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Police and firefighter organizations give nod to Darden Rice

Two key first responders’ groups are giving support to St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice in her bid for re-election to the city body, according to a press release Tuesday.

The Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association and the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters issued a joint statement praising Rice’s commitment to the city.

“I’m deeply honored to have the support of our police officers and firefighters,” Rice, who represents St. Petersburg’s 4th District, said in the statement. “The work these public servants do every day to keep our city safe is extraordinary and deeply appreciated. I look forward to continuing the progress we’ve made.”

She was elected to office in November 2013, representing 10 precincts.

Rice announced her bid for re-election in February, raising more than $23,000 in the following two weeks, Tuesday’s statement said.

“Darden is a strong leader we can count on,” Richard Pauley, president of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, also said in the press release. “We know she will continue to honorably serve the citizens of St. Petersburg and the interests of the men and women in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services.”

Rice defeated neurosurgeon and Tea Party activist David McKalip in 2013.

She is a strong favorite to be re-elected, no candidates opposing her yet for the August primary.

“We are proud to endorse Darden,” George Lofton, president of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, said in the statement. “She’s a trusted ally of our officers and a vocal supporter of safer streets and stronger neighborhoods on council. Darden understands the crucial role our police officers play in making our city safer and we look forward to continuing to work with her.”

In January, Rice, 46, announced she has begun treatment for breast cancer.

‘Policy wonk’ John Johnson plans listening tour for St. Pete City Council bid

John Johnson, a research administrator at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is the latest candidate to file in the crowded St. Petersburg City Council District 6 contest.

The 46-year-old native Ohio resident calls himself a policy wonk, not a politician. 

“My background is education, so I’m a strong believer in education, and what it can do at all levels,” he said in an interview on Monday. “If we can improve primary education, if we can partner with some of the colleges and universities that are here, which we do some now, if we can do more of that, more mentoring, more stuff like that, I think that’s really the way to change people’s lives.”

Johnson has worked his entire professional career in higher education, having served in the New York University system for more than 22 years. A regular visitor to St. Petersburg for over a decade, he and his husband decided five years ago to leave Brooklyn and come to the ‘Berg, even though he didn’t have a firm job offer in hand (they had been regularly visiting the area to take care of an ill parent). He found work relatively quickly at Eckerd College and then moved to USFSP when his current position became available.

Johnson’s Master’s Degree is in public policy, and says he’s always had an interest in politics but “as a gay man, I never really thought that I would be able to get into it, but times have changed.”

In fact, the current Council has three members from the LGBT community: Chair Darden Rice, Steve Kornell and Amy Foster.

In a statement, Johnson says he was angry after last year’s president election but was revitalized after attending the women’s march in St. Petersburg on January 21. “Up to that point I was feeling angry and powerless given what was going on in the country and in my life,” he says. “Seeing the diverse group of people coming together in a positive progressive manner really inspired me to think about what I can do to make a change.”

Johnson calls himself a “political novice,” never having run for office before. He says he’s just reaching out to people who work in politics to get a sense of what he’s in for.

On the issues, Johnson says he doesn’t believe there’s enough historical preservation happening in the city, joking that he doesn’t want to end up looking like Fort Lauderdale.

He’s heard some people question the need for a Pier given how much Beach Drive is thriving downtown. “I would like to see a new Pier there, and I am progressive in almost all of my policies, but there’s a bit of fiscal restraint in me where I want to understand how we’re doing this,” he says of the project’s escalating price tag.

Regarding the Tampa Bay Rays quest for a new ballpark, which could very well end up back in St. Petersburg, Johnson says he “has a problem with dumping a lot of city taxes to owners,” but is optimistic that any deal will be a positive one for city taxpayers.

Johnson is the fifth candidate to enter the race. Other announced candidates include Corey Givens Jr., Sharon Russ, Maria Scruggs and Akile Cainion.

Johnson lives in the Old Northeast, the most northern part of District 6. He says that his plan is to go to other areas of the district on a “listening tour” of sorts, to understand the needs of other communities in the district.

“If f I want to represent I need to represent the entire district, and that’s gong to take a lot of listening, and not coming in with some set ideas, about A, B, and C,” he says.

