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Scott Powers

Showdown in Miami: Airbnb sues over vacation rental home ban

Airbnb and five of its clients filed suit against the city of Miami Friday over a controversial move the city made last month to ban vacation rental homes in residential districts.

At issue is whether and how cities can regulate vacation rental homes, a rapidly increasing part of the lodging industry in which homeowners turn their spare bedrooms or whole houses into short-term rentals to accommodate tourists and other visitors who prefer homes to hotels.

The Florida Legislature essentially prohibited cities and counties from banning them in 2011, except for those local governments that already had laws on the books. In March the Miami City Commission approved a resolution put forward by Mayor Tomas Regalado that essentially interprets the city’s ordinances, as outlined in the Miami 21 codes, as already banning vacation rentals.

That interpretation was news to Airbnb, the largest marketing company of vacation rental properties. In the suit filed Friday the company alleges the existing ordinances have no such ban, and also claims that the city of Miami is cracking down on those operating in Miami since the March 23 3-2 approval by the city commission.

No one was available at the Miami city attorney’s office to comment on the suit late Friday. The city has not yet filed an answer to the Airbnb complaints.

The Miami strategy began in 2015 with a legal interpretation adopted by the city’s zoning administrator, the suit charges.

“The Individual Plaintiffs had never heard of the City’s vacation rental prohibition before 2015, and it was not for a lack of looking. It simply was not in Miami 21,” the suit states.

The wording of the Miami 21 zoning code, the suit charges,  has no mention of a vacation rental ban, no published interpretations that it does, and that there had been no previous enforcements of any vacation rental prohibition, according to the suit.

The Airbnb suit seeks a court declaration that vacation rental homes are not probated as Regalado had maintained. It also demands that the city stop going after any owners of vacation rental homes in Miami.

Some of that crackdown has come against Miami residents who spoke in opposition of the resolution at that March 23 meeting, and Airbnb also alleges city officials are specifically targeting them, violating their First Amendment rights, the suit alleges.

“The City has recently undertaken an aggressive anti-Airbnb campaign that includes threats against individual Airbnb hosts who attended a City Commission meeting to publicly voice their support for vacation rentals in Miami. The City is now acting to make good on those threats,” the suit alleges. “Airbnb stands together with its Miami hosts in opposing the City’s unlawful efforts, and in particular stands with the brave individuals who have come forward and seek to protect their rights as Individual Plaintiffs in this action.”


Val Demings pushes for more federal counter-terrorism money

After watching Orlando just miss the cut for federal counter-terrorism grants the past two years, Orlando’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings is putting together a bipartisan push to get such money increased to help mid-sized cities.

Demings and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican whose hometown of San Antonio also got passed over for the most recent grants, claim 19 other members of Congress, in a bipartisan group, calling for an increase in counter-terrorism funding for the nation’s at-risk cities.

It’s an issue that Demings husband, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, and Orlando Police Chief John Mina testified about in a congressional hearing last year, arguing that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s scoring system for the Urban Area Security Initiative, was unfair to cities like Orlando.

Currently, only the 29 “highest-risk” cities nationwide are eligible. Demings and Hurd argue that leaves out as many as nine mid-sized cities, including Orlando and San Antonio, which have received grants in the past, but not the past two years.

“As the first line of defense, it is critical that local law enforcement agencies are equipped to detect, prevent and effectively respond to any enemy that threatens the safety of their citizens,” Rep. Demings stated in a news release issued by her office. “At the time of the 9/11 attacks I was commander of the Orlando Police Department Airport Division at the Orlando International Airport, and saw firsthand how these funds could be used to make sure local law enforcement is prepared to prevent, and respond to threats.”

Since 2010, law enforcement agencies in the Orlando metropolitan area have received more than $11 million in total funding through the UASI program. However, reduced nationwide funding for the program in recent years has resulted in fewer cities being included in the program.

