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News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Commission set to begin Parkland probe

A 16-member commission on Tuesday will begin reviewing the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Broward County high school, looking into the circumstances of the crime, the background of the alleged shooter and recommendations to prevent future tragedies.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was created as part of a sweeping school-safety law (SB 7026) signed by Gov. Rick Scott last month, will hold its initial meeting at the Broward College campus in Coconut Creek.

Andrew Pollack, a member of the commission whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow Jade was one of the 17 students and staff killed at the high school in Parkland, said he wants to see a thorough review of the record of Nikolas Cruz, the former student who has been charged with the mass killing.

Pollack also said the commission should hold officials “accountable for their incompetence” that may have led to the tragedy.

“My daughter was murdered. So there is no bringing her back,” Pollack said in an interview with The News Service of Florida Monday. “But if I can feel some satisfaction that it won’t happen in another school….if we can use this and make it a preventative measure, it would make me feel like my daughter’s death wasn’t in vain.”

The law directs the commission, which will be headed by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, to “investigate system failures” in the Broward shooting and prior mass shootings in Florida and to “develop recommendations for the system improvements.”

The commission will develop a timeline of the Stoneman Douglas shooting and the incident response “and all relevant events preceding the incident, with particular attention to all perpetrator contacts with local, state and national government agencies and entities and any contract providers of such agencies and entities.”

Cruz had a lengthy history of mental health problems, documented by dozens of interactions with educators, law enforcement, mental-health professionals and others. The FBI had received at least two alerts warning that Cruz posed a danger.

Pollack said he believes Cruz’s prior contact with law enforcement and school officials should have led to consequences or charges prior to the shooting.

“I really want to look into this kid’s record. And I think we’re going to find a lot of incompetency and a lot of covering up of records in this whole process,” Pollack said.

The commission, which is under the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has the ability to subpoena records and witnesses.

“That’s all going to come out. No one is going to be able to hide from us,” Pollack said.

Other items on the commission’s agenda are a review of Florida’s policies for dealing with “active assailants” on school campuses, with a comparison to “best practices” policies around the nation.

The commission will also review the use of school resource officers on the campuses, with the goal of making a recommendation on the appropriate ratio of law enforcement officers to the student population and school facility.

After their regular meeting, the commission is scheduled to visit the Stoneman Douglas campus late Tuesday afternoon, although members will not be allowed inside the classroom building where the shootings occurred because it is still an active crime scene.

The commission, which is authorized to meet through 2023, will file its initial report and recommendations to Gov. Scott and the Legislature by Jan. 1.

A tentative schedule that will be reviewed by the commission on Tuesday includes the recommendation that its staff report key investigative findings and witness statements to the panel by June 1.

Commission members were appointed by Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, and Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

The commission includes three parents of Stoneman Douglas victims; seven members with law enforcement ties, including FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen; three serving in school systems; a prosecutor; a mental health expert; and Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat.

Gas prices hit three-year high at Florida pumps

Florida gas prices hit a three-year high over the weekend, as oil prices are up about 25 percent from a year ago and the global supply glut has tightened, according to AAA auto club.

And while the annual summer peak is still a couple of weeks away, AAA spokesman W.D. Williams said Monday the travel group doesn’t foresee dramatic price increases “at this point.”

The auto group put the state average at $2.74 a gallon of regular gas on Sunday, up 11 cents from a week ago and 28 cents more than a year ago.

“Crude oil prices are higher than they have been,” Williams said. “Plus, fuel companies are switching over to what is called the summer blend of gasoline, which is more expensive to produce. We have several factors in play, so gasoline prices are up a bit.”

Florida is still far below its all-time high of $4.08 per gallon in July 2008.

The rise in gas prices caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted Friday that OPEC was “artificially” propping up the price.

“Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea, Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!” Trump tweeted.

Wildfire destroys two Keys homes

Two homes have been destroyed by a wildfire consuming 30 acres on Big Pine Key, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The Florida Forest Service has been working with Monroe County, Miami-Dade County, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Big Cypress Preserve to contain the fire, one of 14 currently being battled across the state, according to the agriculture department.

The 14 fires are spread out over just under 1,500 acres statewide, the department said Sunday.

Meanwhile, the state sent a second team of firefighters to assist a 247,000-acre wildfire in Northwest Oklahoma. Last week, 20 Florida firefighters from across the state joined 28 that had been deployed April 14 to help suppress several different wildfires northwest of Woodward, Okla., in a 130,000-acre area called the “34 Complex.”

NRA supporters hot and bothered over YETI coolers

The picture sums up what National Rifle Association supporters think of YETI, the maker of spendy coolers that we’re pretty certain weren’t designed for the repurpose captured above.

It’s all part of the #BoycottYETI movement launched over the Texas-based company said it no longer wanted to be a vendor for the NRA Foundation.

The high-dollar coolers were a huge hit at NRA Foundation banquets and auctions throughout the country, according to an alert sent out by NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, a onetime president of the national gun-rights group.

The foundation events “raise money to support youth programs and education programs nationwide,” Hammer wrote in the alert.

