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Ridesharing bills could pave the way for transformational changes

On the same day an Uber- and Lyft-friendly ridesharing bill passed its first committee stop in the Florida House, state Sen. Jeff Brandes was presenting his vision of where he believes the transportation industry is headed.

“We’re in a generational shift from the horse and buggy to the Model-T,” Brandes said Wednesday evening at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.

The St. Petersburg Republican was the main presenter at a public event focusing on emerging transportation technologies. He’s also sponsoring legislation similar to the House ridesharing bill.

If successful, the measures would create uniform insurance and background check requirements for participating drivers, and prevent local governments from issuing conflicting regulations.

The reforms could be a first-step in a much larger sequence of changes.

“The industry is evolving,” Brandes said. “Auto manufacturers, tech companies and all kinds of groups are working hard to get into this space.”

As with carpooling, ridesharing allows for multiple passengers to share vehicles during their commutes – often at the touch of a smartphone app.

Cutting transportation costs, such as vehicle maintenance and gasoline, and reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions are just a few benefits.

The higher the ride-sharing occupancy rate, and the more people are allowed to use the services, the less cars would be needed – or so the logic goes.

“I think if the cost per mile continues to go down, and if insurance is a bundled service, it’s going to be pretty compelling for some people to use shared cars as their second cars,” Brandes told Watchdog.org in an interview.

When considering shared driverless cars and electric ridesharing vehicles, the potential for change is even more dramatic.

Brandes explained: Electric vehicle operators won’t pay gas taxes. Fewer vehicles mean fewer title fees for the state. Local governments could lose revenue from fewer traffic citations. Parking revenues would decrease, as would demand for urban parking garages.

“This has the potential to change cities, the electric grid, the insurance industry and even health care,” Brandes said, referring to the probability of fewer car accidents.

“It’s all of these different things and it’s going to begin happening within the next 10 to 20 years,” he said. “So how do we get our minds around this?”

Large financial institutions are already engaged.

“The market for private automobile ownership is likely headed for disruption,” predicts Morgan Stanley. A video presentation by Adam Jonas, head of global auto research for Morgan Stanley, provided context for Brandes’ remarks.

In part, the vision was described as an impending evolution in mass public transit that doesn’t require massive taxpayer-funded public transportation projects.

“When you know something big is going to happen but you haven’t begun to feel the effects yet, the focus should be on maximizing our options,” Brandes said. “We’re in a fascinating time.”

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers approved last week’s ridesharing bill, 14-1. The measure faces another House committee and floor action before heading to the Senate, where previous attempts at preempting local government regulations have failed.

New Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is expected to be more receptive this year.

Winter Park businessman Chris King mulling gubernatorial run

Winter Park businessman Chris King is mulling a 2018 Democratic run for governor in Florida, sources close to him said Monday.

While not highly active in Central Florida political circles, King, president and CEO of Elevation Financial Group in Winter Park has been exploring prospects, with national consultants based in Washington D.C., of an outsider’s run with a mixture of liberal social and business-oriented views.

Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times reports that Obama alums Larry Grisolano of AKPD Message and Media and Jeremy Bird of 270 Strategies are closing to joining King’s team.

The son of Marilyn and David King, the latter the Orlando lawyer who represented the League of Women Voters in its successful Fair Districts Amendments legal fights with Florida that forced the state to redistrict Senate and congressional seats, T. Christopher King, 38, runs a company that invests in and manages real estate.

He has spoken at length with the Orlando Sentinel about the need to spur development of affordable housing, and last summer published a guest column in the Sentinel urging Christian churches to embrace the LGBT community, following last summer’s massacre at the popular Orlando gay nightclub Pulse.

King, a Winter Park High School graduate, holds an undergraduate degree in religion, politics and American public policy from Harvard University, where he was elected class marshal; and a law degree from the University of Florida, where he won mock trial competitions.

If King enters the race, he could wind up in a primary battle with several other Democrats, including fellow Orlando-area lawyer John Morgan and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee.

King told Smith that “we have to make a decision in the next 30 to 60 days.”

Orange County molestation convictions overturned after prosecutorial misconduct

A split appellate court panel has thrown out the molestation convictions of an Orlando-area man, saying he was the victim of “egregious prosecutorial misconduct.”

In a 2-1 opinion, a three-judge panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal last week vacated Marco Antonio Rodriguez’s convictions and remanded the case back to the Orange County Circuit court for retrial. He is now serving an 18-year sentence, records show.

