops like Woodies Hat Box, all centered around one of the city’s historical treasures, Crislip Arcade.

That is, before another developer — Gerald R. Pacella of 601 Central Ave LLC — came in, bought that part of the block and evicted all the shops to construct a bunch of condos. Condos that never saw the light of day. Another developer, Thomas Gaffney of Oldsmar Land Holding Group, bought the property in 2008. His intentions are not yet known, but some Google sleuthing shows his company likes to hold on to property and then sell it to the highest bidder. He’s already mentioned to the Times that he has no plans to refurbish the storefronts.

While preservationists are calling for, well, preservation and some cultural leaders want, well, cultural space, City Councilmember Leslie Curran is lobbying for art galleries, because you know, she owns one. But she cares a lot about the arts, too, as evidenced by her push for the firing of former city’s cultural affairs manager Ann Wykell.

Oh, and this is the same Leslie Curran who voted for the previous developer’s condo wet dream back in 2006 along with the rest of the City Council at the time. Other city officials and downtown leaders backed that sale, too:

“It’s an evolutionary kind of thing,’’ said Don Shea, director of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. “The uses that evolved in that block in the last few years are not the highest and best.’’

Now, after selling part of Central Avenue’s soul to developers, city officials are once again throwing money at a problem they created:

Last week, the city began removing old benches and pruning trees on the street. In coming weeks, benches with bumps that deter sleeping will be added, along with better lighting. Sidewalks will be cleaned and parking spaces restriped.

This focus on the 600 block of Central is also part of the city’s efforts to “bridge” the different districts of downtown. Curran is leading a workshop this summer on that. Neighborhoods should tell Curran they don’t need any more of her “help,” lest the rest of St. Pete end up like 600 Central Avenue or, perhaps worse, Baywalk.

As for the problem of homeless and graffiti taggers? Just send them on over to the offices of 601 Central LLC and tell those developers to deal with the mess.

(Photo Credit: unprose/Flickr)

Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Another Sunday, another Bill Maxwell column about the homeless

Jesus, will someone please remove Bill Maxwell’s foot from his mouth?

The St. Petersburg Times columnist is back at it again this week with another tirade about the homeless. Well, I guess it’s less a “tirade” then a little piece of self-congratulatory nonsense.

For those of you that remember his last column (memory refresher here), Maxwell has his undies in a wad over the homeless folks in his neighborhood doing all sorts of nasty homeless things like giving mean looks and living out their cars. He was especially mad at the Salvation Army for allowing these bums anywhere near his neighbors, as if the Salvation Army could ring a bell and bring back its patrons.

Anywho, judging from the first few paragraphs of his new column, Maxwell got reamed by the city’s citizens for being such a heartless asshole. Nonetheless, Maxwell is taking some credit for getting the ball moving on some new changes at the Salvation Army:

Here are three specific changes that will begin on July 2: Individuals no longer will be permitted to take up residence outside the building; the 100 beds in the shelter will be available only those people who show need; and those who seek help must indicate that they want to be “more productive members of society.”

The latter change is a huge leap for the Salvation Army. It is known for aiding all comers. Some officials believe the time has come to stop enabling individuals who have no intention of improving their lives.

I find all that very interesting in light of a recent conversation I had with another Salvation Army neighbor. My source, who I have no reason to doubt, said he talked to Major George Patterson about these issues right after Maxwell’s column, and the Major mentioned that Maxwell had never approached the Salvation Army before writing that first article. Only after publishing the article did Maxwell set up a meeting with the Salvation Army director.

But for this latest column, Maxwell did talk to Mayor Rick Baker and Police Chief Chuck Harmon, who — by all accounts — are the most sympathetic homeless advocates in the city. In fact, these two men thought that homeless people living in tents was so horrible and undignified, that they ordered the police and city workers to slash those tents!

But don’t be dissuaded, Maxwell says, those tent slashing days are over. We’re in the age of legal manuevers that just make it a crime to hang out on the streets if you have no where else to go.