“The youth of America who benefit from these programs are the future hunters, hikers, fishermen/women, bikers, campers, wildlife photographers, mountain climbers, sportsmen/women and conservationists who will protect our natural resources and recreational lands,” according to Hammer.

Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch defends CRC amendment bundling

Jacqui ThurlowLippisch, an appointee of fellow Martin County resident Senate President Joe Negron to the Constitution Revision Commission, defended the bundling of topics in six of the eight amendments the 37-member panel agreed this week to put before voters in November.

On her blog, the former Sewall’s Point mayor called it “a good thing” to roll some topics — such as oil drilling and vaping, or death benefits for first responders and university student fees — into single-ballot proposals.

“You may have read a plethora of articles on the completed work of the 2018 Constitution Revision Commission and thought to yourself, ‘What!?’” Thurlow-Lippisch wrote.

Six amendments “are grouped and related,” she added.

“Although for many, controversial, in my opinion, this is a good thing, perfectly legal, and we all know this was done by both former CRCs,” she went on.

Thurlow-Lippisch was behind the offshore drilling ban, which was linked with a ban on electric cigarettes, in what is expected to become Amendment 9 on the ballot.

The Florida Petroleum Council has already expressed its opposition to the drilling ban proposal, calling it “bizarre and “surreal” that it was linked to the anti-vaping in the workplace measure.

Thurlow-Lippisch was unable to move some of her more ambitious proposals, including one measure crushed by business and agriculture groups, in which she sought to redefine legal standing for Floridians on environmental issues.

Colleges wary of dual-enrollment change

State colleges could face higher costs after a new law revamped the dual-enrollment program for students at private high schools who take courses at public colleges and universities.

Dual enrollment is an increasingly popular program that allows students from grades six through 12 to take post-secondary courses that help them complete high school as well as get a head start on college degrees.

More than 60,000 students are using the program to attend state and community colleges and state universities.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, 56,245 dual-enrollment students attended Florida’s 28 state and community colleges, an increase of 12.5 percent over the 2011-2012 year, according to the state Department of Education.

In 2015-2016, 5,842 dual-enrollment students attended Florida’s 12 universities, according to the state Board of Governors.

The program is popular, in part, because dual-enrollment students pay no tuition and the costs of textbooks are covered.

The bulk of dual-enrollment students come from public schools, where the cost of tuition is covered by local school districts. The tuition cost, without fees normally paid by regular college students, is $105 per credit hour for university courses, $72 for college courses and $2.33 per contact hour for students enrolled in certificate or technical training programs.

Students attending private high schools can also take dual-enrollment courses, with tuition generally covered, but not necessarily, by the private schools through articulation agreements with public colleges and universities.

But the private-school law was changed as part of a massive education bill (HB 7055) passed during this year’s Legislative Session and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The new law removed a prior requirement that articulation agreements have “a provision stating whether the private school will compensate the postsecondary institution for the standard tuition rate per credit hour for each dual-enrollment course taken by its students.”

The impact of that change was discussed by college presidents last week in a teleconference. Some of the presidents said the removal of the language would not necessarily prohibit the private schools from continuing to pay dual-enrollment tuition if it was part of existing agreements with the colleges.

But Madeline Pumariega, chancellor for the state college system, urged “caution” in making an immediate interpretation, saying the Department of Education would offer some guidance.

Pumariega said part of the issue is determining exactly how much the impact would be if private schools were no longer responsible for tuition costs.

An analysis by Senate staff members estimated that of more than 56,000 dual-enrollment students attending colleges, more than 3,000 came from private schools in the 2016-2017 academic year.

Analysts at the university system’s Board of Governors said fewer than 300 dual-enrollment students came from private schools in the fall of 2016.

Pumariega said the college system will make its analysis of the fiscal impact of the legal change and then ask lawmakers for a funding adjustment, if warranted.

“We’ll be glad to give you the impact,” Ken Atwater, president of Hillsborough Community College, told Pumariega. “If we have the option to charge, we are going to continue to charge.”

Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored legislation (SB 1064) aimed at making it easier for private school students to use the dual-enrollment program, said he understands the colleges’ concerns and would support a budget increase if necessary.

“I acknowledge there may be a gap there that we need to take care of,” Baxley said. “I’m ready to address that because my major goal is to make sure all students in Florida have access to dual enrollment.”

Like Pumariega, Baxley said he wants to see more data on how the change may or may not impact colleges. He said he has not heard the same concerns from state universities, which have far fewer dual-enrollment students.

“We’ll get some truer numbers as we see the response, and then let’s address that,” Baxley said. “If there is a deficit for the state colleges, as I believe there will be, we want to cover that.”

Now Marion Hammer’s set her sights on YETI

The National Rifle Association is targeting YETI after the Texas-based maker of high-dollar cups and coolers dropped its sponsorship of the Friends of NRA Foundation Banquet and Auction events around the country, according to an alert issued by NRA Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer.

The YETI coolers “have been a hot item for sportsmen” at the events for years, according to Hammer’s alert.

