We recount the biggest news of the past year.
An epidemic — and it’s not opioids
When a local woman shared her story of trying to withdraw from benzodiazepines without much help from her doctors, I never imagined her situation applied to thousands of others across the country struggling with horrific symptoms related to long-term use of this class of drugs, often prescribed for anxiety.
Ultimately I would hear from more than 100 individuals who were also trying to wean off “benzos” that had been prescribed for everything from back pain to depression — and always without warning of the potential for physical dependency. Many had lost jobs, partners, homes and savings in a domino-like cascade of horrific symptoms after trying to withdraw on their own.
Desperate for help, frequently suicidal and often treated by medical professionals as hypochondriacs or worse, these patients are turning to fellow sufferers and online support groups like benzobuddies.org and benzoinfo.com for answers that remain elusive. “We cannot get any help and there isn’t a professional who knows what to do with it,” said the founder of one online group. “The burden left on patients to save themselves and others is unheard of.”
— Carrie Seidman
Sarasota superintendent, sheriff, School Board feud
The state’s decision to have school districts staff every public school with an armed guard had a local fallout almost no one could have anticipated: a pronounced public feud between superintendent Todd Bowden and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight.
The disagreement began when Knight decided that he would no longer split the cost of school resource officers with the district following the new state law that he said put the financial responsibility on the district. At that point, many of the local law enforcement agencies followed suit.
But in early April, a series of text messages between School Board Member Eric Robinson and Knight revealed that Robinson was encouraging Knight to take away his funding from the district and criticizing Bowden and other School Board members. That conversation, as well as the added costs of paying the entire bill for school resource officers, led the School Board soon after to pursue an internal police department rather than contracting with local law enforcement agencies.
The feud continued in the public eye as Knight and Bowden negotiated the terms of a contract for Sheriff’s deputies in middle and high schools for the following school year. Knight publicly criticized Bowden at a county commission meeting, while Bowden said that “it was clear” he did not have a “partner” in Knight.
But the district and Sheriff’s Office were largely able to resolve their differences publicly and settled on a contract for the following school year with an 80-20 cost split. Bowden also recently hired a Sheriff’s Office alumnus as the district’s police chief after a major shake-up in security leadership.
— Elizabeth Djinis
Most state House contests are relatively low-profile races, but the February special election for a seat covering northern Sarasota County attracted national attention as a referendum on President Donald Trump and a bellwether for the 2018 midterm contests.
Former Vice President Joe Biden recorded robocalls touting Democratic candidate Margaret Good. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski headlined a rally for Republican James Buchanan.
Good won a surprise victory over Buchanan in a seat Trump carried by more than four percentage points. She held onto the seat in November after facing a challenge from former state Rep. Ray Pilon.
The pair of 2018 victories marked Good as a rising star in the Democratic Party locally and statewide. Good was a bright spot for her party in a year that saw Florida Democrats lose high-profile races for governor and the U.S. Senate.
— Zac Anderson
Veteran prosecutor fired for comments about superiors
Former Assistant State Attorney Elizabeth Loeffler, a 21-year-veteran prosecutor, made comments about her superiors over drinks with other prosecutors while celebrating her birthday. It led to her dismissal by State Attorney Ed Brodsky, who told her in March, “You have questioned the integrity of the State Attorney and Chief Assistant to other people. You are dismissed, effective today.”
Brodsky denies making the statement and said he terminated her for failure to maintain office standards. But Loeffler is well-respected and regarded as an experienced and ethical prosecutor in Sarasota’s legal community. She did not deny making the comments.
The State Attorney’s Office has no record of any previous disciplinary action for Loeffler, however, Loeffler acknowledged she has been counseled for speaking bluntly before. She describes herself as “outspoken.”
— Carlos Munoz
Missing teen Jabez Spann
The family of missing Sarasota teenager Jabez Spann remembered him on the one-year anniversary of his suspicious disappearance. Spann, 14 at the time, vanished Sept. 4, 2017, a week after the fatal shooting of 31-year-old Travis Combs occurred about 200 yards from the teen’s grandmother’s house.
Court documents show 56-year-old Reginald Parker, arrested on an unrelated warrant, told three people he witnessed Combs’ murder, an account that was corroborated by another witness, a woman who also heard the gunshot and saw men running from the area. But according to the report, he changed his account once inside the Sarasota County Jail. When pressed by detectives, Parker denied telling anyone he saw Combs’ death.
