In this "Best of the Best" issue, here's my picks for the best stuff on my beat last year.
Best weekend lunch on the water:
The Bahamian barbecue (especially the jerk chicken) at New Pass Bait Shop, to be enjoyed at a picnic table overlooking the water, while sitting around with the local fishing guides and sucking on a "yellow tail" (beer).
Best single slice of pizza:
Downtown on Main Street, Nick & Luigi's anchovy-and-onion slice. (Primo Pasta, with its wood-burning oven, makes the best whole pie, but I can walk to Nick's.)
Best mullet paté (smoked mullet spread, to us locals):
Walt's Fish Market
Best examples of living history in Sarasota:
Circus Sarasota, and Daniel Greenwood, Siesta Key's last commercial fisherman.
Best public-relations practitioners in Sarasota (because every writer sometimes needs them, and their jobs often forbid public recognition):
Alisa Bennett for the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota and Jeff Aaron for Sarasota County government (tie).
Best place to sneak away for an afternoon (with a cooler and perhaps a friend, a fly rod, or a good book):
The little peninsula with a single picnic table at Oscar Scherer State Park.
Best bizarre thing to show a visitor from the North:
The Gotti mansion on North Casey Key Road.
When elected to the Sarasota County Commission, Jon Thaxton became the first avowed environmentalist on that body in decades. Although he has long been active in groups such as the Audubon Society and the Sarasota Bay Program, Thaxton's profession is real estate-so he's no knee-jerk anything.
Now that he's 16 months into his first term, we sat down with Thaxton over chicken and yellow rice during his lunch break from a commission meeting and learned some things.
Q: So where's our water going to come from?
A: That's unknown. We do have ideas, and we can always find a way to get water-but at what cost, and paid by whom? I'm convinced that regional water programs are the only way to go. One of my strongest feelings about the 2050 Plan is that we have to make sure the county has an adequate and environmentally safe water supply. Either we look at land and water planning together, or we'll end up in a crisis mode where demand is driving supply and we can't go with an environmentally safe program.
Q: What's the biggest lesson you've learned in the past 16 months?
A: I've had a crash course in consensus-building-reaching consensus with incredibly diverse points of view in incredibly short periods of time.
Q: Any major shifts in your thinking?
A: The biggest shift is that I was an activist for 20 years, but becoming a policy maker is a whole different approach. When you're an activist you can be hard-line-and in fact sometimes that's best, asking for the moon-but as a policymaker you can't do that. The truth is, this has been the best year I've ever had personally and professionally, but not financially-but that doesn't seem to really matter.
Q: Big disappointments?
A: Not disappointments, but plenty of big surprises. I'm spending a lot more time on commission business-about 60 hours a week-than I expected, and that has certainly changed my lifestyle. I'm associating with a new group of people, too; and while I still have old friends from real estate and environmental causes, there's just about no time to spend with them.
But even with 100 e-mails a day to deal with, I consider myself extremely fortunate to be where I am, doing what I'm doing.
Q: On the whole, is the county commission functional or dysfunctional?
A: Completely functional. I'm proud to be one of the five. We have profound disagreements, but we don't let that get in the way of doing business. We line up, do the business, and move on. There's no personal friction, as in so many similar groups.
Q: If you were God, what one change would you make on the commission?
A: I really wish there were some way we could make our schedule more predictable for the public. We make every effort to hear everyone, and that sometimes results in clumsy schedules and delays and more delays. It's difficult for the public to deal with that. But it would take a godly act to make that happen.
Given their choice, most Americans secretly like fried. But sampling the romantic new (but of ancient design) steamed bamboo baskets at Le Chang of Boston may change your preference forever. Aromas wafting through that hot bamboo basket-surrounded by a little cloud of steam as they set it on your table-are heavenly.
The tasty baskets are offered in chicken, scallops or shrimp variations, with bountiful ultra-fresh Chinese vegetables and a special soya sauce on the side. One bite and you'll realize several thousand years of steaming practice by the Chinese has really paid off.
MIDNIGHT PASS MADNESS
Probably no single issue has so confused Sarasotans in recent decades as whether to reopen Midnight Pass. It's the kind of story that just makes you want to walk into the kitchen and pour yourself a stiff drink.
The wandering pass was closed in 1983 when the county commission allowed homeowners in the area to plug it because it was fast approaching their Gulf-front residences. Reopening it has been the subject of seemingly countless studies and endless expense ever since. Never mind that the threatened homes probably should never have been allowed to be built so close to the pass in the first place-unbelievably, even more have been permitted in the past 19 years.
The reopening has actually become a four-way wrestling match. The wrestlers: The Midnight Pass Society (mostly homeowners near the pass who want boating access to the Gulf); the State of Florida, which picks apart each county study and then suggests more of them (without offering any solutions of its own); and Sarasota County government, which has spent millions on studies to figure out what's the right thing to do.
And we can't forget the environmentalists who claim the now-closed pass has created a fish nursery that shouldn't be destroyed with a reopening. Confused yet? That's all right, so is just about everybody else.
One other set of players in this drama is the wealthy north Casey Key residents who cynics say won't ever let the pass be reopened because that would also reopen their neighborhood to the great unwashed. And since those landowners have hired high-powered attorney Brenda Patten to apparently dump legal sand in the gears of any efforts to start digging, those cynics could be right.
Meanwhile, every major storm passing by threatens to cut a new pass in the same area. Personally, I've come to believe the mythical Hurricane Brillo bound to come some day may be what it's going to take to resolve the issue.