“Suddenly, without prior notice, YETI has declined to do business with The NRA Foundation saying they no longer wish to be an NRA vendor, and refused to say why. They will only say they will no longer sell products to The NRA Foundation. That certainly isn’t sportsmanlike. In fact, YETI should be ashamed. They have declined to continue helping America’s young people enjoy outdoor recreational activities. These activities enable them to appreciate America and enjoy our natural resources with wholesome and healthy outdoor recreational and educational programs,” the alert reads. “In this day and age, information is power. We thought you needed this information.”

The NRA Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, charitable organization, according to the alert, which also includes a link to YETI’s online contact service.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Judge backs nursing home on death records

Ruling against the Florida Department of Health, a circuit judge Friday said an embattled Broward County nursing home is entitled to receive copies of death certificates for people who died across the state around the time of Hurricane Irma.

Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that the death certificates are public records under a state open-government law. In doing so, he sided with arguments made by The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a Broward County nursing where residents died in sweltering conditions after the September hurricane.

“The records requested by petitioner (the nursing home) are subject to Florida’s Public Record Act … and there is no applicable statutory exemption to permit their withholding from release,” wrote Lewis, who held a hearing in the case this week.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills filed the public-records lawsuit Jan. 31, alleging that the department had improperly refused to provide copies of death certificates for people across the state from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16 — a week-long period that included Hurricane Irma and its immediate aftermath. The lawsuit said the Department of Health responded to the public-records request by requiring the nursing home to request each death certificate by the name of the person who had died and to use a department form. Attorneys for the nursing home alleged that such requirements violate the public-records law.

But in a motion to dismiss the case filed last month, the Department of Health contended that the nursing home’s large request fell under part of state law dealing with “vital records or data” and that the nursing home’s request didn’t meet legal standards for releasing such information.

“Whereas anyone may request and receive a redacted death certificate (under part of state law), only certain people and entities may receive the type of general data that would allow research to be conducted,” the motion said. “Such data … is far more broad than simply one or two specifically requested death certificates. The only possible purpose for this subsection (of law) is to regulate who may obtain large swaths of data derived from death certificates and other such records.” The motion said the nursing home is “not the type of entity which may receive this data.”

Lewis wrote that the department could require the nursing home to use a form to request the records, but “it cannot require that petitioner request each death certificate by name. Petitioner, using the prescribed form, may request these records with the information it has, which may only include a date range, and respondent (the Department of Health) must produce the applicable, responsive records.”

The lawsuit and a document filed April 4 by lawyers for the nursing home do not detail why The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills wants the death certificates from across the state.

But the nursing home has been locked in legal battles over the state’s attempt to revoke its license. Hurricane Irma knocked out the home’s air conditioning on Sept. 10, and residents were evacuated from the facility on Sept. 13. Authorities have attributed 12 deaths to the problems at the nursing home.

Department of Corrections backed on substance abuse contracts

An administrative law judge Friday rejected a challenge to decisions by the Florida Department of Corrections to award two contracts for substance-abuse treatment services in state prisons.

Judge Darren Schwartz, in a 41-page recommended order, said a protest by GEO Reentry Services, LLC should be dismissed. The department in January said it planned to award the contracts, totaling about $59 million over five years, to Gateway Foundation, Inc., and The Unlimited Path, Inc.

Gateway would provide services at prisons in the central and southern parts of the state, while The Unlimited Path would provide services across North Florida.

GEO raised numerous issues in the protest, but Schwartz rejected the arguments, pointing, for example, to higher costs proposed by GEO.

He wrote that the department’s “proposed action in awarding the contracts to Gateway and UPI, and not to GEO, is not contrary to the ITN (invitation to negotiate) specifications, clearly erroneous, contrary to competition, arbitrary or capricious.”

Under administrative law, the recommended order will go back to the Department of Corrections for final action.

Nursing home fined after care violations

A Tallahassee nursing home has been ordered to pay $5,000 in fines to the state after allegations that it failed to provide adequate health care for eight residents.

State Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Justin Senior issued a final order this week against Heritage Healthcare after the nursing home did not challenge allegations levied in a March administrative complaint.

The alleged violations were discovered during Agency for Health Care Administration surveys conducted in August and November. One of the violations in the August survey, for example, involved a “clearly septic” resident who was admitted to a hospital after the nursing facility didn’t provide proper care.

The administrative complaint said a peripherally inserted central catheter, also known as a PICC line, was left in the resident longer than what a doctor ordered. According to the administrative complaint, the resident was admitted to the hospital with a 104.8-degree temperature, and there were “foul smelling bandages that are soiled with greenish-black substance.”

Another violation was spotted during the November survey and involved a resident who was developing bed sores. According to the administrative complaint, a physician treating the resident for the wounds noted that the nursing home was sitting the patient up in a “borrowed small wheelchair” and that a special chair and air cushion that had been ordered for the resident appeared to have been lost by the facility.

In all, the agency laid out violations in the administrative complaint involving eight different nursing-home residents.

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