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Puerto Rico leaders say evacuees’ needs may last years; Adam Putnam pledges help

The influx of Puerto Rican refugees to Florida may reach the hundreds of thousands, many might stay, and the need to help them recover from Hurricane Maria and assimilate could take years as the commonwealth slowly recovers from the devastation, a group of Central Florida Puerto Rican leaders told Adam Putnam Wednesday.

And the Republican gubernatorial candidate pledged them his help.

Meeting at the Puerto Rico Family Response Center in eastern Orange County, LatinoLeadership Executive Director Marucci Guzman, her husband state Rep. Rene Plasencia, Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Julio Fuentes, Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, and others, Putnam commended Gov. Rick Scott’s efforts to help Puerto Rico, but added that “we have a whole new crisis that needs to be dealt with right here in our backyard in Central Florida.”

The center, established by LatinoLeadership, is providing first-contact responses for Puerto Rico evacuees arriving in Central Florida, either through its desk at the airport or its East Orange location, to help them connect with housing, food, clothing, education, health care and other needs. Estimates offered now top 120,000 Puerto Ricans who have arrived since Oct. 1, mostly in Central Florida, and Guzman, Plasencia, and Fuentes offered that this is only the beginning.

“We need to keep in mind this is an issue that’s ongoing. It’s not just a month ago, it’s not just right now, but it’s going to be a three or four or five year-long process. We don’t know how long it’s going to take Puerto Rico to rebuild, but we do know is we have hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who are looking to us here in Florida, to possibly call this their new home,” said Plasencia, a Republican from Orlando. “And we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can both as communities,whether  as community leaders, as faith leaders, or as just regular citizens who are opening our homes, but also as political leaders who have the power to make things more efficient and the transition more fluid.”

Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and Republican gubernatorial candidate, toured the center, and praised the volunteers “who are working tirelessly to welcome our neighbors and fellow Americans who are at one of the darkest points in their lives.”

With state Sen. Jack Latvala‘s gubernatorial campaign and legislative career in jeopardy due to sexual misconduct allegations, Putnam is currently the only major Republican running. Democrats running include Gwen Graham, who last month had volunteered to help with Puerto Rican assistance at another center, the Acacia Florida Puerto Rican Center about a half-mile down the street, Chris King, Philip Levine, and Andrew Gillum.

Putnam promised to take the concerns he heard at the Puerto Rico Family Response Center, and the model of non-profit assistance he observed, back to the state Capitol.

“This is ground zero. This is the Puerto Rican embassy in Central Florida,” Putnam said of the center. “The word is out. This is where people come when they come to Florida. They come straight here. This is not a glitzy, high-profile government agency. There’re no acronyms. They’re not worried about what their reimbursement rates will be from the Stafford Act [which created FEMA.] This is food goes on the pantry, and the next morning a family goes in and gets the food to feed their family, which they haven’t done in 48 days…. That’s the beauty of what’s going on here: this is really charity in action. This is faith in action. And this is Americans doing what we do best, which is look out for our fellow neighbor.”

He urged people to bring donations over, or to volunteer.

And Putnman said he expects the Florida Legislature to take up the Puerto Rico evacuees’ cause in the upcoming Legislative Session. Among others, state Rep. Bob Cortes, a Republican from Altamonte Springs, is writing a bill to address housing needs for evacuees, as well as the broader shortage of affordable housing in the state.

Putnam said the affordable housing issue predates the hurricanes, and noted places in Florida such as Everglades City and the Florida Keys have major housing shortages now.

“As a state I think it’s important for us to continue to remove any obstacles or red tape that would prevent families to adapting to the new normal in their time of crisis,” Putnam said. “If you have a professional license in Puerto Rico there ought to be minimum interference to using a professional license in the state of Florida. “So I think it’s important that as a state we not allow disaster fatigue creep into our mindset, because there still are thousands of families seeking shelter in our state.”

Fuentes said the estimates of Puerto Rican evacuees could range up to 300,000, representing a true crisis. “Whatever that number is, it’s a lot,” he said. He said Orlando is the center for Puerto Rican migration, but “we are seeing this now in other parts of the state, in Miami, in Tampa and in Jacksonville.”


Bobby Olszewski files bill to restrict hunting of mother black bears

The hunting of black bear mothers of cubs under 100 pounds would be banned in Florida under a bill filed Wednesday by state Rep. Bobby Olszewski.

House Bill 559 also makes harvesting of saw palmetto berries, the primary food of Florida black bears, to be declared petit theft of the second degree.

