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Sooo Thirsty

Mark Armstrong

Imagine trying to find a decent drink of water in Pensacola. Environmental agencies have found the city's water supply to be so hopelessly laced with dry cleaning chemicals, pesticides, petroleum products, and the like that even Tailpipe wouldn't want to put it too near his rusty lips. An Escambia County grand jury this month blasted the county's public utility and its managers for their ostrich-like refusal to deal with the issue.

One of the chief targets of the grand jury report was A.E. "Van" Van Dever, who was the Escambia County utilities director for 13 years. The grand jury found that Van Dever neglected to report to his superiors that the aquifer he was charged with overseeing contained twice the acceptable level of radium (which causes, among other things, bone cancer). His argument: a little bit of radium never hurt anybody.

After more than two years of letting things slide, he acknowledged in 1998 that there was too much of the stuff. But then he told county officials the $150 million to leach it out wasn't worth it. It will just go away after a few years, he said. Besides, the federal government was likely to raise acceptable levels.

Well, the standards were never relaxed, and the "disappearance" never took place (maybe in 70 years, experts say). The county fired Van Dever in 2002, four years after the contaminant was found. The county has subsequently cleaned up the radium -- at a cost of just $515,000. So much for that chucklehead.

But wait. Mr. Fuhgeddaboudit himself was hired in January 2003 as utilities director in our own Lake Worth. How did he get the job? City Manager Paul Boyer does a little fandango when Tailpipe spews out the question. "I did not hire Mr. Van Dever," he says. "He was hired by my predecessor, Wendy Newmyer. " (Newmyer, who left the city a year ago, could not be reached.) But Boyer is barely fazed by the grand jury report, which found that Van Dever had "trivialized" the problem of radium contamination.

"I'm not concerned about his [Van Dever's] ability to do his job," Boyer said. "I'm concerned about his reputation."

That seems to go for Mayor Rodney Romano too. Before the grand jury report came out, Romano dismissed allegations against Van Dever as "nothing more than bald allegations" made by people who stood to profit from discrediting the utilities director. What does he think now? Romano did not respond to calls to his office and cell number.

Van Dever himself sent a written response to Tailpipe, charging the grand jury with "mischaracterization" of his role in Escambia County. He said he had immediately notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, federal, state, and local authorities of the radium problem, adding that the grand jury's "objective was to damage me as much as possible without much objectivity."

Robert Walker, a city resident who runs a wastewater treatment plant in Boca Raton, says he has doubts about anything Van Dever says with regard to the water supply. "He's obviously not very good with numbers," Walker says, noting that the city has been considering a Van Dever "money-saving" plan to turn its water treatment over to Palm Beach County.

Up in Escambia County, several members of the county utilities' board expressed disappointment that the grand jury didn't indict Van Dever for malfeasance. Asked about Van Dever's continuing role as a water treatment specialist, Escambia board member George Watson swallowed hard. "I personally would not put any confidence in the man."

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This smokin' cylinder has been known to spend a few hours in the waiting area of the Broward County Jail on the New River in Fort Lauderdale. And, since the 'Pipe works for a fine, open-minded newspaper, he isn't one to pass judgment. But let's face it, folks: The people sitting in those jailhouse plastic chairs week after week, waiting to see associates who got popped for this or that, aren't exactly your standard law-and-order crowd. Yet Broward's fearless sheriff, Ken Jenne (a.k.a. Bald Napoleon), seems to think they're the workforce of the future.

Go ahead. Take a seat in the dank, soul-crushing waiting area of the main jail. Look straight ahead and watch the scrolling, poster-sized advertisements on the indoor billboard. One minute you'll see a pitch for a credit consolidation company (good place to market, man!). Then the ad flips. And there's a Napoleon-like Jenne surrounded by BSO employees. "Join Sheriff Ken Jenne's Winning Team," the ad proclaims.

Pal in the can? C'mon, baby, join the dark side!

