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As Orange County mayor’s race awaits major candidates, can Rich Crotty run again?

As the future race for Orange County mayor continues to be a mystery involving potential major candidates still thinking about it but none yet committing, one name that keeps coming up raises questions of precedent and interpretation of curious language differences in the county charter.

Former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, who served two-plus terms leading the county’s administration over the past decade, is considering running again. He’s thinking about reclaiming the office that he held for ten years, between the brief tenure of Mel Martinez and the current tenure of Mayor Teresa Jacobs.

Crotty told FloridaPolitics.com that he is being “strongly encouraged” to run for the 2018 opening. Jacobs is certainly barred from running for re-election, by the charter’s term-limit language.

Crotty’s potential candidacy is like that of at least a couple of others — notably Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings or former Florida Speaker Andy Gardiner — with weight is so intimidating that other potential candidates are sitting back, waiting to see if they do or don’t, before stepping in.

No major candidates have entered the race yet. The seat is non-partisan, so, though party affiliations will be critical to lining up support, and potentially in winning votes, they won’t appear on the ballot.

But unlike Democrat Demings, Republican Gardiner, Republican Orange County School Board Chair Bill Sublette, Democratic Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh, Democratic Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, former Republican Orange County commissioners Scott Boyd and John Martinez, and other talked-about Orange County mayoral candidates including Orlando’s chamber of commerce chair Rob Panepinto, a Republican, and former Republican Clerk of Courts Eddie Fernandez, Crotty’s possible candidacy might be challenged on a legal interpretation.

The Orange County Charter has untested language about whether someone can run for a third term as mayor, and no one has ever tried.

Current Orange County Attorney Jeffrey Newton, and the lawyer who wrote that language in the late 1980s, Linda Weinberg, both said they believe the door is open to a third term because it is nonconsecutive.

Others who might not want to see Crotty in the race, might challenge that, arguing that the language seems to limit the mayor to two full terms.

“The county mayor shall be elected for a term of four years and shall be limited to two full consecutive terms,” is how the Orange County Charter states it.

That is distinctly different from the language written on the term limits of county commissioners, and commissioners have run for three nonconsecutive terms.

The commissioners’ charter language reads:

“A county commissioner who has held the same commission district office for the preceding two full terms is prohibited from appearing on the ballot for re-election to that office.”

So was the mayor’s term limit language written differently, in order to limit the mayor differently?

As Weinberg recalls, no.

“While the language is quite different, they both essentially provide that the elected official is limited to two consecutive terms and then cannot run for re-election during the next election cycle,” she stated, responding to a question from Orlando-Rising. “However, there is nothing that expressly prohibits either a commissioner or the mayor for running for election to the same office at a future time. And indeed, there was never any discussion or intent to prohibit a mayor from ever seeking the office again after having served his or her two terms.

“I believe the language is different because that section related to the mayoral terms has not been modified since the original charter, whereas the section related to terms for county commissioners has been modified on a number of occasions [we went to single-member commission districts and redistricting,]” she continued.

“I suspect that a lawyer involved in the re-drafting process felt like they could draft that provision more clearly.”

Rene Plasencia stars in Airbnb promotional video

Republican state Rep. Rene Plasencia and his family are starring in a new promotional internet video released Friday by the vacation rental home marketing giant Airbnb.

The minute, 41-second video shows interviews with Plasencia, his wife Marucci Guzman, and her daughter [his stepdaughter,] in scenes at vacation homes they have rented through Airbnb in Georgia and Tallahassee, as Plasencia and Guzman sing the praises of Airbnb.

They talk about the price, convenience, and other advantages of renting lodging through Airbnb, rather than hotels, for both pleasure trips and extended stays in Tallahassee for Florida Legislative Session business.

“Yeah, I would definitely recommend Airbnb for other travelers for either,” Plasencia says. “Really, for fun.”

Among the shots in the video are scenes from Plasencia’s and Guzman’s February wedding at the rustic cabin they rent regularly in Georgia.