Judges James A. Edwards and Richard B. Orfinger also said Rodriguez’s case was compounded by his defense attorney’s “unexplained failure to object.”

They admitted “the jury may have reached the proper verdict, given the evidence in this case,” but nonetheless found he was “denied a fair trial.”

“Appellant’s retrial is not just a ‘do over,’ ” they wrote. “The alleged victim, a child, will once again have to tell her story of familial sexual molestation to a judge and a second jury, while (Rodriguez) will once again be publicly accused and tried for sexually molesting a five-year-old.

“All of the witnesses’ normal schedules will be interrupted as they stand by to testify and attend court,” they added. “Other parties’ trials will be delayed because this case must be tried twice.

“Confidence in our judicial system suffers when prosecutors are permitted to utilize clearly inappropriate closing arguments to convict. Winning at all costs is too high a price to be paid by too many.”

During the prosecutor’s rebuttal part of his closing argument, he “strayed from acceptable zealous representation, repeatedly crossed far beyond the outer limits of acceptable argument, while venturing deeply into the realm of prosecutorial misconduct,” the opinion said.

As one example, he “referred to (Rodriguez) as a ‘pedophile’ ” seven times.

“Inflammatory labels used by a prosecutor to describe the defendant are improper invitations for the jury to return its verdict based on something other than the evidence and applicable law,” the judges wrote.

“Unfortunately and inexplicably, defense counsel sat silently by, never objecting, during the repeated improper comments made by the prosecutor,” the opinion added.

They also criticized the trial judge, noting he had “a duty, even without hearing any objection, to bring a swift and sure end to prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument, especially when it becomes as frequent and flagrant as in this trial.”

“The flood of improper prosecutorial comments in closing argument in this case was deep, wide, and unrelenting,” they said. “(I)t made a mockery of the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial.”

Edwards and Orfinger further ordered “the clerk of this court to provide the Florida Bar with a copy of this opinion, a copy of the trial transcript, and a letter identifying the attorney who prosecuted this case … so that the Bar or on its referral, the Ninth Judicial Circuit’s Local Professionalism Panel, can decide how best to address this lawyer and the unfortunate conduct.”

A third judge, William D. Palmer, issued a two-line dissent, saying “the unobjected-to statements made by the prosecutor, although improper, do not rise to the level of fundamental error.”

Paul Paulson seeds state Ag Commissioner campaign with $120K

Orlando businessman and former lawyer Paul Paulson has seeded his campaign to run for Florida Agriculture Commissioner in 2018 with a $120,000 personal loan.

Paulson, a state committeeman with the Orange County Republican Party and 2015 candidate for Orlando mayor, entered the agriculture commissioner race in late December, seeking to succeed fellow Republican Adam Putnam, who is term-limited out at the end of 2018.

Republican state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Lake Placid also has entered the race.

New campaign finance reports posted by the Florida Division of Elections show he lent his campaign $120,000 in January. He also spent $32,000, with $18,000 of that going to BEAG Inc. political consulting in Maryland and the rest to J.M. Design of Winter Garden for printing. He did not report raising any other money.

However, Paulson said he has hired a fundraiser and is using his personal money to get the infrastructure set up for a statewide campaign.

“I don’t mind putting my money where my mouth is,” Paulson said.

Grimsley raised $40,700 through the end of January, with about half of that transferred in from her last Senate campaign fund, and the rest coming from scores of donors. She’s spent about $36,000, on a variety of items.

Paulson, whose business is mostly in real estate, lost the 2015 mayoral election to incumbent Mayor Buddy Dyer by 30 points. Still, he’s remained a fixture around the City Beautiful, as a director of the Orlando Marathon, administrator of the Breast Cancer Outreach Foundation, and organizer in various veterans’ groups. He is a former Army combat infantry officer.

Paulson, who grew up on a cattle farm in Minnesota, is a member of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, raises cattle in east Orange County, and has a citrus farm in Lake County.

Five routes proposed to extend S.R. 408 eastward on tap Thursday

Five possible corridors are being unveiled publicly to possibly expand Central Florida Expressway Authority’s East-West Expressway eastward toward Brevard County and none of them can avoid going through the environmentally- and politically-sensitive area of East Orange County.

The expressway authority will unveil the five Thursday night at a 5 p.m. public workshop at the Eastpoint Fellowship Church on Old Cheney Highway near Bithlo.