Orlando, San Antonio, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Honolulu, Kansas City, New Orleans, Sacramento, and Virginia Beach-Norfolk have each received more than $8 million in UASI funding since FY2010, but have also each endured two consecutive years without receiving any funds through the program.

“As the site of the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history, and as the number one tourist destination in our nation, there is no question Orlando should be on the list of cities that receive federal support to fight terrorism,” Demings stated.

Florida’s Hispanic voters optimistic on economy but down on Donald Trump

A new Hispanic consumer confidence survey from Florida Atlantic University finds Latino Florida voters more optimistic than the nation about the economy but about the same in assessing President Donald Trump.

The survey of 600 people, conducted by FAU’s Business and Economic Polling Initiative, found that 39 job approval rating for Trump, and a 60 percent disapproval rating.

It also found majorities are happy and optimistic about the economy, attitudes not shared by Hispanics nationally.

“Hispanics in Florida are better off financially and this is reflected in their feelings about the economy,” said Monica Escaleras,  director of FAU BEPI. “However, they still don’t approve of the president’s performance.”

The poll, conducted during the first three months of 2017, has a margin of error of 3.9 percent.

It found that 53 percent of Florida Hispanics said they expect good times financially for the next five years. This runs counter to the national Hispanic index that found 57 percent of Hispanics said they expect bad times financially for the next five years.

Florida Hispanics by a margin of 59 to 41 percent see business conditions as good for the next year. Overall, 68 percent of Florida Hispanics said they are better off financially than they were one year ago and nearly 4 out of 5 said they will be better off over the next year as well.

About one-third of Florida Hispanics (34 percent) expect the economy will get better, while 20 percent think it will get worse and 45 percent said it will stay the same.

Nearly 6 out of 10 Hispanics think it is a good time for buying a big item for their home. More than half (58 percent) think it is a good time to buy a house, while nearly 65 percent said it was a good time to buy a car.


Andrew Gillum sees Enterprise Florida, VISIT Florida as ‘tools’ cities need

While attending the ribbon cutting of a new high-tech center new Kissimmee that has at least $75 million in state and local taxpayer money behind it, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum praised such incentives and two embattled state entities, Enterprise Florida and VISIT Florida, as tools that cities need.

Gillum, the Democratic mayor to Tallahassee, was on hand in Osceola County Thursday for the ribbon cutting on the new BRIDG high tech manufacturing center heavily subsidized by Osceola County, Florida and the University of Central Florida.

“The truth is as a mayor you know you need every tool in the tool kit in order to recoup economic development,” Gillum said. “As a mayor, I wouldn’t take any of that out.”

Enterprise Florida and VISIT Florida, of course, are the economic incentives and marketing entities caught in a monumental inner-Republican Party war between House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who wants to abolish the former and significantly restrict the latter, and Gov. Rick Scott, who is barnstorming the state to save them.

“Where I differ with both the governor and the speaker of the house is that, where we have failed is we have not created the kind of talent pool need in this state in order for the jobs we do bring to the state of Florida to fill the pipeline of workers to take those jobs,” Gillum said.

Gillum’s platform has included strong pushes to improve public education and vocational education throughout the state.

“So that’s what makes being here really interesting, in that we’re recruiting high-tech, we’re leading to high-tech manufacturing, but it’s going to be critically important that we also focus on training  of the workforce that’s going to be needed,” he added.


Osceola officials cut ribbon on high-tech ‘molecular manufacturing’ center

From the outside, BRIDG may not look like a high-tech building that Osceola County, Central Florida and state officials are counting on as a “transformation” of the area’s economy. It looks like an office building.

But the BRIDG building, the first structure in the Neo City high-tech industrial park east of Kissimmee on U.S. Highway 192 near the Osceola Heritage Park, is not just an ordinary office and lab-space building.

“This center will change the fabric of our community,” said Charlie Gray, the chairman emeritus of the GrayRobinson law firm who’s been a behind-the-scenes champion to get funding and organization for BRIDG.