Olszewski, a Winter Garden Republican who took office last month after a special election, stressed the point that bill would reduce the need for black bears to wander from their habitat into human-occupied areas, including parts of northwest Orange County where black bear-human encounters have been on a steep rise in recent years.

The bill also forbids prescribed burns in known black bear habitats during certain times.

“Central Florida has seen an increase in black bears becoming more prevalent in our residential communities,” Olszewski stated in a news release issued by his office. “This bill will ensure saw palmetto berries, the main staple to a bear’s diet, are not harvested on preserved state lands in addition to protecting young cubs and their nursing mothers. With these additional protections, we can reduce the need for bears leaving their natural environment to search for food.”

The bill is a companion to Senate Bill 156 introduced earlier this year by state Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat.

Jim Gray, Robert Stuart, Regina Hill all re-elected to Orlando City Council

Orlando is virtually a boomtown city and voters are seeing it that way, returning all three incumbent city commissioners, Jim Gray  Robert Stuart and Regina Hill to new terms on the City Council.

With all but provisional ballots counted, Gray easily won a second term, strongly defeating challenger Tom Keen in District 1, 53 percent to 40 percent.

In what turned out to be an expensive, high-profile battle that has drawn a huge voter turnout in their district, Orlando City Commissioner Stuart squeaked to victory  over challenger Asima Azam, 51 percent to 49 percent, a difference of 122 votes.

Hill had the biggest lead over any individual challenger but needed to win 50 percent plus one vote in a crowded field of seven. She did so, barely Tuesday, grabbing 50.2 percent of the vote, well ahead of second-place Ericka Dunlap who drew 25 percent.

Stuart and Gray ran campaigns touting that the city was doing well and their districts were doing well, and they deserved re-election. Both of their opponents had charged that the incumbents had not been responsive, and the districts needed new ideas and new commitments.

Voters agreed with the incumbents.

“I’m excited about it. I think it sends a signal that our community is going in the right direction and we’re thrilled about it,” Stuart said. “We asked our citizens to remember the things that are important to our community and how we move them forward. I think that’s important.”

Hill’s return to office was in a race that involved strong opinions about how the low-income, largely African-American District 5 should respond to development and gentrification issues, as downtown Orlando creeps westward.

Voters gave Hill a vote of confidence, with only Dunlap, a former Miss America who runs a public relations firm, able to break double percentage figures. Among other challengers, Sarah Elbadri, Cynthia Harris, and Jabreel Ali, all grabbed 7 percent; Betty Gelzer, 3; and Ondria James less than 1 percent.

Teresa Jacobs tells Richard Corcoran Orange County, Visit Orlando working on transparency

Orange County and Visit Orlando are working on new rules to open the convention and visitors bureau’s business to more public scrutiny, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs told Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran in a letter sent Monday.

“We believe that the additional transparency measures we plan to implement will greatly enhance the transparency and accountability of VO while still preserving their ability to operate successfully on behalf of our community in a global tourism marketplace, as well as supporting our robust tourism industry and protecting jobs,” Jacobs wrote.

Her letter is in part a response to Corcoran’s ongoing crusade to make Florida’s convention and visitors bureaus and other quasi-public private corporations working for government stop shielding much of their activities and spending with public money from scrutiny. Last Legislative Session, Corcoran led an effort that nearly defund Visit Florida, and this year he’s turned more attention to the local organizations. In August he sent letters to 12 local tourism development councils, and followed up with a second letter in early October to Visit Orlando, demanding accountability and open records.

Visit Orlando, which last year had an $80 million budget, including $51 million that came from Orange County’s tourist development tax, is by far the largest local tourism bureau in the state.

Jacobs earlier responded, in late August, that she was also insisting on new restrictions on Visit Orlando including a requirement that the organization list all its vendors on-line, and another that its sponsorship contracts over $500,000 be reported quarterly to the county.

Now, she wrote, Orange County and Visit Orlando are in talks to push through more reforms. Visit Orlando’s last full contract expired Sept. 30, and the county agreed to a one-year extension including the changes she cited in August. The current talks are on adding more public scrutiny to Visit Orlando’s books and operations, to be incorporated in the next, long-term contract, she assured Corcoran.

Visit Orlando Chief Executive Officer George Aguel confirmed in a statement Tuesday that his corporation was working with Jacobs and her team. Aguel wrote they “have developed even more enhanced measures for 100 percent transparency of all [Tourist Development Tax] funding that Visit Orlando manages.”