The eastward proposed extension of State Road 408, the main expressway running through the center of Orlando and connecting the east and west sides, has been talked about for at least a decade and there remains no timetable for it to actually get built.

One long-held prospect had it essentially using the current State Road 50 corridor as far east as State Road 528, but last year the Florida Department of Transportation told the authority no, because it has plans to widen S.R. 50, also known as Colonial Drive, on its own.

The area is growing in reputation as one clogged with traffic, and the Orlando metropolitan area’s ties to the Space Coast to the east are growing, so pressure is building to build something.

At the same time, pressure is building to build nothing.

The expressway authority’s latest proposals follow five routes, within roughly a half-mile north or south of S.R. 50, extending from the current last leg of S.R. 408 to roughly where S.R. 50 and S.R. 528 meet between the hamlets of Bithlo and Christmas. The farthest northern corridor roughly follows Lake Pickett Road until it reaches the swampy pasture areas east of Bithlo, then turns south to S.R. 50. The farthest southern route would cut through the Avalon Park community, follow the Econlockhatchee River corridor south, and then turn east to S.R. 528.

All five would require new bridges across the Econonlockhatchee River and all five would enter the pasturelands east of Bithlo, both considered highly-sensitive environmental areas.

Developments in that area – particularly involving the FDOT’s plans to expand S.R. 50, sparked huge political battles in 2016. One large development, titled The Grow, in the Lake Pickett-Econlockhatchee River area, got approved by the Orange County Board of Commissioners, while another, called Sustany, got rejected. Along the way, anti-growth advocate Emily Bonilla got elected to the board of commissioners, upsetting longtime commissioner Ted Edwards, who had voted yes for both developments.

That grassroots opposition – hoping to retain the rural, environmentally-fresh and largely-undeveloped character of Orange County east of the Econlockhatchee River, remains a powerful voice. Bonilla has begun longterm plans to find ways to preserve the area’s character.

The expressway authority is beginning project development and environmental studies on five alternative routes that would push a multi-lane divided, controlled-access toll road eastward through the area.

Spokesman Brian Hutchings said there are no timetables for development of the road, and the no-build option will remain on the table.

Is Orlando a ‘sanctuary city?’ What’s a ‘sanctuary city?’

No one has identified Orlando as one of the “sanctuary cities” providing safe havens for undocumented immigrants while sustaining conservatives’ wrath and potential funding cuts from President Donald Trump‘s orders, but when the question comes up, Orlando responds with a puzzle.

“While it’s not clear exactly what the definition of a “sanctuary city” is, it is clear what Orlando is,” the office of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer responded Friday, in a statement, to a question about a sanctuary city status. “In Orlando, diversity and inclusion are a vital part of our way of life.”

Sanctuary cities can be difficult to identify because they do not have to be overt. Those that use city ordinances or written executive decisions to discourage or ban police from detaining undocumented immigrants, or from turning them over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, and to make sure all city services are extended to all residents regardless of immigration status, are obvious. Others, which discourage or decline to detain or turn over undocumented immigrants, while seeking to extend all services, based on policies or in-house legal interpretations, can have the same impact without codifying the practice.

And cities can pursue such policies to various lengths.

Last month Trump signed an executive order blocking sanctuary cities from qualifying for certain federal assistance.

Dyer, a Democrat, has not made any statements suggesting the city was informally pursuing sanctuary policies, but he also has not refuted the idea.

Orange County Republican Chairman Lew Oliver said he had not heard nor seen anything suggesting it was happening, adding, “My sense is it’s not the kind of thing our mayor or our city would be interested in doing.”

Still, the city’s statement, while making no explicit claims to any sanctuary policies, at least embraces some of the values of sanctuary.

“We have a long history of advancing policies that embrace diversity and celebrate our various cultures, including establishing a non-discrimination ordinance over 40 years ago,” the statement continues, citing various non-discrimination programs.

“This has made our City stronger and a more prosperous place for everyone.”

The statement also discusses how the city responded as united following the June 12 massacre at the popular gay nightclub Pulse, declaring, “we embraced and supported each other, no matter religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. We responded together as one Orlando, a united Orlando.”

“As a City, we remain focused on continuing to find ways to work together to overcome hate, intolerance and injustice and embrace diversity, equality and fairness in Orlando and throughout the nation,” the statement continued. “Part of this effort means ensuring we remain a City and a government that values diversity in all that we do, continuing not to focus on immigration enforcement, but on being the best place in America to live, work, play and raise a family.”