Backed with as much as $170 million in local, state, and private grants and tax incentives, real estate, in-kind and other contributions, its a space designed for high-tech manufacturing of nano-circuitry so small it’s dubbed “molecular manufacturing,” starting with smart-sensor technologies.

So it’s a facility with the highest-tech stabilization, air purification and control, temperature and humidity control, water purification and control, and hyper-clean conditions, set to pursue and house the next generation of electronics manufacturing.

“We’re talking about creating features in silicon and other advanced materials that are measured in terms of one one-thousandth of the diameter of a human hair,” said BRIDG CEO Chester Kennedy.

Gray, Kennedy and a couple hundred of state and local officials and area research and  business leaders gathered Thursday to cut the ribbon on the building, that has progressed along as a mission pushed by Osceola County, the University of Central Florida, the Orlando-area’s legislative delegation and others even through major setbacks.

“You think about where this infrastructure exists in the world and there are very few places, and most of the places it does exist are very tightly controlled by very large industries,” Kennedy said. “To have this capability right here in our backyard in Central Florida, put together in a public-private partnership, operated by a not-for-profit entity that is here to enable business to come and take advantage of this great facility is really unique.

Some of the most state-of-the-art electronics in the world will be manufactured and developed in this center behind us,” he added.

The facility  emerged through support that included $60 million from the Osceola County, $10 million from the state, $5 million through UCF, and other support from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, the Orlando Economic Partnership, Enterprise Florida, the University of Florida, Florida International University and the University of South Florida.

“The smart-sensor technology that is going to be developed here, that’s going to be manufactured here will bring companies from around the state, from around the nation, from around the world to Central Florida,” said Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. “Right here will be the only place where they fell like they can come, to do the research, to do the manufacturing. Along with those companies, along with that research and development will come talent.”

This year the center is hoping for another $10 million for equipment and $8 million for operations. Gray said they’re also still pursuing additional grants from Washington D.C. and Tallahassee.

“This is a very bad year to try to get money out of the Legislature, but we have some champions,” Gray said. “I think we’re in pretty good shape to get what we need from the Legislature this time.”


George Gainer, Jeff Brandes reverse positions on Tri-Rail, push bill to let controversial contract stand

Tri-Rail’s controversial, one-source, half-billion, operations contract could go forward under an amended bill pushed Thursday by the Gov. Rick Scott administration and state Sens. George Gainer and Jeff Brandes.

Just a few weeks ago, both Gainer and Brandes were hostile critics of the contract and Tri-Rail.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, sponsored an amendment Thursday that strips away language that he and Scott had pushed for earlier that would have forced Tri-Rail to rebid the $511 million, 10-year contract.

Tri-Rail’s operating agency, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, awarded that contract in January after rejecting five lower bids for technical issues that the companies are contesting. The award brought, from Scott, Brandes and Gainer, harsh rebukes, demands for investigations, vows of new state control, as well as demands to rebid the contract.

Gainer, a Panama City Republican, introduced Senate Bill 1118 to require those things.

Yet Brandes’ new amendment, introduced Thursday at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, which he chairs, reverses the demand for the rebid. The amendment was adopted it unanimously, then Gainer’s amended Committee Substitute for SB 1118 was approved unanimously, Thursday.

The amendment and the bill drew strong objections from representatives of the companies that lost the Tri-Rail contract, which runs commuter rail trains through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Several argued that their companies had agreed to continue current operations contracts until a new one could be rebid, so that there would be no disruption in services for passengers. The new contract, switching operations management to Herzog, is set to begin July 1.

There was little explanation or defense of the change of position from Brandes, or Gainer, or anyone else during Thursday’s committee meeting.

Brandes’ office said the state got assurances it needed through language in the amendment.

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Jack Stephens said it was a good day for Tri-Rail and its riders in South Florida. He said the bills’ amendments were the results of negotiations between the authority, the governor’s office, and the FDOT secretary’s office. The key was working out a state financing model that could give the state more control yet allow the authority to keep paying its bills.

