Top 100 Sarasota-Manatee stories of 2018: Day 9

Top 100 Sarasota-Manatee stories of 2018: Day 9

We recount the biggest news of the past year.

Adoption fight pits great-aunt against child welfare employee

Three-year-old Ryleigh lost her mother and her grandmother to complications resulting from intravenous drug use. Now her great-aunt, Kathleen McGinty, wants to adopt her. But time is running out.

Ryleigh has been living for just over a year with Jolee Grobleski, an employee of Safe Children Coalition, the nonprofit agency charged with overseeing child welfare in the Manatee County. And Grobleski wants to adopt her too.

McGinty claims that the fight for her great-niece has not been a fair one. She says SCC and the agency it contracts with for case management were not upfront with her about the Grobleski’s intentions when McGinty first contacted them in October 2017.

Legal experts contacted by the Herald-Tribune agree.

“That’s a blatant conflict of interest,” said Roy Miller, president and founder of the Tallahassee-based advocacy group The Children’s Campaign. “Right off the bat, it raises questions.”

— Michael Braga

The confounding cost of care

Florida has a market problem when it comes to childcare. Minimal regulations have led to daycare centers on every street corner, but providers struggle to turn a profit and are increasingly lowering their rates in order to attract parents desperate for a deal. Additionally, the state has decreased its support of early learning.

Carina Piovera, the owner of My First Steps childcare in Bradenton, allowed the Herald Tribune to observe her day — from the first cup of coffee to the last child leaving 11 hours later. Piovera said it is increasingly difficult to turn a profit in an industry that requires a mother’s loving touch and an entrepreneur’s toughness.

“You’ve got to be able to smile at the kid, and then tell the parent, ‘You need to pay me,’” Piovera said.

— Ryan McKinnon

School security and threats

On February 14, 17 students and teachers were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Within a month, the devastating tragedy led to a sweeping new school security state law that mandated an armed guard in every public school.

In Sarasota and Manatee, a rash of social media threats followed the shooting. Once the state law was passed, the school district struggled to find a way to meet the requirements of the law. They considered a partnership with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and local police departments to staff elementary, middle and high schools with police officers, but a feud over the costs of that program created a shift in the district’s security methods. They decided they would start their own police department.

In August, the police department officially got off the ground in elementary schools, while local law enforcement agencies continued to staff the middle and high schools for one more year. But within less than three months later, superintendent Todd Bowden announced that the top administrative security head had resigned and the police chief was being reassigned to non-policing duties.

Now, the district has hired Sheriff’s Office alumnus Timothy Enos as its new police chief. He plans to have the internal police department staff all of the district’s schools by the start of the next school year.

— Elizabeth Djinis

Melissa Howard’s faux diploma

Florida is known for news of the weird, and the saga of Lakewood Ranch state House candidate Melissa Howard and her fake college diploma certainly fits that description.

Howard’s story ricocheted across the country — even ending up in news outlets as far away as New Zealand — because it was so odd. Not only did Howard lie about having a degree from Miami University, but she went to great lengths to maintain the lie, including displaying a fake diploma.

Challenged about the legitimacy of her degree, Howard flew back to Ohio, where she claimed to have found her framed diploma in her mom’s storage unit. She distributed pictures of the diploma, including one that showed Howard and her mom posing with it on a couch.

The story unraveled when Miami University’s general counsel said Howard never graduated and the diploma is a fake. Howard dropped out of the race and was investigated by law enforcement for misdemeanor fraud stemming from the fake diploma, eventually reaching a deal with prosecutors in September to perform 25 hours of community service.

— Zac Anderson

Behind the Casey Key address Steve Bannon used

Steve Bannon served as Donald Trump’s chief strategist during the first year of his administration and at one point was considered among the most powerful people in the world.

In March 2018 the Herald-Tribune detailed Bannon’s longtime relationship with Andy Badolato, a Cardinal Mooney grad and a resident of Casey Key. Their relationship first came to light in August 2016 — the same week Bannon took over as Trump’s campaign CEO — when Bannon used Badolato’s address on a voter registration form even though he never lived in Sarasota County or voted in Florida.

Badolato has a checkered past that consists of sexual assault allegations made by three different women, dealings with a self-described mobster, close ties to criminals in prison for stock fraud and money laundering offshore.

While in the White House, Bannon was privy to top-secret intelligence and to gain security clearance he was required to list Badolato’s home as a previous residence. Bannon committed a felony if he did not disclose it. Since the security clearance forms are not public record it is not known if he did.

Bannon at one time was on the board of Cambridge Analytica, the scandal-ridden data mining company that harvested over 50 million profiles from Facebook and influenced the 2016 election.

Badolato’s company had a $400,000 contract with Cambridge Analytica, which has since filed for bankruptcy.

Keep an eye on Bannon’s name, as it is almost certain to resurface again in 2019 during House investigations.

— Chris Anderson

What’s being built in downtown Sarasota?