Orange County, Orlando’s alter-ego covering the entire county population with its own ordinances, is clearer. It does not have sanctuary city policies, Mayor Teresa Jacobs said earlier this week in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. Jacobs responded to questions after a dozen or so immigration proponents and others urged the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday to consider adopting sanctuary policies. She said immigration policy was above the county’s authority, and that she believes “cities may find a way to try to intervene in the immigration debate,” Congress and the federal government need to address it.


Report cites Orlando, Miami, for having large undocumented immigrant populations

Miami and Orlando are among the biggest homes in the United States to unauthorized immigrants, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

The report, base on 2014 data analyzed by Pew, estimates that there are 450,000 undocumented immigrants in the Miami-megaplex that includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, ranking the metro area as the fifth largest, behind New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas, but ahead of Chicago and Washington D.C.

In the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford metropolitan area, the report estimates 110,000 unauthorized immigrants, ranking 19th nationally. The Orlando is the nation’s 25th largest metro area.

Pew reports that its analysis shows that the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population is highly concentrated, more so than the U.S. population overall. In 2014, the 20 metro areas with most unauthorized immigrants were home to 6.8 million of them, or 61 percent of the estimated nationwide total. By contrast, only 36 percent of the total U.S. population lived in those metro areas.

The analysis also shows that unauthorized immigrants tend to live where other immigrants live. Among lawful immigrants – including naturalized citizens and noncitizens – 65 percentage lived in those top metros. But not all major metropolitan areas house major populations of unauthorized immigrants.

The Tampa-St Petersburg-Clearwater metro area has about 75,000; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, 35,000; Naples, 30,000; and Jacksonville, Sarasota-Bradenton, and Lakeland-Winter Haven about 20,000 each, according to the Pew report.

Stephanie Murphy lands counter-terrorism, military-readiness committee posts

Freshman U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy‘s professional background in the U.S. Department of Defense has led her to pick up two subcommittee posts overseeing military counter-terrorism and readiness efforts, her office announced Thursday.

Murphy, the Winter Park Democrat who was appointed earlier this year to the House Armed Services Committee, has been assigned to seats on that committee’s subcommittees for Emerging Threats and Capabilities, and Readiness. Murphy once worked as a defense analyst within the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee is responsible for overseeing counter-terrorism programs and initiatives and counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Additionally, this subcommittee oversees U.S. Special Operations Forces, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), information technology and programs, force protection policy and oversight, and related intelligence support.

The Readiness Subcommittee oversees military readiness and training, logistics and maintenance issues and programs, military construction, installations and family housing issues, and the military base closure process. It also oversees civilian personnel, energy security, and environmental issues that affect Department of Defense.

Murphy representas Florida’s 7th Congressional District, covering all of Seminole County and north-central and northeast Orange County, including Maitland, Winter Park and much of Orlando.

“The security of the American people must be our top priority, and I will use my experience at the Pentagon and my roles on the Armed Services Committee to ensure our men and women in uniform have the training, resources, and support they need to keep us safe,” Murphy stated in a news release issued by her office. “Florida is home to numerous active-duty, reserve and National Guard installations and plays a strategic role in our nation’s defenses, so it is important that Florida has a strong voice in Congress as we set defense and military policy. We must also ensure that we are taking care of our veterans and military families who deserve our full support.”

Pulse nightclub massacre: Some patrons upset at not getting funds

Some Pulse nightclub patrons are upset that they aren’t receiving money from a $29.5 million victims’ compensation fund since they were outside the club when the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history began, newly released emails show.

In one email sent to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Pulse patron said he and his boyfriend were in the valet area outside the gay nightclub when a gunman began his attack last June 12 at the club entrance. The patron said they were traumatized but aren’t getting compensation from the OneOrlando Fund because it requires patrons to have been inside to be eligible for funds.

The fund was set up to help out the families of the 49 deceased and the patrons who were inside. It’s distributing money for 305 claims.

“Although it’s impossible to accurately or adequately assess any one individual’s degree of trauma or stress experienced due to the massacre, I think we can all agree that being 10 feet away from the building’s front door after having spent several hours in the company of 49 people who are now dead IS TRAUMATIC,” David Jourdenais wrote the mayor.

That email and others belonging to Dyer and his chief of staff, Frank Billingsley, were obtained through a public records request.