The state financing model was spelled out in the amendments to SB 1118 and to a related bill, Senate Bill 842, which also eased up on a threatened crackdowns on Tri-Rail. Amendment sponsor Frank Artiles said it was at the behest of Scott’s administration, after the negotiations with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

The amendments require the transportation authority to receive FDOT approval for any new, extended or renewed contracts that use state money, and to submit monthly invoices to FDOT for reimbursements, rather than just receive lump-sum quarterly transfers totaling $42 million a year in taxpayer money. There also are other new accounting requirements. “I believe the principal concerns have been addressed, and they have been addressed to the benefits of all involved, in regards to the governor’s office, the secretary’s office and ourselves, and the citizens of South Florida, of course,” Stephens said.

Tri-Rail still faces a budget proviso in the House of Representatives that would require the transportation authority to rebid the contract if it wants to receive state money. Stephens said he was hopeful that, too, could be dropped, though he cautioned he did not want to predict.

Tri-Rail also faces the prospect of court challenges to the bid, from any or all the five companies that offered lower bids that got thrown out by the transportation authority’s procurements director. All of that happened before the single remaining bid, from Herzog Transportation Services, was brought to the authority’s board for consideration and approval in late January.

There also is a Florida Department of Transportation Inspector General investigation of the contract underway.

“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” said Tom Martin, head of Business Development for Bombardier Americas, which had submitted an operations bid that was $115 million less expensive than Herzog’s.

He said all the companies wanted was the state to assure a fair contract competition.

Asked about the prospect that Bombardier might take the Tri-Rail contract to court, he added, “I think we will keep all of our options open.”

Committee Substitute to SB 842 drew less outrage from Herzog’s competitors, but also cut Tri-Rail some slack.

A budget proviso had required that the state Department of Transportation would from now on review and approve all the transportation authorities’ contracts if it were to continue to receive about $42 million in state subsidies.

However, SB 842 draws a tight distinction between funding the transportation authority gets from the state and from other sources, including the federal government and fares, and allows that any contracts paid for with those non-state monies could be exercised without state approval.


Amicus brief to charge Rick Scott with voter disenfranchisement in Aramis Ayala case

A coalition of groups led by the Advancement Project in Washington D.C. is filing an amicus brief charging Gov. Rick Scott with refusing to recognize voters’ will in the State Attorney Aramis Ayala case in the Florida Supreme Court.

The coalition, including Civil Rights, immigration reform and labor groups, is characterizing Ayala as a criminal justice reform state attorney elected by voters of Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit because of her criminal justice reform platform.

And they’re charging that Scott is rejecting that criminal justice reform platform selected by voters because he does not like the reform she is pursuing – her decision to not pursue death penalty prosecutions.

Scott has stripped Ayala of 23 first-degree murder cases and reassigned them to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. Ayala on Tuesday challenged Scott’s power to do so in a writ before the Florida Supreme Court and a lawsuit in federal court.

The coalition’s friend-of-the-court entry is in the Supreme Court case, charging Scott is refusing to recognize the will of the voters.

Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project, called Scott’s move “a power grab” in a telephone press conference Thursday announcing the amicus brief.

“We are raising two points in our brief. One of which is the state of Florida is in need of criminal justice reform, and two, that the people voted in a reformer in order to make that happen,” Browne Dianis said.

She said Florida is one of the worst offenders when it comes to a “broken criminal justice system” and that Ayala’s reforms are sought by voters and eschewed by Tallahassee leadership.

“Unfortunately Gov. Scott … didn’t like the policies of Aramis Ayala and decided to step in and usurp the will of the voters,” Browne Dianis continued. “That is unconstitutional”

Ayala never campaigned against the death penalty during her 2016 election campaign, though she did offer herself as a criminal justice reformer.

The coalition, which included representatives of the New Florida Majority, Dream Defenders, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, Color of Change and the SEIU Florida, also pushed racial aspects of the battle between Ayala, who is Florida’s first African-American state attorney, and Scott, who is white.