Ironically, and maybe he was going for that, Maxwell makes reference to a recent federal lawsuit that accuses the city of trampling on the constitutional rights of the area’s homeless. Here’s part of the press release I received a few days ago:

Southern Legal Counsel (SLC), Florida Institutional Legal Services (FILS), and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday on behalf of a class of homeless plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of a number of ordinances and practices that target homeless individuals living in St. Petersburg.

Since early 2007, St. Petersburg has passed six ordinances that target homeless individuals, including four different ones that make it unlawful to sleep, lie down or recline outside at various locations throughout the city and prohibiting the use of temporary shelters. The other ordinances outlaw panhandling throughout most of downtown and prohibit the storage of personal belongings on public property.

“The City of St. Petersburg has essentially turned the issue of homelessness over to the criminal justice system. Subjecting homeless individuals to an endless cycle of arrest, incarceration and homelessness under these city ordinances and practices wastes valuable city and county resources and is ineffective in addressing the root causes of homelessness,” said Kirsten Clanton, a staff attorney at SLC.

I wrote about these ordinances here and here. The latter article is appropriately headlined, “Don’t sleep so close to me.” And really that’s what this is about. People who are uncomfortable about those on society’s fringes, and instead of dealing with the problem, human-to-human, they try to solve them through “sweeping” laws that invariably hurt those who least can afford it.

So, when the city of St. Petersburg spends $100,000 or $1 million defending against this lawsuit, and your precious little parks don’t get mowed or you have to pay more in parking fines, remember Bill Maxwell and the rest of the ‘burg who thought it easier to criminalize homelessness than tackle this difficult problem with some sort of tact and compassion. Not to mention, legality.

UPDATE #1: Peter Schorsch is reporting that, per one of his sources at the SPT, Maxwell may retire. We could only hope …

UPDATE #2: Some folks who actually have conversations with the homeless in their neighborhoods have recently written me (and the Times) with much more eloquent arguments against Maxwell’s article. Here they are after the jump:

Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Hillsborough County residents to Catholic Charities’ tent city proposal: NIMBY!

STOP_tc_hcSpeaking of the homeless, some Hillsborough County residents crying NIMBY packed a county land use hearing earlier this week, trying to convince officials to deny a permit for a tent city much like Pinellas Hope.

Catholic Charities, the same group that set up Pinellas’ tent city, wants to put up a similar camp on 6410 E. Hillsborough Avenue near Harney Road, on a piece of property they own. When neighbors found out about the proposal, they organized fiercely against it with images like the one to the right (OMG! Syringes!). One East Lake Park woman even created a little group: Stop Tent City. They even have T-shirts. Yes, T-shirts!

The residents do have some good points — Pinellas Hope isn’t located near a neighborhood and Catholic Charities is counting on tax dollars instead of their own wealth to bankroll the project — but the rest of the site is filled with a lot of misinformation on how much the homeless want to be homeless and how a large percentage are snowbirds. They also complain that the homeless would be so far from social services. But where were these people when the city of Tampa began harrassing the homeless downtown? Hillsborough County’s street people have been pushed from one side of the county to the other when some neighborhood complains about them. Now, in this recession, the number is growing rapidly and there just is not enough shelter space for them.

Of course, residents are just falling over themselves about the poor conditions inside the Pinellas tent cities and suggesting alternative plans for more dignified housing (as if a tent is worse than sleeping behind a dumpster). But what happens when the permit is denied? Does anyone honestly think any of these residents will be helping Catholic Charities implement another plan?

Maybe these Stop Tent City folks could get together with Bill Maxwell. He might like one of those shirts.

Dispatches from the Sunshine State, The Unemployed Life

Wave of ‘Why lie? Need a beer’ signs hit Florida

2451061714_bcffa8797bOh, those enterprising homeless.

Every day in St. Petersburg, I see at least a dozen panhandlers on area roads with various signs asking for help and money. They may not be creative — “Hungry,” “Jobless,” “Laid Off” — but they know a good sign when they see it.

The latest is the “Why Lie? Need a beer/drink” sign. It’s making rounds of the state this month. I’ll tell you: It was funny the first time I saw it. Now it hardly elicits a chuckle from me. Can our local bums come up with something better?