The video also features the homeowner of the house Plasencia and Guzman rent in Tallahassee, identified as Quincie, who talks about the friendship she’s developed with them. So the video also aims at promoting to future Airbnb homeowner clients.

“Well, that’s the bonus. It’s just not all about the money,” Quincie says of the friendship.

Plasencia was not immediately available Friday to discuss the video.

He was not paid for the video, according to Airbnb.

Plasencia abstained from voting yesterday when the House of Representatives considered House Bill 425, which would have assisted Airbnb’s business, by imposing a statewide deregulation of local ordinances restricting vacation rental homes. The House voted down two amendments to the bill, without Plasencia’s votes.

He is not on any of the three committees that held hearings and voted in favor of HB 425.

HB 425 now is up for a third reading and House vote.

Rick Scott, Pam Bondi answer Aramis Ayala’s suit: she’s not practicing discretion

Gov. Rick Scott together with Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a 60-page response to Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala‘s charge that he overstepped his authority in reassigning her cases, contending Ayala has asked him to reassign other cases, and that her argument of “prosecutorial discretion” is actually one seeking no discretion.

Scott’s response, filed late Wednesday with the Florida Supreme Court, also contends that the weight of history and past court decisions all are on his side, and the ramifications of Ayala’s claims would upset a great deal of Florida legal and government precedent and practice.

“If accepted, those claims will have vast, long-lasting, and likely unforeseeable implications for the administration of criminal justice in this State,” Scott’s response concludes. “Even if the Petition’s claims did not fail as a matter of law, this Court should decline the invitation to render an authoritative judgment on these weighty issues on the basis of conclusory and disputed factual allegations.”

The battle is over Ayala’s determination to not pursue death penalty prosecutions in her 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties. It’s also over Scott’s executive response to that March 16 declaration, his executive orders stripping 23 first-degree murder cases from her and reassigning them to 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King of Ocala.

Scott argued he issued the orders against Ayala’s will as a Florida governor has the legal authority to do so of “good and sufficient reason,” as he “determines that the ends of justice would be best served.”

In her writ for quo warrento filed with the Supreme Court on April 11, Ayala charged that as an elected state attorney she has exclusive prosecutorial discretion to decide how to prosecute criminal cases and that Scott did not have the authority to overrule her decisions simply because he disagrees with them.

Numerous outside legal, Civil Rights, prosecutorial, and other groups and individuals have filed amicus briefs – friends of the court – taking sides and laying out additional arguments, indicating what Scott acknowledged in his answer, that the the case has vast, long-lasting and likely unforeseeable implications for justice in Florida.

Ayala’s attorney Roy Austin Jr. replied with the following statement:

“Gov. Scott’s response shows that he continues to overstate his power under Florida law. As one example of his baseless arguments, he criticizes State Attorney Ayala after he specifically ordered her office to turn over all matters related to Markeith Loyd.

“What Gov. Scott has done is an illegal and unprecedented power grab that threatens the independence and integrity of Florida’s judicial system, and we look forward to responding to this filing by May 8.”

Scott’s response makes five arguments:

– Case reassignments by the governor have been common going back to at least 1905, and including all the time since Ayala maintains key Constitution Amendments and law changes favored her. In fact, Scott noted, Ayala herself has requested six reassignments and Scott complied and reassigned four of those for her – all to King, her suggestion.

“Indeed, this Court has ruled that the Governor’s reassignment power is “essential to the orderly conduct of the government and the execution of the laws of this State,” the governor’s brief argues.

– Scott argues that his orders ensure prosecutorial discretion where there was none, not the other way around. He said Ayala’s declaration was essentially that she would not practice case-by-case discretion, while King is free to do so.

King, Scott argues, “is conducting a case-specific review of each matter. State Attorney King retains full discretion not to seek the death penalty in each case and has already determined (based on a preliminary review) that the death penalty may not be appropriate in some of the 23 assigned cases.”

– Scott argues that the case is not about Ayala’s right to not pursue death penalties regardless of circumstances, but any state attorney’s inclination to not pursue anything in particular he or she might not want to pursue, a far too broad prospect for the court to allow.

