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Date of Issue: April 26, 2007

BIEO: Send National Guard to Coquina if needed

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, center, raises her concerns about public safety at Coquina Beach to Bradenton Beach Vice Mayor John Shaughnessy, at left, and Anna Maria City Commissioner Jo Ann Mattick, at the April 18 meeting of the Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

Following the Easter Sunday shooting of three people on Coquina Beach, the threat of thousands of people descending on the Island for Cinco de Mayo Saturday, May 5, prompted Longboat Key Town Commissioner George Spoll to suggest that the National Guard be called in if local law enforcement officials can't preserve the peace.

Speaking at the April 18 Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials meeting in Holmes Beach, Solis and other officials expressed serious concerns about safety for the upcoming holiday and questioned whether or not paid parking would stop gang activity.

"Gangs would just move to another area," said Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger, who is opposed to paid parking at Coquina Beach and other county facilities on the Island.

Besides, said Holmes Beach City Commissioner Sandy Haas-Martens, if paid parking were instituted at Coquina Beach, it would have to be installed at the county's two other Island parks: Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach and Bayfront Park in Anna Maria.

Right now, those are about the only places in the county where a family can go for recreation that "doesn't cost an arm and a leg," she said.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore told the BIEO that she was also opposed to paid parking, but said that will be one of the issues brought by county staff to the county commission's April 24 meeting.

It's not going to work, she said, adding the county "might just close the beach on Cinco de Mayo for public safety." If that happens, Bayfront Park and Manatee Public Beach will also have to close, she suggested.

But Whitmore's not in favor of such a drastic measure unless the Island cities demand such action. She said each Island city should be represented at the April 24 meeting.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office, county administrator and the parks and recreation staff are expected to present a proposal at that meeting calling for Coquina Beach to be divided into separate and independent parking lots that can't be accessed from one lot to another. Each lot will hold 400 cars and when a lot is full, it will be closed.

But Bradenton Beach Vice Mayor John Shaughnessy, whose city will likely bear the brunt of visitors on May 5, said those efforts won't stop gangs from heading to Coquina Beach.

"Nothing is going to stop these people" if they want to come to the beach and be disruptive, he said.

Whitmore also noted that the law enforcement presence on May 5 should be equal to that on Easter Sunday.

Unfortunately, noted Longboat Key Town Commissioner George Spoll, even a large police presence that day couldn't stop the gang-related shootings.

"Is local law enforcement able to handle a riot?" he asked, suggesting that, if not, call in the National Guard.

Shaughnessy noted that all this concern was just over a few people, mostly from outside Manatee County, who are troublemakers.

"The majority of the people have to suffer because of the minority," he said.

And the resultant publicity is an embarrassment, said Bradenton Beach Commissioner Bill Shearon. "I'm concerned about bad publicity. We have to do something now, right or wrong, or this is going to kill us for years."

The focus, said Longboat Key Mayor Jeremy Whatmough, should be on controlling who comes to the beach.

Problems with parking, crowds and gang activity at Coquina Beach are nothing new, said Whitmore.

In other BIEO matters, Bohnenberger said it now appears likely that a special session of the Legislature will be needed to deal with Florida's pressing tax issues.

He also noted that a proposal currently being discussed in the Florida Legislature would take away a city's right to negotiate a franchise agreement with the telecom industry and pass the rights to the county. That would eliminate a revenue source for the cities.

If the telecommunications industry can bypass the cities, then the electric companies will be the next franchise to try to eliminate the cities from the negotiating table.