Top Local Stories of 2012
The year that was 2012 brought changes to many Manatee County institutions, and to the county as a whole -- many of which will continue to take shape into this new year.
The top stories of 2012 as rated by the Bradenton Herald news staff are:
1. Turmoil grips school district
An audit report due Jan. 14 could reveal the extent of financial woes at the Manatee County School District, and lay the groundwork for how the district will again balance its books and restore the public's trust. The forensic audit was started after then-Superintendent Tim McGonegal in early September revealed there was a $3.4 million budget deficit caused by millions in unbudgeted spending. McGonegal, who already had announced he would be retiring, instead resigned immediately. Also under way is the search for a new superintendent.
2. Riverwalk's grand opening
The unveiling of a renovated and expanded Riverwalk on the Bradenton waterfront provides the linchpin to continuing efforts to make downtown a destination for residents and tourists alike. At least the backers of the $6.2 million park, extending 1.5 miles from the Green Bridge to Manatee Memorial Hospital, hope so. The park's features are designed to attract a diverse group of users -- including young tots and their parents for the playground and splash park; anglers and boaters for the fishing pier and day dock; skaters of all ages for the skateboard park; and music lovers for the inaugural Bradenton Blues Festival and every act to follow.
3. Elections 2012
The 2012 elections brought major changes to many elected bodies in Manatee County, and the return of a few stalwarts. The Manatee County Commission has two new members, Vanessa Baugh in East Manatee and Betsy Benac, who in the August Republican primary ousted long-time at-large commissioner Joe McClash. In Holmes Beach, voters installed a slate of challengers who vowed to slow development in the island community; and voters in the Manatee County School District elected a "watchdog" -- that is, Dave "Watchdog" Miner -- to the school board. After two years out of office, former state Rep. Bill Galvano of Bradenton was elected to the Florida Senate. And despite the best efforts of determined challengers, Wayne Poston was re-elected mayor of Bradenton and Vern Buchanan won another term in Congress.
4. Delmer Smith convicted
Barely three years after Kathleen Briles was beaten to death in her Terra Ceia home, career criminal Delmer Smith III in August was convicted of the crime. The evidence was largely circumstantial -- prosecutors linked Smith to items taken from the Briles home -- but the verdict was convincing: The jury found Smith guilty of first-degree murder after less than three hours of deliberation.
The same panel later recommended that Smith, already serving life in prison for a violent 2009 home invasion in Sarasota, be executed for Briles death. But a judge won't determine the final sentence until sometime in 2013 as lawyers wrangle over medical evidence that Smith's defense hopes might save their client his life.
Whatever the outcome, Briles' family celebrated the guilty verdict.
"It brings some peace," said Briles' widower, Dr. James Briles. "I'm glad my wife got the justice she deserves."
5. SCF president resigns
By next July, students and staff at the State College of Florida hope to have a new president. Former president Lars Hafner, who implemented a name change and other new ventures for the college, left the school in late October with a $363,000 severance package after months of public spats with college trustees over financial decisions. Vice president of business and administrative services Carol Probstfeld has taken the reins as the school's interim leader while a national search for a new president ensues.
6. Tropical Storm Debby
Tropical Storm Debby in June spared us a direct hit, but she did more than leave her mark on Manatee County, especially on local beaches. High winds and surf eroded Anna Maria Island beaches, from Coquina in the south to Bean Point at the entrance to Tampa Bay. The damage, as well as the subsequent arrival of tons of unwelcome seaweed, played havoc with vacationers and island businesses who depend on them for their livelihoods. A heavy toll was also suffered by sea turtles, as Debby washed away dozens of nests that had been laid since the start of the nesting season in the spring.
The island, however, bounced back. By the end of the summer and into the fall and winter, Mother Nature replenished the sand on most of the beaches, sea turtles returned to lay new nests in record numbers and businesses reported a boom in tourism.
7. Wares Creek dredging
After years of delay and bureaucratic wrangling, the long-awaited and longer-needed dredging of Wares Creek started in Bradenton. Considering how long it took federal, county and city officials to bring the $51.8 million project to fruition -- and some relief to the flood-weary Wares Creek neighborhood -- it almost seemed like the first phase of the project was completed overnight when crews began clearing related equipment from a downtown lot secured for the work. Subsequent phases remain, but already there are indications the expensive project is paying off for Bradenton. Earlier this month, developer John Neal donated to the city property that he had acquired as a bet that dredging of Wares Creek would spark new development. But instead of new homes, the land is likely to become a park, complete with boat and canoe launches, furthering strengthening Bradenton's ties to the water.
8. Jail farm investigation
Two senior officials with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and another deputy lost their jobs after investigations revealed they had taken property belonging to the sheriff's jail farm operation for personal use.
The first two to go were former Maj. James Higginbotham, the farm administrator, and Sgt. Frank Parks. They were cited for "conduct unbecoming a deputy," after an eight-month investigation found they had taken the agency's property and allowed other employees to do the same. Higginbotham retired in January, and Parks resigned in March, after learning the sheriff's office wanted to suspend and demote him. (The state attorney's office declined to prosecute the pair criminally.)
In response, Sheriff Brad Steube asked Clerk of Courts Chips Shore to audit the farm operation. Auditors reported they found some record-keeping problems at the jail but no evidence of embezzlement. Steube also implemented a new policy explicitly stating that employees were not to use jail property for personal use.
The first employee to reportedly violate the policy was Higginbotham's successor, Maj. Tony Ackles, who retired in December as an internal investigation found he had taken some firewood from the jail.
9. Trouble at Willowbrook
For years, some residents living in Willowbrook, a 272-unit condominium community in East Manatee, dealt with sinking floors, collapsing decks, floor damage, window damage, wall moisture and mold, but it all came to light in early August when residents banded together to tell the story of how nationwide builder KB Home failed to make decent repairs.
Their concerns were affirmed when Manatee County inspectors surveyed close to 100 units and its balconies, nearly half of which were ruled unsafe. The residents pleaded with county and state elected officials to step in, citing health issues and reoccurring inconveniences, and asked for a lemon law to protect homeowners. Their story not only reached the steps of Florida Attorney General's office, but the state Senate, House and about 15 other KB Home developments in the Tampa Bay area, who cited similar problems.
Eventually, Willowbrook's condo association reached an agreement with KB Home to make repairs at the builder's expense, but not before reports surfaced of KB Home's alleged preknowledge of defects in the homes and county officials questioning their own building department for failed inspections.
10. Boom in tourism
Tourism in Manatee County has boomed, as visitors learn there is much more to do than go to the beach.
This October, an estimated 34,900 visitors came to the Bradenton-Anna Maria area -- a 7 percent increase from the 32,600 visitors that came in October 2011. And city officials point to a community focus on sports tourism as one of several reasons that direct expenditures and total economic impact for the past eight months have each increased by 12 percent.
Key attractions highlighting the region's sports offerings include IMG Academy in Bradenton; the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch; and rowing facilities at Fort Hamer Park near Parrish and at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.
-- Herald staff writers Katy Bergen and Nick Williams contributed to this report.