Construction continued to boom in and around downtown Sarasota, with new condominiums, hotels, apartment complexes and commercial projects permanently changing the cityscape.

More than 4,600 condos, apartments and hotel rooms have been completed, are under construction or in development within the city limits, many of them downtown, along the bayfront or in the now-thriving Rosemary District to the north.

Developers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects, some cresting to the maximum 18 stories, in a post-recession surge of building sparked by pent-up demand and unbridled confidence in the future.

Among the larger projects launched in 2018 were The Mark, a $70 million development planned for 157 condos and 46,000 square feet of commercial space at State Street and Pineapple Avenue; and BLVD Sarasota, a $69 million, 49-unit condo at U.S. 41 and Boulevard of the Arts.

The city reports that 1,458 new apartments, 1,945 condos and 1,254 hotel rooms have been opened, are under construction or planned, along with 557,312 square feet of new office and retail space.

— John Hielscher

Barwin emails

It was revealed in August that Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin extensively used his personal Gmail account to conduct city business — a charge Barwin has vehemently refuted. Michael Barfield, a paralegal consultant and president of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit in September alleging Barwin’s failure to produce city-related discussions from his private Gmail account as part of numerous public records requests broke the state’s open records laws.

Since the suit was filed, lawyers representing Barwin have produced nearly 3,000 emails from Barwin’s personal account that could be considered public records. The messages date back to 2012, when Barwin was appointed city manager.

Barwin may have also violated his own policy governing city email use. Barwin failed to forward 101 emails about city-related matters from his personal account to the city server, as required by a city policy that Barwin signed on Feb. 22. Current policy allows city employees to use private email accounts for city business only if they are forwarded to the city server — but penalties for violating the rule are not stipulated.

— Nicole Rodriguez

First steps on The Bay

The Sarasota City Commission in September approved the highly anticipated mega-million dollar redevelopment concept that would turn the city’s largely concrete-paved bayfront into a lush green oasis with ample open space, clear views of the horizon and a new performing arts center free of towering residential or obtrusive commercial development.

The master plan for the 53-acre project, known simply as The Bay, will cost an estimated $250 million to $300 million and calls for several pedestrian bridges, a relocated boat ramp, waterfront promenade, one-acre event lawn, casual restaurant, smaller food kiosks, bait-and-tackle shop, children’s play space, new performing arts center for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to occupy, botanical gardens and a cultural district that preserves the Sarasota Garden Club, art center, history center, Blue Pagoda and Municipal Auditorium.

The commission also gave project planners the green light to begin the first phase of the project immediately. The first phase of the project consists of a recreational pier on the south end and a pedestrian bridge over Tamiami Trail, which could take three to four years to build and cost approximately $10 million to $20 million, designers said. Part of the first phase includes open space for events, outdoor movies and art displays and would take a year to build at a cost of $3 million to $4 million. That portion of the phase is comparable to an outdoor recreational space in Boston, called Lawn on D, designers said.

The entire 53-acre project could take 10 to 15 years to build.

— Nicole Rodriguez

New aquarium for Mote Marine

Mote Marine Laboratory’s dream to construct a state-of-the-art, architecturally stunning $130 million aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park is one step closer to becoming a reality. The Sarasota County Commission in October unanimously approved the terms of an agreement to allow Mote Marine to build a multilevel aquarium for a bargain on nearly 12 acres at the park, just west of Interstate 75.

The nonbinding term sheet approved by the commission gives the board the option to either lease the land for the new aquarium for $100 a year or sell it for the same nominal price. But a voter-passed amendment in November prohibiting the county from selling or giving away county-owned parks and preserves and to prevent the county from vacating any road segments or rights of way abutting any beach, river, creek, canal, lake, bay, Gulf access or waterfront vista, could prevent the county from selling the land to Mote in 2019, forcing the county into a long-term lease instead.

— Nicole Rodriguez

Trey Burton making Venice proud

One play in last season’s Super Bowl helped make Venice High graduate Trey Burton a household name.

His 1-yard touchdown pass to Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles was a key play in the Eagles’ victory over the New England Patriots. In the offseason Burton signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the Chicago Bears, becoming one of the game’s highest-paid tight ends.

Burton did his part in the Bears offense. Three-quarters of the way through the season he had 40 receptions and five touchdown catches. Chicago, meanwhile, rose to the top of the NFC North division.

In December, the Bears nominated Burton for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The honor recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service and excellence on the field. Through catches and TDs, Burton has donated more than $50,000 to the International Justice Mission, a global organization that seeks to eliminate slave trade.

Read Trey Burton: Family. Faith. And Football; For Venice’s Trey Burton, Bear season has begun; Venice High’s Trey Burton talks Super Bowl rings, the Dominican Republic and Chicago Bears training camp; Life in the NFL: Talking turkey with Chicago Bears’ Trey Burton.

— Doug Fernandes

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Dan Boone