District 6 is considered one of the most diverse areas in St. Petersburg, running from the Old Northeast through downtown west to Midtown, then south to Bahama Shores. Karl Nurse has held the seat for the past nine years, after initially appointed by then-Mayor Rick Baker in 2008 and then winning an election on his own in 2009, becoming the first white man to win the district in 30 years. He easily won re-election in 2013.

February trial date set for John Jonchuck, accused of throwing daughter off St. Pete bridge

A Pinellas County court set a trial date for John Jonchuck, arrested in 2015 for throwing his 5-year-old daughter off a St. Petersburg bridge.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Monday that the trial will begin early February.

In a pretrial hearing Monday, Jonchuck’s three public defenders listened as Pinellas County Circuit Judge Chris Helinger announced the proceedings would begin Feb. 5, 2018, roughly three years after Jonchuck inexplicably threw Phoebe Jonchuck off the Dick Misener Bridge, according to the Times.

The case had been anticipated to begin in fall, and the attorneys from the state attorney’s office requested such, but the judge took into account treatment regimen at a state mental health hospital located in Gainesville, where he is given medicinal injections for bipolar disorder every 28 days, agencies reported.

Jonchuck was not present at Monday’s hearing, said a public information officer working for the courts. He is charged with first-degree murder.

Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele said her team needed more time for pretrial preparations, like depositions, the Times reported, and to speak with their client, with whom they have not had any contact in roughly two years.

The defendant was found competent to stand trial in early March.

The narrative has been that on the night of Jan. 8, 2015, Jonchuck’s white PT Cruiser was spotted speeding in traffic by an off-duty St. Petersburg police officer. Jonchuck raced to the bridge, stopping his car in traffic at a point on the bridge, taking his daughter from the car.

He reportedly held her tightly, the officer — who tried to rush and assist the girl, Phoebe — before Jonchuck held her over the railing and let go.

The crime shook area residents, prompting the Department of Children and Families to review their emergency call procedures.

Charlie Crist to host health care telephone town hall meeting Tuesday

Charlie Crist wants to hear from constituents about ways to improve health care in America

The St. Petersburg Democrat is hosting a telephone town hall meeting on the subject Tuesday night.

On Friday afternoon, Crist cheered the news that House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the vote on the American Health Care Act because there wasn’t enough support among Republicans.

Crist called the decision a “win for the American people.”

“It was a bad bill, plain and simple,” Crist said in a statement Friday. “It would have harmed our seniors, and particularly those who often don’t have a voice in the debate – ‘the least among us’ if you will, the poor and the disabled.”

Crist, a former Republican, has been consistent in his rhetoric since going to Washington in January that, when possible, he is willing to work with the Trump administration to improve the lives of Americans. “We have the opportunity now to drop the rhetoric, roll up our sleeves, and work together to fix what needs fixing to bring down costs, expand access, and protect the most vulnerable in our society,” he says.

At this point, nobody is sure if Republicans will attempt to take another crack at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, which remains the law of the land. Crist is a supporter of the ACA, but says it needs improvements.

Speaking in the Oval Office Friday, Donald Trump blamed Democrats for unanimously opposing the bill, saying Obamacare would soon “explode.”

“Now the Democrats own Obamacare 100 percent,” he said. They own it. It’s exploding now, and it’s going to be a very bad year. There are going to be explosive premium increases.”

If you want to participate in Crist’s telephone town hall, you need to register by 5 p.m. on Monday, which you can do so by going here.

Crist held a four-hour town hall meeting in St. Petersburg earlier this month.

Joe Henderson: Proposed new transportation agency a good start toward solving an old problem

Short of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, the surest way to get a headache is to wade deep into Tampa Bay area transportation problems. You encounter a mishmash of competing agencies and agendas that has resulted in legislative and automotive gridlock for frustrated commuters for years.

Given that, I’m encouraged by what is coming out of Tallahassee. A pair of Republican legislators — state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and state Rep. Dan Raulerson of Plant City — have introduced bills that would create a five-county regional transit agency.

Hernando County is a late addition to a group including Manatee, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas.

But wait, you say. Didn’t the Legislature already try something like that?