“It will also apply to prosecutors who disagree with other kinds of criminal laws and penalties—including, for example, hate-crimes enhancements, laws that ban the open carrying of firearms, and campaign-finance regulations,” the brief argues. “Nor can Ayala’s theory of ‘absolute’ and preclusive discretion be confined to prosecutors who adopt across-the-board policies of NEVER enforcing certain statutes. Some locally elected prosecutors may commit to ALWAYS pursuing certain charges or severe sentencing enhancements [such as mandatory minimum sentences] whenever possible and regardless of circumstances.”

– Scott argues that regardless of whether Ayala has a right to refuse certain prosecutions, it does not negate the governor’s right to reassign cases anytime he feels it’s appropriate for the ends of justice to be served.

– And fifth, Scott argues that, all of that aside, Ayala’s request is extraordinary and she has not met the burden of proof to ask the court to consider such major changes in Florida’s prosecutorial and governmental traditions.

“Ayala cannot properly ask this Court to render an authoritative judgment immediately and conclusively accepting such sweeping and far-reaching departures from existing law where, as here, that judgment would necessarily depend upon the acceptance of the emergency petition’s conclusory and heavily disputed factual allegations,” the brief argues.

Donald Trump tweets on Puerto Rico infuriate Puerto Ricans, raise budget deal questions

President Donald Trump has thrown Puerto Rico into his Twitter cannon, bringing angry responses from Puerto Rican leaders and activists in Florida, including from Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, who charged Trump was declaring war against Puerto Rico.

The president sent out two tweets, one Wednesday night and one Thursday morning, tying Puerto Rico relief to Democrats’ budget demands – and declaring that he won’t go for it.

Behind the tweets is a quiet little budget battle also coming to the attention of Puerto Ricans, as Democrats and Republicans work on a deal to help the island. But there also are disputed reports the pact could pit two desperate island needs against each other: relief for health care, and relief from crushing debts, potentially dividing Puerto Ricans.

But Trump’s tweets appear to focus on his opposition to providing anything to help the islanders, and on that point Puerto Ricans in Florida are shouting back in unison.

“Democrats are trying to bail out insurance companies from disasters #ObamaCare, and Puerto Rico with your tax dollars. Sad!” was the first tweet.

“The Democrats want to shut government if we don’t bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. No!” read the second.

“This is absolutely FALSE,” said Orlando activist Phillip Arroyo, founder of the Coalition for Puerto Rico Justice in Orlando, contending that Puerto Ricans are only seeking equity.

“President Donald Trump has declared war against Puerto Rico,” charged Soto, the Orlando Democrat who is of Puerto Rican descent and whose Florida’s 9th Congressional District has hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican residents.

“Mr Trump continuing in his role as Divider in Chief, has his new staw man,” bemoaned Anthony Suarez, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Central Florida. “During the election, it was the Mexicans, and undocumented individuals. Now it is the Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens but have no voice in Congress to protect their interest.

“Why? Because they were invaded by U.S. forces in 1898 and kept as a ‘territory’ without rights for 119 years,” Suarez continued. “Perfect straw men for attempting to balance his budget priorities.”

Other Puerto Rican voices are responding widespread, particularly throughout Central Florida, ground zero for the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florid. Responses are coming through social media, decrying Trump’s apparent dismissal of the struggling American territory as abandonment and worse.

The president’s tweets are an apparent reference to a deal being negotiated by Democrats and Republicans in Congress this week.

Democrats are pushing to provide at least $500 million in the budget for additional Medicaid coverage and health care relief for under-covered Puerto Ricans. [At least one published report suggested $600 million.] Republicans reportedly have countered with an offer of $146 million. Negotiations are underway.