A spokeswoman for the mayor, Cassandra Lafser, said Tuesday that the standards remain unchanged. She said an additional $1 million has come in since the original distribution, and the fund’s board will reconvene to figure out how to distribute the rest of the money.

Other emails show that Orlando city officials are making plans for the anniversary of the massacre, including seeking prominent performers for a possible concert. In a memo, an official wrote that artists are interested in performing but may have scheduling conflicts, according to the emails.

Pulse owner Barbara Poma said in an email to city officials that she wanted to start a dialogue about planning for the anniversary. “I look forward to working together to create a day that will reinforce the strength, compassion and love that has made OrlandoStrong,” Poma said in an email.

Last June, Omar Mateen was killed by police after opening fire at the Pulse nightclub in the rampage that claimed the 49 lives and another 53 wounded. Mateen professed allegiance to the Islamic State group.

The emails also describe the commitment city officials were making toward establishing a memorial at the club – before a deal for the city to buy the nightclub was nixed. Pulse’s owners ultimately decided not to sell the nightclub to the city even though a contract had already been signed by the owners.

Poma said at the time she couldn’t walk away from the property, feeling a personal obligation to make sure a memorial was created at the club she had opened to honor her gay brother, who had died from complications from AIDS.

Emails received by the mayor and chief of staff show how residents had mixed feelings about the city offering to spend $2.25 million on the property, more than half a million dollars above its appraisal value. Some others, however, praised the city for moving ahead with a memorial, which was awaiting approval from the city council before the deal fell apart.

City officials received unsolicited design plans for the memorial from architects and designers around the world.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Disney’s wonderful world may be too good to last

Disney has been on a tear the past few years, thanks to popular channels like ESPN, its “Star Wars” and Marvel superhero franchises, and improving results at its global parks.

Now comes the hard part.

CEO Robert Iger’s contract runs out next year, creating management uncertainty just as Disney needs to keep its lucrative television offerings relevant in a world increasingly dominated by streaming services.

The company faces “a time of transition” as consumers abandon expensive cable subscriptions, said Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne. That shift threatens Disney mainstays such as ABC and ESPN.

Here’s a look at Disney’s evolving realities.


ESPN has been one of Disney’s crown jewels, but with cable viewership on the decline, its ratings have been under pressure.

Disney revenue and profit both fell in the October-December quarter, hurt by a decline at ESPN and tough comparisons to a year ago, when it released “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Profit dropped 14 percent to $2.48 billion on revenue that declined 3 percent to $14.78 billion.

Cable network revenue fell 2 percent to $4.4 billion, hurt by lower ESPN revenue. Disney blamed the ESPN results on higher programming costs and lower advertising revenue, partially offset by affiliate revenue growth.


So Disney has been working hard to adapt to the new realities of online TV watching.

Its channels — ABC, The Disney Channel, ESPN and others — are all part of less expensive “skinny” channel bundles on streaming services such as Sling TV, Sony PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV now.

Disney also took a $1 billion stake in BAMTech , which provides streaming for Major League Baseball. Disney plans to use that technology for an ESPN streaming service, set to launch this year, which will offer live game streaming and programming not offered on regular ESPN.

Disney might also one day offer a standalone streaming version of ESPN, much the way HBO has with its $15-a-month-service HBO Now.

In a conference call with analysts, Iger said Disney won’t rush to offer the ESPN standalone service, in part because the company still makes a lot of money from cable and satellite fees. But he said ultimately it is Disney’s “powerful intent to go out there aggressively with digital offerings directed to consumers for ESPN” and other Disney offerings.

Nomura analyst Anthony DiClemente suggests Disney first wants to see how Hulu’s live TV service, expected in the next few months, fares. Disney owns 30 percent of Hulu, and will benefit from any subscriber growth the live TV service sparks.


Disney is also contending with the looming end of Iger’s contract, which expires in June 2018. Since taking the top role in 2005, Iger has acquired Star Wars owner LucasFilm, Pixar and Marvel and driven improvements in Disney’s consumer products and parks division, most recently with the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, which opened in 2016.

Speculation has been swirling whether Iger will extend his contract in June. There’s no obvious successor at Disney; one heir apparent, COO Tom Staggs, left last year.

Iger, 65, seemed amenable to extending his contract during a conference call with analysts. “If it’s in the best interest of the company for me to extend my term, I’m open to that,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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