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The Palm Beach Gardens Marriott ballroom was packed with the county's most influential business leaders when the invader got up to speak. South Florida Sun-Sentinel Publisher Bob Gremillion announced to the crowd at the Business Development Board luncheon recently his plans to become the dominant newspaper in Palm Beach. For years, he explained, Palm Beach residents had begged his paper to move northward. "Some of you wanted to hear another voice in the county," Gremillion said, and the crowd answered with raucous cheers and clapping. Gremillion couldn't help but laugh. "And some of you wanted another choice." Then he fed them a taste of the future. "To get you started, " he said, "I happen to have 400 free samples here today."

Already the big dog in the southern county, the Sun-Sentinel has expanded into territory long dominated by the hometown paper, the Palm Beach Post. The S-S recently opened a Wellington office in western suburbia and has shelled out big bucks for billboard and television advertising in the county. In the ads, the Sun-Sentinel claims to be Palm Beach's fastest-growing newspaper. That seems to be supported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which reports that in the past two years, the Sun-Sentinel has gained 6 percent in its daily circulation throughout the region, to 249,997, while the Post has lost 2 percent, to 154,489.

Meanwhile, the Post' s leadership vows to fight back. Publisher Tom Giuffrida said the Post will launch its own advertising barrage and plans to keep the Sun-Sentinel below Delray Beach. Giuffrida said the Sentinel's challenge will some day be as successful as the Herald's attempt at a northward expansion, which ended in the paper's pulling back -- and losing millions in the process. "We intend to be every bit as aggressive as we were against the Herald in the late '80s," Giuffrida said. "This is another strong push, and we will compete with them as we've been competing with them for the past 19 years."

This is all thrilling music to Tailpipe's soot-filled ears. There's nothing like balls-out competition to inspire great newspaper journalism.

As if firing the first spitball at the challenge, Giuffrida took a crack at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in a recent memo posted in the newsroom. The note slammed the rival for dropping Fort Lauderdale from its name. "We depend on our coverage, not a geographically neutered name, to win readers." Take that, Gremillion.

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When there's trouble, Tailpipe's old mom used to say, look for one of the boys in blue. A cop is a kid's best friend. But the 'Pipe is wondering what West Palm Beach parents are telling their kids these days.

How do you explain why Anthony Harrell is still carrying a gun for the West Palm Beach Sheriff's Office after weathering a bevy of internal affairs investigations? The 39-year-old Harrell was placed on paid administrative leave after shooting a teenager who was driving a stolen car this past April 26. Harrell contends that he wounded 17-year-old Preston Whitefield in the hip after the boy tried to run him down. Maybe so, but Harrell's past indicates he doesn't put a premium on truth.

Back in December 1999, Harrell confronted three teens who had been shooting BBs at snail shells along a canal northwest of Lake Worth, according to police documents. The deputy scooped up the three weapons, and crowed, "I have three new BB guns."

Michael Tognacci, the 16-year-old who was there with his 13-year-old brother and another friend, wise-assed back, "You could give them to your kids for Christmas."

Harrell reportedly fumed and slammed the guns down, leaning into Tognacci's face and screaming, "Boy, I'm not playing with you! I don't have to take any of your sarcastic shit."

Harrell asked the teen if he'd ever been in jail, to which he replied no. "There's bigger black boys in there than me who would love to bend you over and stick their dick in your white ass," Harrell warned. "So what are you going to do about that, boy?"

What Tognacci did was tell his parents about Harrell's behavior. They filed an official complaint, and an internal affairs investigation led to a one-day suspension for Harrell for making derogatory remarks and violating the code of ethics for officers.

Subsequent violations, however, should have gotten Harrell fired. In May 2003, the department received an anonymous call that Harrell had double-dipped by working a security guard shift at Palm Beach Kennel Club when he was supposed to have worked an off-duty detail at Quail Run, a crime-plagued development. Harrell falsified documents to cover up the misdeed.

Tailpipe is now telling his little pipettes: When there's trouble, run.


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