Chardonnay Singleton of Dream Defenders, a criminal justice reform organization founded after the slaying of Treyvon Martin in Sanford, said Ayala’s election also can be traced to the cry for criminal justice reform that came from that case..

“The voters have really sought to create an environment where the criminal justice system serves them and not special interests,” Singleton said. “And that’s reflected in the election of Ayala, who is the first black woman state attorney, and that’s a testament of our desire as voters’ across Florida to transform the system to one that is more human, to one that that is more human, one that is more reflective of all of the people in Florida, and one that is more restorative to us as human beings.”


Florida Senate passes budget with limited cut to Aramis Ayala’s office

A Florida Legislature Conference Committee showdown appears likely over how much money will be cut from Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s office now that the Florida Senate passed a budget package Wednesday that includes a much smaller cut than is being proposed in the Florida House.

Engineered by state Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Oakland Democrat, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jack Latvala, a compromise was inserted into the budget package that would cut $622,000 from the Office of the State Attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, but restore another $569,000 that the Senate initially proposed cutting.

The House of Representatives is still looking at a full $1.3 million cut to Ayala’s office. Under an arrangement put together by Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon, all the money would go to the Judicial Administration Commission, to be redistributed to other state attorneys who get 9th JC cases.

Ayala is under fire from many Tallahassee politicians, mostly Republicans, for her stance to not prosecute death penalty sentences in CD 9. As a result, Gov. Rick Scott has reassigned 23 first-degree murder cases to the neighboring 5th Judicial Circuit. On Tuesday Ayala challenged those reassignments in the Florida Supreme Court and in U.S. District Court.

The $622,000 cut from her office in the Senate budget package would go to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King, to whom Scott reassigned the 23 cases.

Bracy said the money had been allocated last year for human trafficking and domestic violence prosecution programs, and the human trafficking problem is rapidly increasing in the CJ 9 and a top concern for the House Judiciary Committee. Those also were top priorities for Ayala during her election campaign last year.
“I felt for that reason alone she needed the money,” Bracy said.

Bracy is one of the few lawmakers to openly back Ayala. After both the cuts appeared in committees, he pushed to get money restored for her office. Earlier this week he worked out the 45 percent/55 percent split of the original $1.3 million cut with Latvala, the Republican from Clearwater.

Last week Bracy authored an op-ed column in the New York Times in which he conceded he does not necessarily agree with Ayala’s stance on the death penalty, but strongly supports her right to take that stance.

“Although Ms. Ayala’s critics have denounced her actions as dereliction of duty, they cannot point to a single law or statute that she has violated. That’s because she hasn’t,” Bracy wrote in the column. “There are no federal or state laws that say prosecutors must seek death sentences. And the United States Supreme Court has banned all state laws that make executions mandatory for murders.”

On Tuesday Plakon, a strong critic of Ayala’s stance on the death penalty, defended the $1.3 million figure, saying that capital punishment cases are very expensive so the money should follow the cases, that it’s approximately how much extra money the JC 9 office got last year, and that Ayala still has not filled many vacancies in her office, so she’s not spending what she has.

Florida economists join national letter urging embrace of immigration

Economists from Florida, Florida State, Miami, and Florida International universities are among nearly 1,500 nationally that sent a letter to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders Wednesday urging immigration reform and embrace of immigration.

In addition to the Florida economists, the 1,470 signatories include six Nobel Laureates and members of the presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama Administrations, as well as leading economists from across the country, according to organizers, the New American Economy and Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the American Action Forum.

“The undersigned economists represent a broad swath of political and economic views. Among us are Republicans and Democrats alike. Some of us favor free markets while others have championed for a larger role for government in the economy. But on some issues there is near universal agreement. One such issue concerns the broad economic benefit that immigrants to this country bring,” the letter opens.

The letter, also sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“Immigration undoubtedly has economic costs as well, particularly for Americans in certain industries and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment. But the benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh their costs, and smart immigration policy could better maximize the benefits of immigration while reducing the costs,” it continues.