“He [Trump] is attacking our push for $500 million in Medicaid and Affordable Care Act funding for the island,” Soto stated. “We Puerto Ricans are American citizens who serve in large numbers in the U.S. Military and pay numerous U.S. taxes. Our Dem votes are essential to pass the budget and we’ll continue to fight for our values. We are not asking for a bailout we are asking for equal treatment”-

Puerto Rico is suffering from separate but related crises, a collapse of its federally under-funded [compared with states] health care system, leading doctors and other medical professionals to flee the island in droves because they can’t get paid; and an economic collapse starting from $75 billion in government debt the commonwealth has declared it cannot pay, which is leading to widespread cutbacks and even closures of schools, hospitals, utilities, police, fire, and other public services.

The PROMESA deal struck last year was to address the problems through economic, regulatory and law reforms, federally-manded austerity measures, some creative financing proposals, and some critical debt restructuring. But now that too may be on the line.

Reports Wednesday and Thursday indicated that the Congressional budget deal in the works may also come with a hitch that already is dividing Puerto Ricans on the prospect: health care relief – in exchange for a delay or revocation of debt relief mechanisms set up in PROMESA.

Soto indicated he has not seen or heard anything about such a hitch being included in negotiations.

He said he has spoken with key Democratic negotiators about the matter, including House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey of New York.

Still, if such a hitch does appear in a budget deal, opposition likely would arise quickly among stateside Puerto Ricans. It’s already arising.

“Darren Soto or any other member of Congress should not celebrate if the $600 million in health care for Puerto Rico is approved in the U.S. Congress,” Arroyo said. “We already know the funds approval was conditioned on exchange of freezing Puerto Rico’s ability to restructure its debt so hedge funds and bondholders can continue to get paid while school on the island are shut down.”

 

Fate takes a hand in whiskey & Wheaties bill as Amy Mercado cares for her parents

Sometimes fate plays that unexpected card that makes all the difference, such as Wednesday when the Florida House of Representatives narrowly approved the controversial “whiskey & Wheaties” bill, allowing whiskey to be sold in grocery stores.

Earlier that day a 30-year-old Monticello man driving in Tallahassee was distracted by a device, didn’t see the red light, and slammed his SUV into the back of a car stopped at the light. Victor and Carmen Torres in that car were injured, and transported to the hospital by ambulance.

Victor Torres happens to be a Democratic state senator from Orlando; but the real connection in this narrative is that he and Carmen are parents of Democratic state Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando.

Mercado rushed to the hospital to be with her parents, taking leave of the House of Representatives’ session.

In her absence, the House approved Senate Bill 106 by one vote: 58-57, sending it to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott.

The Torreses were eventually released from the hospital, fine, but hurting.

“I have been against the bill from the beginning, so if I was in the chamber today [and not in the hospital with my parents] my vote would have been a no and made it a tie,” Mercado wrote last night on Facebook. “Therefore, my one vote could have killed the bill.”

Stephanie Murphy introduces bills to address North Korea, Asia-Pacific security

Winter Park Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy is introducing two bills aimed at addressing international security concerns with North Korea and the Asian-Pacific theater.

Her bills, which she discussed Wednesday in a committee hearing and again on the floor of the House of Representatives, would require the U.S. intelligence and diplomatic agencies to set up special units to deal with both areas.

One bill,  the “North Korea Intelligence Enhancement Act,” would require the director of national intelligence to create a North Korea-focused integration cell, consisting of experts who would streamline, synthesize and synchronize intelligence on North Korea so that U.S. policymakers have the best information possible upon which to base decisions.

The other,  the “Asia-Pacific Defense Commission Act,” would create a commission of U.S. security officials and their counterparts from allies to ensure stability of the Asia-Pacific region, by working on issues ranging from terrorist networks to international intelligence coordination, and from cyber-security to free navigation of international waters.

Murphy is a former U.S. Defense Department national security analyst who now sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

Neither bill has been assigned a number yet.  Murphy discussed them both during an Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday with Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Navy Admiral Harry B. Harris, and then again Wednesday on the House floor,

“North Korea is a difficult intelligence target. It is a secretive society where dissent is severely punished. This makes the recruitment of human sources inside the country very challenging. Moreover, high-level defectors from North Korea with intelligence about the regime are rare,” Murphy said on the House floor.