“Visit Orlando has a long history of complying with all of the accountability requirements of our contractual relationship with Orange County, and we welcomed the opportunity to work together to further expand our high level of transparency with TDT funds,” Aguel stated. “After extensive research into the competitive landscape as well as collaboration with our business partners, we have carefully developed these additional measures with the mayor and her team that will ensure every dollar of TDT funding to Visit Orlando is transparent. We are optimistic that these measures will still preserve the organization’s ability to operate and market our destination, in what we know is a highly competitive tourism marketplace, so that we maintain Orlando’s critical position as the number one travel destination.”

Jacobs letter to Corcoran, and Aguel’s statement, did not specify all of the “several” changes she said are being pursued. However, Jacobs did delineate one of the problems she wants to address.

“As a regular practice,” she wrote, Visit Orlando spends money on advertising and media through agencies, and only the payments to the agencies are publicly disclosed. So there is no information released showing how the agencies spent the money on Visit Orlando’s behalf, so there is no public disclosure of where the money ultimately winds up, or what it ultimately pays for.

One change she did announce is a new requirement that Visit Orlando contracts be provided to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, so that they can be publicly posted on the Orange County Comptroller’s website.

She also referred to a specific sponsorship contract that she has raised concerns about previously because details have not been released, a contract between Visit Orlando and the United States Tennis Association. That pact included a confidentiality clause that Corcoran, Jacobs, and open-government advocates have charged has been used routinely by quasi-government agencies to shroud how public money is spent and what it buys.

“Additionally, before the end of the year, VO is planning to provide a full analysis of the benefits and costs of the USTA sponsorship agreement, which we will make publicly available,” Jacobs wrote.

She also acknowledged that Corcoran and the Florida Legislature are likely to push for and possibly pass legislation requiring organizations like Visit Orlando to open their books more, and she wrote, “we will ensure that our contract complies with any additional transparency measures that may be forthcoming in the 2018 Legislative Session.”

Then she added, “I would ask for your support in ensuring that whatever additional requirements are placed on VO, also be required uniformly of all CVBs throughout the state.”

Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy, Dennis Ross push funding for Puerto Rico evacuees

Saying more than 90,000 Puerto Ricans already have evacuated to Florida from Hurricane Maria’s devastation and far more are expected, U.S. Reps. Darren Soto, Stephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross have co-signed a letter sent Monday to federal officials urging Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

The letters to U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New York Republican, and Ranking Member  Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and to Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William Long urge full funding for FEMA’s host-state program, and for FEMA to work with Florida to make sure direct payments are made for reimbursements.

Soto and Murphy are Orlando Democrats and Ross is a Lakeland Republican.

The host-state agreement is funded by Congress and allows FEMA to provide direct reimbursements to Florida’s cities for housing, schools, medical care, transportation and other necessary resources provided to evacuees.

“Hurricane Maria decimated the Island of Puerto Rico, resulting in the evacuation of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens to the mainland,” the letters said. “Despite Florida’s best efforts to assist Puerto Rican evacuees, our municipalities lack a sufficient supply of housing to accommodate the recent, and anticipated, arrivals of evacuees from Puerto Rico.”

The letters note that since Oct. 3, more than 90,000 Puerto Rico evacuees have arrived, “a number expected to increase significantly in coming months.”

“Florida’s municipalities and school boards need funds to support the Puerto Rican evacuees,” the letters continue. “They lack the financial resources necessary to develop  and implement a plan necessary to ensure evacuees arriving in Florida have access to appropriate housing, schools, medical care, transportation, and other necessary resources.”

The three Congress members’ districts include areas of Polk, Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties that are absorbing a large portion of the evacuees.

Chris King: Climate change is this generation’s opportunity

Drawing a parallel to President John Kennedy‘s pledge in 1962 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King told a gathering of University of Central Florida students that addressing climate change should be this generation’s great challenge in Florida.

King continued the effort he demonstrated last week speaking to the AP gathering of Tallahassee press to try to draw sharp distinctions between himself and his vision, and those of Republicans, particularly frontrunner Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

He punctuated that with climate change, contending that its an issue that sets him apart from any other gubernatorial candidate, though his Democratic rivals, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, and particularly Philip Levine, the Miami Beach mayor who entered the race last week, also have been pushing the issue.

“We are doing something very different than any other gubernatorial candidate now or in the recent past. We take the position that the environment, rising seas, climate change is a historic challenge to the state of Florida,” King said.

He then reminded the students of Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech, which might have sounded like a preposterous commitment in 1962, considering how far America was from developing the technologies to do so.

“We didn’t have any idea how we were going to do it. But he brought the best minds together, to Florida, to figure out how to do, and you know what happened. Imagine how that relates to rising seas, climate change,” King said.