“We urge Congress to modernize our immigration system in a way that maximizes the opportunity immigration can bring, and reaffirms continuing the rich history of welcoming immigrants to the United States,” the economists letter concludes.

Among the signatories are Joseph Calhoun of Florida State University; Hugo J. Faria, University of Miami; Mark Flannery, University of Florida; and Cem Karayalcin, Florida International University.

Among nationally prominent signatories are Nobel Laureates Vernon Smith of Chapman University; 2002; Oliver Hart, Harvard University; Alvin E. Roth, Stanford University; Angus Deaton, Princeton University; Lars Peter Hansen,  University of Chicago; and Roger Myerson, University of Chicago; George P. Schultz, former secretary of state for Reagan; James C. Miller III, former Office of Management and Budget director for Reagan; Holtz-Eakin, of George H.W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors; Alice Rivlin, OMB director for Clinton; Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for George W. Bush; and Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman, who each served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for Obama.

The letter cites four key advantages of immigration:

– Immigration brings entrepreneurs who start new businesses that hire American workers.

– Immigration brings young workers who help offset the large-scale retirement of baby boomers.

– Immigration brings diverse skill sets that keep our workforce flexible, help companies grow, and increase the productivity of American workers.

– And mmigrants are far more likely to work in innovative, job-creating fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math that create life-improving products and drive economic growth.


Democrat Paul Chandler kicks off House District 44 campaign

The lone Democrat filed so far to run for what will be an open seat in Florida House District 44, Paul Chandler, officially kicked off his campaign this week, saying it’s time the district voters got a serious Democrat to consider.

Incumbent state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle is not seeking another term, and that has opened the door for the Republican-leaning district in southwest Orange County to get new blood, drawing Republican candidates Bobby Olszewski of Winter Garden and Usha Jain of Orlando.

Chandler, 36, a small business owner, first filed in mid-March but said he did not start his campaign until Tuesday night, with the launch of his campaign webpage, and social media.

He’ll be running on a platform focusing on economy, particularly to help and promote small businesses in HD 44; public education; equality; and health care, his professional specialty, particularly focusing on getting Florida to accept Medicaid expansion and to increase support for mental health services.

Chandler is founder, president and chairman of Ohana Healthcare, a multi-state company he runs from offices near Lake Buena Vista that provides full-service operational services and education programs to small-and medium-size physicians groups and small hospitals. He’s also a former high school U.S. government law teacher in Missouri, a former banker, and a former Walt Disney World cast member, and said he applies those experiences to his political agenda.

He said he’s new to active politics, but not new to politics.

“I’ve always been into political science. I decided it is the time to step into politics, with the growth of my company,” Chandler said. “One thing I never wanted to do is leave Ohana where I had to step down from a full-time position and go into politics, until I knew the company could still manage itself with the team I’ve put in place.”

He has a campaign manager – Ben Laube – and said he and his campaign staff had previously expected to have to raise about $250,000 over the next 18 months for a successful campaign, and that estimate may change now with last week’s entry of Olszewski, a former Winter Garden commissioner with an extensive political network.

His interest in equality is in part derived from deep concern for gay rights, and for women’s rights. Chandler is gay, married.

His past experiences, he said, have convinced him that wages need to be raised, and women need to have wage equality. His bachelor’s degree in human resources and his own experiences running a small business, he said, makes it make sense. He is upset to see so many small businesses in his district fail, from Windermere to Winter Garden, and believes the problem is not so much the costs of labor, but the costs of recruiting and retaining labor.

When businesses see rapid turnover of employees, “It adds up to up to as much as several thousand dollars every time an employee turns over. So you would be paying more in pay rates but you would have much stronger retention,” if you increased wages, he said.

Republicans have controlled HD 44 for a long time, but Chandler believes that is because Democrats have never given it a serious challenge. He said Republicans have about a 5 percent advantage in voter registration, but “basically it’s one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third no party affiliation,” he concluded.

“That just means we have to work even harder. I don’t like the labels Democrat or Republican or independent or Libertarian,” he added.

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