Best Of :: People & Places
In this era of media staff cuts, a midsized city like Lake Worth is liable to slip through the news cracks — unless a tenacious, tireless someone hustles for the skinny at City Hall. That's Wes Blackman. His blog
is required reading for the conscientious citizen of central Palm Beach County. A Michigan native who moved to Lake Worth in 1989, Blackman is an urban planner with particular interest in historic structures. He serves on numerous planning and landmark preservation boards, but that doesn't stop him from castigating city officials. Commissioners Suzanne Mulvehill and Cara Jennings are his favorite targets. This blog ain't one for fancy graphics. Blackman's idea of an exciting image is a scanned item from the commission agenda. But Blackman's enthusiasm for his subject is as infectious as it is admirable. He pores through the agenda and backup material in advance of commission meetings, pulling out the most interesting items and adding the context one needs to understand an issue. It's a fascinating, meticulously detailed study of one city's political theater. Blackman, who lost a bid for the commission in a March 2007 runoff by fewer than 200 votes, has still found a way to have his perspective shape city policy, and Lake Worth is better for it.
Of all the people who ought to have learned an object lesson from the dramatic fall from grace of Palm Beach area Congressman Mark Foley, it is Tim Mahoney. After all, he owed his ascendancy to Congress entirely to Foley's sex scandal. Once elected, Mahoney could campaign for reelection in 2008 with all the advantages of incumbency — provided he could keep his pecker out of the news. But that proved too tough a task. Mahoney allegedly paid a former mistress more than $121,000 so she wouldn't go public with their affair. Soon, another paramour surfaced, Mahoney's wife filed for divorce, and judging by her legal filings, she's intent on making her ex's 15th minute of fame as embarrassing as possible. By this time next year, Mahoney will no longer even be a "notorious" sleazebag — just a sleazebag, period.
"At night it gets darker out here than in other places," he begins. "It's a yawning, special kind of dark, deepened by acres of cane so still and quiet they can keep secrets." It's a story about Pahokee, the sugarcane town torn by gang violence—and the death of the captain of the football team. It was one of the best Palm Beach Post stories of 2008. And it was written by Michael LaForgia. He might not win those in-depth reporting or public service awards, but the young police reporter does something even more impressive: He manages to sprinkle a bit of the art and craft of storytelling into everything he writes. Whether it's a telling detail in a brief about a murder or a poetic lead like the Pahokee story, he does the things that help readers connect to stories. In a culture in which reporters are asked to do more with less and editors speak only in inches, LaForgia seems to actually care about the quality of his prose. If more writers did that, the newspaper industry wouldn't be as dark and bleak as those acres of cane.
Yeah, we'll have to go with Jack on this one after he crushed his opponents to become mayor of Fort Lauderdale. The former state legislator has the common man's touch. He's an old jock with a big family. And he looks, in a certain light, just like a Neanderthal. How much more common can you get? But under that heavy brow is a shrewd operator, sort of the caveman lawyer of Broward County. He plays all the angles just right, and while he's no angel, he always manages somehow to keep his hands clean. And now he's won this great honor — but watch out, it comes with a cautionary note. During the past few years, we've endorsed Ken Keechl (recently disgraced in the Mutual Benefits scandal), Ben Graber (sold out and washed up), and Steve Gonot (criminally charged and removed from office). Seiler will surely have a bright future — so long as he can survive the "Best Of" curse.
If and when our country degenerates into a Hobbesian nightmare where the poor and hungry have revolted against the rich in a swift, brutal redistribution of wealth, the first audacious target for the angry proletariat with discerning taste will be the new Trump International Hotel & Tower. A monolith of ostentation at the center of Fort Lauderdale beach, the local Trump Tower symbolizes everything about the indulgent high-end development boom that helped America into the worst economic quagmire in generations and earned South Florida the moniker the Repo Riviera. But damn, that building is gorgeous! Designed by architect Michael Graves, the blue and yellow, 24-story curvilinear structure — which occupies no less than two acres of beachfront property — sets a new standard for luxury while still paying tribute to the region's art deco roots. The building itself features a 5,000-square-foot spa, an ultra-high-tech gym, a sixth-floor roof deck with a mosaic-tiled pool (replete with cabanas), and almost 300 rooms and suites with marble baths, oversized windows looking out at the ocean, and some of the most expensive beds you can buy. So when the weak social contract that binds society fails, look for the beautiful blue edifice by the sparking sea, where life will be anything but nasty, brutish, and short.
It was late into a local comedy showcase at the Improv Comedy Club last year, and the crowd was getting restless. The night had been good, mostly, but after a couple of lifeless sets, people in the audience were ready to pack it up and hit the door — that or grab a pitchfork and storm the stage, unruly-mob-style. But just as the tension was about to blow, Cuban-American comedian Adrian Mesa took the mic. With a swagger afforded by a combination of confidence and booze, Mesa launched into an aggressive set of jokes that, like some airborne pathogen, spread a cloud of funny around the room so thick that everyone in the audience had no choice but to start cracking up. He sang faux American Idol-style tunes about rotting garbage, he shot boundary-crossing jabs at Miami's Cuban population, and he mined material from his personal resemblance to Super Mario (complete with billowy mustache, lovable paunch, and Grandpa-esque flat cap). And after his set was over, people's asses were not only glued to their seats; they were screaming for an encore. It's not easy pulling a 180 on a room like that, but Mesa did it.