Yep.

A decade ago, Tallahassee gave us the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority — known in wonk terms as TBARTA. Its scope was as large as its acronym, an attempt to bring seven counties together under a single transportation tent.

Nice sentiment, but poor execution. Trying to meet the needs of seven counties proved unwieldy.

“What Jack and I are trying to do is tweak this thing,” Raulerson said. “We want to get everybody moving in the same direction so we can put together a plan and get federal money for this. We have been woefully short there.”

The revamped board would have 13 members — seven elected officials, and six from the private sector. The elected officials likely will include the mayors from Tampa and St. Petersburg along with a commissioner from each county affected.

“That part is a work in progress right now,” Raulerson said. “But it is important to have more elected officials on the board because that provides for transparency and accountability.”

Both bills have sailed through their respective committees and appear to be gaining local acceptance. Tampa Bay Partnership President Rick Homans gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the plan, telling Mitch Perry of FloridaPolitics.com, “ … we realized that in order to get this started, we needed to have the right kind of planning and the right operational structure in place that will give us a greater chance of success.”

During committee hearings on the proposed bills, some lawmakers were skeptical that a new regional transportation agency would just be more of the same. Given the history on this issue, I certainly understand that point of view.

But I do like that this new authority would be smaller and focused on the counties of greatest need. Having Latvala and Raulerson behind this doesn’t hurt, either. Not only are they capable of guiding this from proposal to reality, they also represent both sides of Tampa Bay.

How soon can this happen?

“Once this becomes law, we probably need to have a good plan in place to take to the feds within 12 months,” Raulerson said. “The good news on that is that there already are a lot of plans out there, so we wouldn’t be starting from scratch. We just need to get moving.”

Tampa Bay Partnership on board with Jack Latvala-Dan Raulerson bill creating regional transit agency

Legislation that would create a regional transit agency connecting four Tampa Bay-area counties breezed through committees in both the House and Senate last week.

The proposed agency would be created in advance of a much anticipated Florida Dept. of Transportation transit study scheduled to be completed next year.

“It’s a real project. It’s not just talk. And so we realized that in order to get this started, we needed to have the right kind of planning and the right operational structure in place that will give us a greater chance of success,” says Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the local economic development group. The creation of the agency was the number one “ask” of the Partnership going into the legislative session.

Although some observers have said the bill seems like a rehashed version of TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority that was created a decade ago but without any funding to fulfill its goals, the newly proposed agency’s scope has been reduced from seven Bay area counties to four, and was originally just three – Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.

Manatee County was added after Senator Bill Galvano advocated for its inclusion, Homans said.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson did hear some concerns from lawmakers when he introduced the bill in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee last week, mostly about the composition of the 13-member board. As of now, there would be seven members selected from the private sector and six lawmakers.

“The most important thing is we try to create a governance structure that encourages participation by people who think regionally,” says Homans, adding that he’s not so concerned with the exact balance, as “long as they support the mission.”

There has been increasing talk over the last year or so of creating a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Homans says that there will be a meeting on May 12 in St. Petersburg with MPO officials, elected officials and business leaders to kickoff discussions about a potential regional MPO.

The Tampa Bay Times reported on Friday about the relative lack of requests for transportation projects by Tampa Bay area lawmakers this session.

“First, you have to have a plan,” Homans says about why that’s the case. “We don’t have a plan. Then you need an organization to implement it and build it, and then you need an organization to operate it, and we don’t have those things in place. We’re moving towards putting those structures into place to make the ‘big ask.'”

The bill is being pushed in the Senate by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who has a keen interest in seeing the local transit agencies work closer together.

“We’ve got a lot of folks in my party that just bury their head in the sand when it comes to transportation,” the venerable lawmaker said last summer when talking about the handling of the critical Tampa Bay area issue.

Tampa Bay area to host 2019 Medal of Honor convention

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society (CMOHS) Thursday selected the Tampa Bay area as the host community for its 2019 Convention, honoring Medal of Honor recipients and their families.

This is the first time the weeklong event, taking place in October 2019, will be held in Tampa.