The unit her bill would seek to create, “would seek to ensure that the U.S. government is collecting intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, missile programs, weapon sales, and other activities that violate U.N. sanctions,” she continued. “The cell would also work to make certain that this intelligence is efficiently disseminated to the appropriate national security policymakers so it can inform decision-making.”

She also discussed both economic opportunities and  security challenges involving the 40 countries of the broader Asia-Pacific region that have 60 percent of the world population. She cited  “senior American officials” as describing the area as “the most consequential region for the future of our country.”

“I think you may agree that the strengths of our relationships in the region come from trust, credibility and across time,” Murphy told Harris in the committee hearing. “These measures are meant to send a clear signal both to our allies and our adversaries that the U.S. is committed to the Asia-Pacific region in a credible and enduring manner.”

Victor Torres, wife Carmen Torres, recovering after car crash

Orlando Democratic State Sen. Victor Torres and his wife Carmen Torres were injured in a car crash Wednesday morning in Tallahassee but have been released from the hospital.

The three-car crash – with the Torreses in the middle – occurred early Wednesday right in front of the Capitol Building, at the corner of Apalachee Parkway and Calhoun Street, said their daughter, state Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando.

“They are OK,” Mercado said. “Obviously they are going to have a little pain, but they are good.”

The Torreses were treated at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare and released a short time ago, according to Sen. Torres’s Facebook page.

“Thank you for all the well wishes & prayers, Carmen & I have left the hospital and aside from being a little sore, everyone is ok!” he posted.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Torres and the driver in front of him were stopped for the red light on Apalachee at Calhoun at 8 a.m. A 1999 Toyota Tacoma slammed into the rear of Torres’s car, pushing it into the car in front of him. The patrol reported that the Toyota driver, John B. Williams of Monticello, was distracted by an electronic device and failed to stop. He was cited for careless driving.

The Torreses and the driver of the front car were all taken by ambulance to Tallahassee Memorial.

Supreme Court denies Aramis Ayala’s first writ to win back cases Rick Scott reassigned

The Florida Supreme Court denied the first attempt by Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala to win back first-degree murder cases that Gov. Rick Scott reassigned to another state attorney.

In denying Ayala’s emergency, non-routine petition to overturn Scott’s executive orders reassigning the cases to Ocala’s State Attorney Brad King, the Supreme Court concluded that the matter “is more properly addressed” through her other legal challenge, a writ of quo warranto, which she later filed.

That leaves the matter where most expected it to be left, in her second challenge of Scott’s action, a case that has drawn broad support for both Ayala and Scott from a variety of outside groups who expect the ruling to be pivotal in determining the extent of powers in Florida of both the state attorney and the governor.

At issue are Ayala’s refusal to pursue death penalty prosecutions in her 9th Judicial Circuit, and Scott’s determination that she is derelict in her duties, giving him the responsibility to reassign potential death penalty cases to someone else, in this case to King in Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit.

In a ruling issued late Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied the first petition from Ayala, stating, “The Petition asks this Court to answer the same question of law, on a temporary basis, that the Court is asked to address in the separately filed Petition for Writ of Quo Warranto. That question is more properly addressed after both parties have been heard in the Quo Warranto action and will not be answered on a “temporary” basis.”

OC Property Appraiser Rick Singh sues to get at mysterious PACs he says libeled him in campaign

Saying he’d had enough and isn’t taking it anymore, Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh announced he’s suing to find out who was behind political action committees that ran a smear campaign against him in last year’s election.

Flanked by his lawyers at Morgan & Morgan, two Orlando political heavyweights, Frank Kruppenbacher and former Judge Belvin Perry, Singh announced he is suing for libel over attack ads and other campaign events that he says raised false accusations about his past during his re-election to property appraiser.

The suit is being filed in circuit court for the 9th Judicial Circuit. It contends that outside money was covertly funneled into two Orange County PAC known as Leadership For Florida, and For a Better Orange County, to run an independent smear campaign, spreading falsehoods about Singh’s past. The PACs were not properly registered. The suit does not name individuals, and goes after John and Mary Does, but Kruppenbacher and Perry pledged that it ultimately would.