The minds behind the Jupiter Craft Brewers Festival approached the organization of their festival around one clarifying idea: It's all about the beer. With a reverence for the frothy beverage that's clearly palpable, they gathered the best of Florida's independent brewers and brewpubs and a small but enviable list of national craft breweries. They found a spot conducive to a day's worth of drinking in the idyllic Abacoa Town Center and invited only as many beer fans as to ensure both maximum comfort and easy access to the unlimited brews. They kept ticket prices low at under $25 a head, and on-site vendors followed that up with affordable eats. The beer took over from there. People danced and sang and drank to complete excess, quaffing pale ale from Tequesta's Corner Café Brewery, homebrew from BX Beer Depot, and all manner of obscure and amazing beers in between. Good times were had by all — especially the festival's ubiquitous Beer Monks, humble servants who preach the good word of the brew. With the fourth-annual incarnation of the festival due early in 2010, one can only hope that the very same spirit that made this one day in late January such a success lives on.
Ritter has for years been perhaps Broward's foremost political heiress. The Broward County mayor's father is Ed Portner, longtime commissioner and mayor of condo-rich Tamarac. Her husband is Russ Klenet, the hustling lobbyist who knows his way around the block. They all pitched in to build her political career — and a castle in affluent Parkland that she calls home. The problem is, she keeps getting snapped up in conflicts of interest with her hubby — and a big one was revealed this year involving a giant Ponzi scheme led by con man Joel Steinger. Steinger's fraudulent firm, Mutual Benefits, paid $117,000 to renovate that Parkland home — at the same time Ritter was voting on bills in the state Legislature that helped the company. Last year, State Attorney Michael Satz dubiously cleared Ritter of wrongdoing — but now the FBI is having a crack at her. And this time, that tiara might just fall.
She's a phenomenal talent whose excellence just happens to be in an obscure sport. Tunnicliffe races boats — specifically, the Laser Radial, a dinghy sailed by a single person. The 26-year-old Plantation resident was born in Great Britain and spent part of her childhood in a town in northern Ohio bordering Lake Erie, where, at age 12, she raced small boats. By 14, she was a full-blown prodigy, entering international competitions where her diminutive frame was her only obstacle. Tunnicliffe led her Old Dominion University sailing team to a string of national championships, but she didn't reach the pinnacle of her sport until several years ago, when she moved to South Florida to train full-time on Fort Lauderdale's coast. For the past four years, Tunnicliffe has been a finalist for the highest honor in her sport: the Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year. This past year, after Tunnicliffe reigned as her sport's top-ranked athlete and took home a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, the Rolex trophy was finally hers. Yet for all this, coverage of Tunnicliffe's sport is so sparse that she must be her own press agent. On her website, Tunnicliffe files detailed blog reports each day of a regatta. In an era of larger-than-life sports figures who churn out meaningless clichés, it's exhilarating to read a first-person account by a world-class athlete — especially one who is so honest about her challenges and so genuine in her respect for her competitors and in her love for her sport.
In a world of random cruelty, Covenant House is a blessed constant — a place where homeless teens can go at any time of the day or night to find food and shelter. If they elect to stay, they have the option of using Covenant House's in-house programs to save money, further their education, and find employment. Unlike the Salvation Army, Covenant House is never too full to take in one more person: There is always a bed, and if there is no bed, there is at least a mat and a blanket in a cool, clean room.
James Randi's crusade began in the early 1970s, when Uri Geller convinced a bunch of Stanford scientists that he could bend spoons with the power of his mind. Randi painfully exposed Geller as a fraud in a segment on the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. In the years since, he founded the James Randi Educational Foundation and has taken on faith healers, psychics, mediums, astrologers, redneck martial artists, homeopaths, theosophists, scientologists, spiritualists, fairies, and, beginning in 2003, gods. At the age of 36, Randi began offering money to anyone who could demonstrate a paranormal ability under proper laboratory conditions. Randi is now 80, the prize has swelled to $1 million, and nobody's claimed it yet. Randi's fairly certain that nobody will before he passes over into the Big Nothing. But as always, he is willing to be proved wrong.
Good government needs checks and balances, which is why Mayor Lois Frankel needs Mitchell. Frankel has had notoriously close ties to developers. That, plus her close friendship with Joan Goldberg, project manager of the city's ambitious, expensive waterfront project, begs the question of whether the mayor could really be objective on the matter. Mitchell wanted to use that money in the city's blighted neighborhoods — and her instincts are usually right. Take the massive City Center project. Mitchell was the one commissioner who thought the city should delay construction until after the voters had cast ballots on the issue. By forging ahead, the city got hauled into court, which brought costly delays and legal expenses. Mitchell is such a forceful, pesky adversary to Frankel that the Palm Beach Post wondered whether Frankel had directed the city attorney to disqualify Mitchell's reelection candidacy based on a petty technicality. The maneuver cost West Palm taxpayers the expense of a special election, and Mitchell won anyway. Today, she's more powerful than ever and planning a mayoral bid in 2011, when Frankel is termed out. Perhaps then, Mitchell will finally get the wish she made during a commission meeting in August when, after a fresh round of harassment from the mayor, Mitchell said "Leave me the fuck alone, Lois," and stormed off the dais. Frankel's tough, but in Mitchell, she has met her match.