“This is our generation’s opportunity,” he continued. “I see it as an incredible opportunity, not a problem, for today, not for tomorrow, not to be kicked down the road for another generation to solve, to create the businesses and the products and the services that will allow this peninsula to survive. And we will address that big change.”


Debate commissions forming in Florida, Orange County

A new non-partisan debate commission is being formed for Orange County and another for Florida to partner in and promote candidate debates ranging from county commission races to statewide races, with planning participation at this point from a wide-range of high-profile Central Florida politicos.

Formed by former Orange County Commission candidate Gregory Eisenberg and his partner Natalie Martinez, the Orange County Commission on Local Debates has scheduled its organizational meeting for next Wednesday in Orlando, with a list of organizational planners ranging from Republican former U.S. Senate candidate Todd Wilcox to Democratic former Orange County Chair Linda Chapin.

Eisenberg said the Commission on Local Debates will be looking to partner with established groups such as the Tiger Bay Club, the League of Women Voters, and Business Force, to either co-sponsor debates, or to provide wider exposure to those groups’ debates, by offering broadcasts and distributions of video, audio, and transcripts through social media and other means.

“We want to leverage modern technologies to actually reach people where they are,” Eisenberg said. “There are people serving overseas, disabled Floridan voters, voters totally disengaged from the system, elderly voters. This can really reach everybody. That’s our goal, to rally bring this to our community.”

Leaders of those traditional organizations in Orange County, including Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida’s Vice President Eddie Fernandez, and League of Women Voters Director For Partnerships Sara Isaac, are on the planning committee meeting Wednesday. Others on that committee who have been major figures or are rising stars among Central Florida politicos include former County Commissioner Ted Edwards, [whom Eisenberg ran against last year, with both losing to Emily Bonilla,] consultant and former state Rep. Dick Batchelor, and lawyers Eric Jontz, and Camara Williams.

The Orange County group will be a chapter in a statewide Florida Commission on Local Debates, which Eisenberg said he and Martinez also have formed. He said other county chapters also are envisioned.

The state chapter, he said, will be looking to partner with other organizations statewide to work on gubernatorial and U.S. Senate election debates, while the Orange County chapter and other county chapters would focus on local elections.

The fledgling commission’s bylaws call for firmly bipartisan commissions, with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, and a requirement that at least 10 percent of the seats be held by independent or third-party voters. The commission would not accept political committee nor government funding.



With Matt Matin entry, three Democrats now vying for HD 44

Democrats are now lining up to run in Florida House District 44, a district that, for more than a decade, begged for Democratic candidates.

Real estate agent and former urban planner Matt Matin of Winter Garden filed in late October to run there, and businessman Eddy Dominguez of Dr. Phillips said Thursday he has sent in his paperwork to run, both joining Dawn Marie Antonis, who filed in August.

The trio are seeking a chance to take on newly-sworn-in state Rep. Bobby Olszewski, who won a brutal Republican primary in August and then beat Dominguez in a special election in October to fill what had been a seat vacated last spring by former state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, who left for a judicial appointment.

Republicans have owned the seat for decades. This year’s special election was the first time the Democrats have even fielded a candidate since 2010 and this year’s effort didn’t go so well for Democrats until the very end.

Paul Chandler became the Democratic nominee by default when no one with any significant experience stepped forward, and Chandler feuded with the party, alleging it wasn’t supporting him. He was then struck by a lawsuit challenging his qualification to be on the ballot in the first place. He quit, yet formally dropped off the ballot so late that the Democrats didn’t have time to get a new name on the ballot. Dominguez was recruited for a three-week campaign running under Chandler’s name.

But then something unexpected happened on election night, Oct. 10. Dominguez gave Olszewski a bit of a run. Olszewski won with 56 percent of the vote to Dominguez’s 44 percent, the closest contest that district [and its predecessor district in that area, numbered HD 41] has seen in the entire 21st century.

Olszewski will be back next year. The former Winter Garden Commissioner and longtime community volunteer filed for re-election the day after winning the special election. He’s a strong campaigner with close ties to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, and he’ll have a full session under his belt.

But now Democrats see in HD 44 something they apparently haven’t seen before, something to fight for.

Antonis filed for the 2018 race even before the Oct. 10 special election, and said this week she’s still in it, intending to win.

Dominguez pledged a rematch right away after losing on Oct. 10, but didn’t file right away. “I had filled them out, and they’re in the mail,” he said of his candidate declaration papers. “It should be a matter of time.”

And now Matin has stepped in. A lifelong resident of western Orange County and a member of the Winter Garden Planning and Zoning Board, Matin said he became disillusioned with what happened in the special election. He calls himself an ideas guy with strong concerns about strengthening public education and environmental protection.