“Tampa Bay’s strong military tradition coupled with our outstanding vacation venues, cemented Tampa’s position as the host of this prestigious event,” said Ed Miyagishima, president and CEO of the 2019 Tampa Bay Medal of Honor Convention. “We’re humbled to be able to roll out the red carpet and the white sands of Tampa Bay to honor these outstanding individuals and their families as only this region can.”

The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest and rarest military honor, bestowed by the president in the name of Congress on deserving members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against the enemy of the United States.”

“We’re thrilled to select Tampa Bay as the host of the 2019 Convention,” said Medal of Honor Recipient and President of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Thomas Kelley. “Tampa’s unique military footprint, coupled with its spectacular beaches and activities will serve as the ideal backdrop to honor and celebrate Medal of Honor recipients and their families.”

The Medal of Honor Convention, the annual gathering of Medal of Honor recipients, was created to honor the awardees and their families. Highlights of the week will include an official public welcome, reunion events, book signings, school events and autograph sessions, and the black-tie Gala.

“We recognize members of the military, veterans and their families as valued members of our community,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “We could not be more proud that Ronald Ray, a graduate of the University of Tampa, and Baldomero Lopez, Tampa native, are both recipients of the Medal of Honor and would be honored to celebrate their accomplishments as well as those of all of the other Medal of Honor recipient’s right here in Tampa.”

The Medal of Honor families will be special honorees during the convention. According to Miyagishima, “We will make sure that there are numerous family-friendly events. These are the individuals who have sacrificed and supported the Medal of Honor recipients over the years, so it is important that we express our gratitude and make it special for them, as well.”

In Tampa, an educational outreach campaign will be implemented in area schools to promote patriotism and character, special assets personified by the Medal of Honor. A special curriculum will be created for teachers to utilize throughout the area and guest speakers will be available to visit local schools.

“We are especially excited by the prospect of a lasting legacy for Tampa Bay in the form of a curriculum that can be used year after year to educate our students about the character attributes of Medal of Honor recipients,” said retired United States Army Command Sergeant Major Gary Littrell, who serves as an adviser to the Convention and has served as the president of CMOHS. “As a culmination to the convention, we will select a local student to receive the newly-created Medal of Honor Scholarship and look forward to partnering with local schools for other exciting learning opportunities.”

Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base is expected to play a significant role during the convention. MacDill is currently home to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the Joint Communications Support Element (JCSE), the 6th Air Mobility Wing and nearly 30 other tenant units.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society was formed in 1958 under President Dwight Eisenhower to protect, uphold and preserve the dignity and honor of the medal at all times and on all occasions. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s Convention and general meeting, held annually at different host communities across the country, serves:

– To further the bond of brotherhood and camaraderie among all living recipients of the Medal of Honor.

– To remember in reverence and respect those who received the Medal of Honor posthumously, and those who are now deceased.

– To foster patriotism and to inspire and stimulate our youth to become better citizens of our country.

– To recognize and award patriotic Americans who promote and perpetuate the principles upon which our nation was founded through their life’s work.

 

Gus Bilirakis introduces late resolution removing Medicare ‘Donut Hole’ in GOP health care bill

Hours before Congress votes on the American Health Care Act, Tarpon Springs Republican Gus Bilirakis is introducing a resolution calling Congress to support the elimination of the Medicare Part D coverage gap — known as the “Donut Hole” — as part of the AHCA.

“Seniors in my district have expressed concerns about rumored changes to Part D under the American Health Care Act,” Bilirakis said Thursday morning. “As a result, I introduced this resolution to ensure that the ‘Donut Hole’ coverage gap will continue to be filled-in and to reaffirm our commitment to seniors.

“I believe this provision of the American Health Care Act truly helps the millions who rely on Part D, and I urge all my colleagues to get on board.”

Currently, 39 million Medicare beneficiaries rely on Medicare Part D for necessary prescription drugs. A study from the Healthcare Leadership Council found 89 percent of seniors are satisfied with their coverage under Part D.

However, beneficiaries will reach a coverage gap — the Donut Hole — when total drug costs exceed $3,700; catastrophic coverage does not kick in until costs reach $8,071. Under the American Health Care Act, the Donut Hole will continue to be phased out by 2020 (as it was under the Affordable Care Act).