Parker’s recanted account allegedly placed Spann and others at the scene of the murder. Comb’s death remains unsolved and their have been no significant leads in the case of the missing teen, whose 16th birthday was Dec. 13. A $50,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the recovery of Spann.
— Carlos Munoz
Big year for Sarasota-Bradenton airport
If you blinked or logged off the internet at any point this year, you might have missed one of the many big announcements from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
The airport kicked off 2018 announcing Allegiant Air would start flying passengers to Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in April. Allegiant’s decision was significant for a few reasons: it was the airport’s first low-cost carrier, it revived long-dead routes to the midwest and the airline came to Sarasota even though it has an already significant presence at nearby regional airports.
But the chance paid off. By the end of the year, Allegiant had announced nine additional routes from the airport to destinations in the northeast, midwest, mid-Atlantic and southeast regions.
Frontier Airlines, another low-cost carrier, announced it would come to Sarasota in August and started seasonal flights to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Cleveland in December. American Airlines also added seasonal flights to Philadelphia, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth, a westward expansion airport executives have been hoping for for years.
— Laura Finaldi
Braves eye March for first local spring training game
Construction of the Atlanta Braves $140 million spring training facility — now dubbed Cool Today Park — has dominated economic development talk in Sarasota County’s largest city for more than a year.
In November, at the 2018 North Port Real Estate Summit, Ron Starner, senior vice president of Conway Inc., the corporate parent company to Site Selection Magazine, called the Braves’ decision to move spring training to North Port “the signature win that most communities around the state would sell their first born for.”
While Starner pointed to the decision increasing awareness of the city in corporate circles, the Braves will operate the facility year-round, with extended spring training for minor league teams, Gulf Coast League, Fall Instructional League and medical rehab facilities.
The first spring training game is scheduled for March 24; while all Florida operations are scheduled to move to North Port on April 1.
In addition to that, the Braves plan to host a variety of community events at the stadium — both Sarasota County and the city of North Port can host some events there too — and overflow parking will double as sorely needed fields for youth soccer teams in the city.
— Earle Kimel
Manatee superintendent Diana Greene leaves for Duval
Months after she led the effort to generate nearly $40 million in new tax revenue for Manatee School District’s operational expenses, Superintendent Diana Greene left Manatee for the top job in Duval. Greene, who was well regarded by many in the district for her warmth and affability, had remained steadfast in her position that the district could not afford to meet the teachers union’s demands in 2016 — a controversial move that likely paved the way for the successful property tax referendum in 2018.
Her departure was unexpected, and current board chairman Dave Miner fought to keep her in Manatee, saying she was violating her contract. Greene was not deterred, and she left for Duval in late June.
“I’ve never been one who can be just content and just let’s go on cruise control,” Greene said. “I’m always trying to be better.”
— Ryan McKinnon
Lido Beach erosion
Crews in November began an emergency renourishment project at severely-eroded Lido Beach. The project will use 150,000 to 200,000 cubic yards of sand from New Pass to rebuild the shoreline that officials say has lost an estimated 15 feet in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma last September and Subtropical Storm Alberto in May, prompting City Manager Tom Barwin to declare a state of emergency. The project will take approximately 90 days to complete, with the schedule depending on weather and other variables.
The project cost of $3.9 million is being shared by the city, Sarasota County, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city’s funding portion is approximately $600,000.
The emergency project is expected to keep the beach intact until a larger effort gets underway. The long-term beach renourishment project is expected to begin by spring and finish by next hurricane season, which begins June 1. The initial renourishment would take 950,000 cubic yards of sand from Big Pass, and subsequent restoration projects would occur every five years, dredging about 500,000 cubic yards each time. The projected cost is $20 million to $22 million and will be covered by a mix of local, state and federal funds.
— Nicole Rodriguez
County considers paid parking, toll for Siesta Key
In 2018, the Sarasota County Commission put off making a decision on implementing paid parking at Siesta Key beaches. The commission first wants to hold a community workshop at a future date to discuss implementing paid parking — a move county officials believe would encourage carpooling to unclog roads and free up parking at the crowded tourist destination.
The commission, which first considered charging to park last year, said the historically notorious notion is surprisingly popular among Siesta Key residents. A survey of 700 residents conducted last year by the Siesta Key Association found 70 percent support paid parking on the key and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the idea, as long as there is a method for residents of the island to continue to receive free parking, such as a decal system.
— Nicole Rodriguez