Singh’s opponent in last year’s election, Edward DeAguilera, always maintained he knew nothing about the two PACs or their campaign.

Kruppenbacher said those falsehoods included claims that Singh was arrested for shoplifting in 1988, that he lost a judgment in 1993, that he changed his name to hide his past, and that he committed a felony by not disclosing his past on an affidavit. Singh said at least $3.4 million was funneled into those two PACs to run TV, internet, mailer and other advertising, and campaign communications.

The suit may have statewide ramifications.

Kruppenbacher, a Republican fundraiser and political appointee, and Perry, a retired 9th Judicial Circuit chief judge, insisted Wednesday that they want to upend the statewide practice of dark money and shadowy operatives using political action committees to try to ruin certain candidates’ reputations.

“During the last year or so throughout this nation, we have seen outside interests use their money to get involved in campaigns… by spreading falsehoods and attacking folks with mailers that are not true,” Perry said. “This seriously affects our Democratic process.”

Kruppenbacher said he knows of no similar campaign libel suits that sought to trace the sources of money and direction of an independent campaign.

In this case, the money trail appears to have possible stops in Orange County, Duval County, Lee County and Leon County.

“I think people do this thinking nobody will ever know we did it. And somebody big wrote” checks, Kruppenbacher said.

The suit also would have immediate implications for the Orange County political scene.

Singh is openly contemplating a run for Orange County mayor in 2018. And though he denied Tuesday that the suit is an attempt to clear out old allegations against him before he runs again, it does send a message that he’s willing to fight back in court against any claims he contends to be false.

It also could have ramifications for some of Central Florida’s – and Florida’s – business heavyweights.

It’s no secret that Singh’s aggressive reappraisals of commercial properties have brought ire and lawsuits from powerful entities, including Walt Disney World, Sea World, Universal Orlando, and many of the big hotel and other business groups in Orlando’s tourism corridor.

Kruppenbacher said the suit intends to use the discovery process to follow the money and direction of the campaign against Singh wherever it might go. He refused to speculate as whether that might include the tourist business giants who already are taking on Singh’s appraisals in court. But Kruppenbacher said he does expect the ultimate source to be commercial, entities that are losing money because of how Singh is running the property appraiser’s office.

“We decided that when we’re ready to name individuals, we’re going to name them all at one time,” Kruppenbacher said. “We do have information that a number of people conspired knowingly.”

“We are trying to shine the spotlight on those individuals so that they can’t throw a rock and hide,” Perry said.

“That’s one of the goals, but the ultimate goal is to get people to stop this kind of foolishness,” he added.

Morgan & Morgan is taking on the case on a contingency fee. Kruppenbacher said Singh agreed that any recovered damages that he receives would be donated to charity.

Sean Buchan of Winter Haven enters CD 9 Republican field

A second Republican candidate, political newcomer, banker and veteran Sean A. Buchan of Winter Haven, has entered the race for Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

Buchan, 31, a banker with Wells Fargo Bank in Winter Haven, filed to run late last week, joining last year’s GOP nominee Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud in hoping to take down Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto in the 2018 election.

“The time is right,” Buchan stated of his entry into politics.

Married with two children, Buchan spent eight years in the U.S. Marines and two in the Army, and served two tours in Iraq.

His top concern is the economy which he described as “doing better, but not well enough,” particularly in Polk and Osceola counties, which he said are in need of across-the-board jobs from technical trades to high-tech.

He also stressed national security as a critical concern, and expressed a strong desire for tax reform that simplifies the system for tax payers.

CD 9 includes most of south Orange County, all of Osceola and much of eastern Polk. Last year Soto, a former state senator, defeated Liebnitzky, to replace two-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. Liebnitzky won in Polk but Soto handily carried the vote in the other two counties.

Buchan said he’s currently reaching out to county Republican executive committees and Young Republican clubs to begin pulling together support and organization.

 

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