Anyway, the latest sign maker is a flagrant vagrant from Fort Walton Beach, who was recently arrested with the sign.

(Photo Credit: Steve Isaacs/Flickr)

Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Why does St. Pete continue to disparage the homeless without working toward solutions?

3419380851_f0eba9e893_oI love the daily paper. In no other publication can you read one article full of facts, shedding light on some problem and then read a columnist in the next section completely unaware of said facts and making uneducated statements. I bring this up, because I just finished my Sunday edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

In the Metro section, one reporter details the results of the 2009 Pinellas County homeless count. The statistics are  not surprising:

There’s been a 20 percent jump in homeless folks over 2007’s count. Despite the best efforts of Pinellas Hope, the number of homeless without any kind of shelter is up nearly 83 percent. And children make up nearly a third of those without homes.

Then I hop on over to the Perspectives section for Bill Maxwell’s column. His headline?

“Homeless Disrupting Our Lives.”

Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Florida crime is down, but three cities land on Forbes’ ‘Most Dangerous Cities’ list

The United States’ crime rate has been on a downward slope for a couple years now. (Who knows if the recession will change that.) Florida’s crime rate has not been as lucky. Our state’s crime rate has increased during the same period, albeit in small percentages. For example, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida’s index crime rate rose 0.1 percent in 2008 over 2007.

But coincidentally another piece of info hit my inbox today: Forbes annual America’s Most Dangerous Cities. How does Florida stack up?

The Miami metro area earned a No. 3 designation as one of only three major U.S. cities with more than 950 violent crimes committed per 100,000 people.

Orlando made the top 10 at No. 6. And West Palm Beach hit No. 13.

Props to Tampa, who once made these lists but is now enjoying a huge drop in crime.

Behind the News, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Tampa taxpayers still paying for former Lowry Park CEO’s mistakes

13184868_4055c76713_mThe title really says it all. Last month, the city of Tampa settled a lawsuit with Donald Smith, who sued the city and Lowry Park Zoo for not providing adaquate wheelchair access. (Get the agenda item here.)

What does this have to do with Lex Salisbury, the former zoo CEO who got run out on a rail last year?

In my first article about Lowry Park Zoo back in November 2006, former employees told me about an atmosphere that discouraged employee advice and provided a disconnect between employees, their supervisors and the zoo’s management. A city audit ended up backing many of those claims.

There are a few more of these suits, regarding various issues during Salisbury’s reign, still moving through the court system. Something tells me taxpayers will be paying more than the estimated $200,000 the city is looking to get out of Salisbury.

(Photo: stagewhisper/Flickr)

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation, Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Dispatches from the Sunshine State: Jesus plates, beastiality and the Confederate Flag

OH COME ALL YE LICENSE PLATES: A few bills moving through the State Senate would put religious themes on certian specialty license plates. Enthusiastic evangelists will be able to show their faith far and wide (right under their “Jesus is my co-pilot” and fish stickers), though they may want to start praying, because passage of the plates does not look good. Maybe that’s for the better, anyway; I mean, putting out these plates would create quite a quandry in religious circles with parishoners trying to decide whether their vehicle should get the “Choose Life” or Jesus plates. I’m not hatin’ though. Just like Gov. Crist, I don’t see a problem with the plates. I’m just hoping a compromise can be made, so my new favorite State Senator Al Lawson can get this awesome plate passed:


OF BEAST & MAN: State Senators have been more successful with their beastiality bill. I raised the rankles of animal lovers (including Rep. Bill Heller!) when I added a similar bill to my Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation last year. I feel the same now — that beastiality has never been “legal” and animal cruelty laws are sufficient — but there were more wacky bills this session than last to justify putting it on the list.

SPEAKING OF REDNECKS: The Sons of Confederate Veterans had quite the hootenanny this weekend. The Dixie memorial park is officially dedicated and that huge-ass flag on I-4 and I-75 is here to stay. I didn’t go, but I hear it was a multicultural affair. Come to think of it, so were the Sunday lynchings at the turn of the century, just in a different context.