“My goal is to be a bridge-builder and work with both sides. My goal is to represent all the constituents of my district, not just those who vote for me,” Matin said. “I think that’s something that’s missing in today’s politics.”


Orange, Osceola, Seminole leaders urge Florida, FEMA to plan better for Puerto Rican refugees

Confusion and concern are mounting as Central Florida governments working with Puerto Rican and Virgin Island evacuees await direction from state and federal officials, leaders of Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties warned Wednesday.

In a letter Wednesday to Florida Division of Emergency Management Interim Director Wesley Maul and copied to FEMA Administrator William Long and Gov. Rick Scott, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Osceola County Chairman Brandon Arrington, and Seminole County Chairman John Horan expressed urgency that state and federal agencies should come up with and share short-term and long-term plans for serving hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Maria evacuees.

“Emergency management staff and several of us personally have been asking for both the short and long term housing plan to no avail. In the absence of a plan, there is the strong potential for chaos and United States citizens from Puerto Rico deserve better,” Jacobs, Arrington, and Horan wrote.

The trio also requested a meeting with state and federal emergency management officials “to gain information as to the short and longer term plans to provide appropriate services and accommodations for evacuees from both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”

Florida Division of Emergency Management Alberto Moscoso reiterated the agency’s position that sheltering efforts are “a local function.” However, he said the agency was ready to meet.

“We have received the letter from Mayor Jacobs and are glad to partner with the mayor, our local partners, and the federal government on this critical issue,” Moscoso said in a written statement. “DEM is completely focused on our shared goal of ensuring that we are meeting the needs of every family recovering from disasters in our state, including those who have evacuated to Florida following Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact.”

The letter expands on concerns that Jacobs has been raising publicly, most recently Tuesday at the Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting, when she stressed that the influx of evacuees, expected to approach 200,000 arriving in Central Florida alone by the end of the year, required planning and coordination of services on a statewide level and that she did not see it yet.

“As communities like ours wait for direction from FEMA and DEM regarding housing for evacuees — many of whom will likely be here for many months as power is restored and their homes are rebuilt — confusion and concern are mounting,” Jacobs, Arrington and Horan wrote.

State cuts in mental health funding hamstring Orange County center

State and federal cuts in funding for mental health services are hamstringing funding for Orange County’s primary center to deal with people in crises because of mental health issues, officials told the Orange County Board of Commissioners Tuesday.

A 40 percent federal cut in grant money used by local mental health diversion centers means a $1.2 million shortfall this year for the county’s central receiving center to assess mental health crises, including those brought in by law enforcement officers seeking to get medical treatment rather than jail time for individuals.

Since its creation 14 years ago, the Belvin Perry, Jr. Central Receiving Center has been viewed statewide as a model to get people swiftly into secure, clinical settings where they can be evaluated. This allows law enforcement officers to quickly return to the street, rather than having to sit in hospital emergency rooms or simply book patients into jails.

Orange County officials are pulling together an ad-hoc plan to replace the funding for this fiscal year but that will require an additional $450,000 in county tax dollars to keep the center open. There is a long term plan of hoping to convince the Florida Legislature to restore state funding for next year, Donna Wyche, manager of mental health and homeless services for Orange County, told county commissioners Tuesday.

That request will come to the board next month.

Wyche outlined the effects of the state budget cuts at the request of Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, who said they were causing long-term problems because lawmakers were being “shortsighted” about immediate state budget savings.

“At the end of the day it’s about public safety. We want to get law enforcement officers back on the street. We want to get people to the place they want to be,” Clarke said.

“The unfortunate thing that we’re hearing is we’re already looking at about a 15 percent cut even before the Legislative Session starts,” she said. “So with that on the horizon, and us [Florida] being 50th in the nation, what I can tell you is, we’re probably one of the most underfunded areas in the state, but at 50th in the nation, probably every county would say the same thing at this juncture.”

The plan Wyche outlined calls Central Florida Cares Health System, a not-for-profit organization contracted by the Department of Children and Families to oversee state-funded mental health and substance abuse treatment services in Orange County, to redirect $450,000 in state funding left over in another program, matched by an Orange County commitment, and for pledges of $150,000 grants from the city’s two largest hospital companies, Orlando Health and Florida. But it’s a one-time deal. The center has an annual budget of just over $3 million, and Orange County already puts up half of that, she said.

The state funding cut comes on top of a lost $20 million federal grant that also was providing some funding for mental health services, so operations already have been cut back, she said.

“We can keep everything operating, not at previous levels for sure, because they took that other hit,” Wyche said later.

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