Under the American Health Care Act, the Donut Hole will continue to be phased out by 2020 (as it was under the Affordable Care Act).

Bilirakis already announced his support for the bill, but more than two dozen of his Republican colleagues oppose the legislation (as of now), which could doom its passage when it is voted on later Thursday. His resolution is aimed at winning over some of those reluctant GOP House members.

Kathy Castor says GOP health care bill getting worse as it gets closer to vote in the House

Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor says that the House Republican health care bill “is actually getting worse” as it gets amended to try to win over more conservative votes in Congress.

“TrumpCare will be devastating to Florida families and Speaker Ryan is desperately trying to ram this bill through the U.S. House before the American people understand the impact,” Castor said in a statement issued Tuesday. “TrumpCare rips insurance coverage away from millions of Americans, including at least 1.7 million in Florida who have gained coverage, and increases costs on everyone. It includes larger cuts to Alzheimer’s patients, the disabled, children and families who rely on Medicaid and larger tax breaks for the wealthy. Rather than improve health care for my older neighbors and listen to our concerns, Republicans made no change to help people age 50-64 keep their coverage.  In fact, premiums for our older neighbors are poised to increase by thousands of dollars so that coverage is simply out of reach.”

Castor made those comments after House Republicans made changes to the legislation late Monday night to win over more conservative voices in the GOP House caucus. Among the key changes she says is making the legislation worse include prohibiting states like Florida from expanding Medicaid at the enhanced federal matching rate; allowing states the option of imposing work requirements for Medicaid (even though the majority of adults on Medicaid are already working); allowing states a block grant option for Medicaid, which health care experts warn poses the same dangerous risks for states and beneficiaries as the previous bad provision; and, accelerating getting millions in tax breaks into the hands of those wealthy few.

“TrumpCare would already be the largest transfer of wealth from working families to the rich in our nation’s history. After stealing health coverage from millions of families, and billions of dollars from Medicaid and Medicare, the Republicans hand $600 billion in tax giveaways to the rich and big corporations. In fact, the Republican bill gives $2.8 billion to the 400 richest families in America each year,” Castor added.

The vote on the American Health Care Act will take place on Thursday. There is still considerable doubt about whether the Republicans will get the votes they need to pass the legislation through the House. There also appears to be too many Republican Senators currently who would not vote for the bill in its current form.

St. Petersburg Economic Development Corporation names David Punzak as Vice Chair

David Punzak

David Punzak has been named vice chair of the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corporation (EDC) board of directors.

Punzak is a shareholder with the national Carlton Fields law firm, based out of its Tampa location. He will become chairman in 2018 following his term as vice chair.

“David brings a great depth and breadth of experience and leadership to the organization, and we look forward to his impact over the coming years,” said EDC chairman Michael Vivio.

Punzak brings more than three decades’ experience as an attorney specializing in transactions for banks, real estate developers and insurance companies. He regularly stands for clients in real estate and finance, mergers, acquisitions and general business matters.

With an extensive history of community service, Punzac has served on the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce board since 2012, as well as two terms as chair and as a leader of the Economic Development Committee. He also had leadership roles at Baseball Forever St. Pete, Suncoasters, Heroes of the St. Petersburg Police and The Dali Museum.

“Being named vice chair of the EDC is a great privilege, and I am proud to continue service to my hometown,” said Punzak. He added, “The EDC is poised to make a significant impact on the economic prosperity of St. Pete’s citizens, and I am excited to be a part of it.”

EDC was launched in 2016 as a part of the “Grow Smarter” strategic plan of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of St. Petersburg and community partners over two years ago.

The organization’s major focus is to ensure the city develops and maintains a sustainable and inclusive economic strategy. The Grow Smarter plan targets business sectors and partnership opportunities. The program names the EDC a “Storyteller in Chief” for St. Petersburg, promoting it as a premier business destination.

Funding for the EDC comes through investments from over 40 local, private entities as well as significant funding from the Greater St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg EDC President J. P. DuBuque said in a statement: “Punzak brings a host of experiences in the economic development space and institutional knowledge of the City that will only add to our ability to be an organization of high impact.”

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