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In 1st House speech, Charlie Crist vows ‘Commitment to Civility’

Charlie Crist wants to see more of the Golden Rule in Congress, with a call for civil discourse on Capitol Hill.

In his first speech on the floor of the U.S. House, the St. Petersburg Democrat joined a bipartisan class of 46 freshman lawmakers who signed a “Commitment to Civility” pledge.

This pledge seeks to “restore collegiality, trust and civility to Congress, encourage productive dialogue, and work to build consensus and the public’s trust in America’s institutions.”

In the letter, the group promised to remain: “dedicated to showing proper respect to one another and all others, encouraging productive dialogue, and modeling civility in our public and private actions.”

“While we may vehemently disagree on matters of law and policy, we will strive at all times to maintain collegiality and the honor of our office,” they write.

Crist represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District.

“I am honored to represent Pinellas County in Congress, and I promise to fight for the needs of my home county. But I pledge to do so in keeping with the ‘Golden Rule,’ to do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Crist said in his speech. “I am proud that our freshman class has put forward this ‘Commitment to Civility’ pledge. It states that despite our political differences, at the end of the day we must work together to move our country forward, putting people over politics and treating each other with respect — even when we disagree.”

Other first-year members of the Florida delegation signing the Commitment include Matt Gaetz of CD 1, Neal Dunn of CD 2, John Rutherford of CD 4, Al Lawson of CD 5, Darren Soto of CD 9, Val Demings of CD 10, Brian Mast of CD 18 and Francis Rooney of CD 19.

Tampa Bay Times’ acknowledges its recent stories on Mosaic spill are inaccurate

Last week, the Tampa Bay Times quoted two retired hydrology experts who slammed the phosphate giant Mosaic and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection over the massive sinkhole that exploded under a gypsum stack at Mosaic’s New Wales plant in Mulberry last summer, resulting in 215 million gallons of radioactive wastewater released into the Florida aquifer.

Don Rice and Mary Hrenda told the Times that a full year before the incident, monitoring wells around the stack showed a sinkhole was developing, and that both Mosaic and the DEP should have been aware of the sinkhole at the time. The information was also presented at a news conference last Friday with environmental groups in Manatee County.

“They should have seen this 2016 sinkhole coming,” Rice told the Times last Thursday. “Alarm bells should have been going off — danger, danger!”

Now the Times acknowledges that Rice and Hrenda have retracted their statements.

“News organizations routinely cover disputes between two credible sides, and that’s what we did in our original story,” says Jennifer Orsi, managing editor of the Times, in an email. “Mosaic, which declined to discuss the allegations for that story, responded the next day, and we covered that as well. Now, the hydrologists quoted in our original story have retracted their findings and expressed regret, which we will cover in a story on the front page of Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Times. Stories evolve, and we routinely cover those steps as they happen.”

Upon publication of the story Friday, both the DEP and Mosaic strongly disputed the report, and on Tuesday the first independently affiliated group, a relatively new organization based in Florida called the Center for Sustainability and Conservation (CFSC) weighed in.

The group released findings from an independent, Florida-licensed geologist, which also contradicted information originally published in the Times about the genesis of last year’s spill.

“Our geologist concluded that the increase in water levels were due to a grouting program in the area and not the precursor to a sinkhole. In his opinion, an indication of a sinkhole would have produced a drop in water levels, not an increase,” said Dave Gray, founder and Executive Director of CFSC.

Gray said he had his own independent Florida-licensed geologist, Abner Patton, reviewed the data and information Rice provided to environmental groups at last week’s news conference.

In his report, Abner writes that the “significant rise in water levels” in the three recognized aquifers near the New Wales facility “is not related to an event associated with the 2016 sinkhole collapse. In fact, our interpretation would be just the opposite response, significant decline in water levels would have occurred as the sinkhole was developing.”

Abner also refers to a grouting program conducted in the spring and summer of 2015. He notes that it is his interpretation that significant level changes in the three wells “are the result of a successful grouting program within the confining unit.”

“The data and information surrounding Florida’s natural resources and geology are complex and multidisciplined,” Gray said. “It is imperative that everyone understands such data can be used to draw false claims and manipulate conclusions to different outcomes, especially if examined by someone who is not licensed in Florida and does not have a thorough understanding of Florida’s unique geology.”

Rice and Hrenda, who is his wife, both worked as hydrologists in New Jersey, not Florida.

The Times report was challenged last week by the DEP, which said that the data in question have “nothing to do with the formation of the 2016 sinkhole.”

“The data the Tampa Bay Times provided is referring to monitoring wells under the closed North stack at the New Wales facility, which was closed in 2005, not under the South stack where the 2016 sinkhole formed,” the DEP said on Friday.

“I don’t think they did their diligence on evaluating the data, I think they chose some data they thought could carry a message and ran with it, whether or not that message was correct,” said David Jellerson, Mosaic’s Senior Director of Environmental and Phosphate Projects.

At the news conference in front of the Manatee County Commission last Friday, a host of environmental groups called for an investigation of the DEP, and said they were sending a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and State Attorney General Pam Bondi. It was signed by Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity, People for Protecting the Peace River, ManaSota-88, Sierra Club Manatee-Sarasota and Saving the Face of Florida.

They said that the agency was “negligent, possibly criminally negligent” when it failed to recognize warning signs of a sinkhole and taking preventive measures to drain the stack.

On Wednesday, Mosaic officials are set to go before the Manatee County Commission over the proposal to approve the expansion of a phosphate mine on a 3,600-acre plot in Myakka City. The environmental groups strongly oppose the plan.

On MSNBC, David Jolly wonders how serious Donald Trump is taking the presidency

David Jolly is in New York this week, making the rounds at the cable news networks as one Republican not afraid to criticize Donald Trump.

On his latest appearance on MSNBC’s The Last Word (with guest host Joy Reid), the former (and possibly future?) congressman from Florida’s 13th District called Trump’s first month in office “his JV moment,” specifically referring to Stephen Miller’s performance on the Sunday morning shows.

Miller is the 31-year old senior adviser to Trump who is reported to be working alongside Steve Bannon in crafting the President’s messaging.

Among Miller’s most provocative comments was on CBS’ Face The Nation, when he said, “The media and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

“The first month of the Trump administration has been his JV (junior varsity) moment,” Jolly said on MSNBC. “Get the 31-year-old sweaty kid off the TV, and bring in the steady senior hand.”

Jolly compared the beginning of Trump’s presidency with that of George W. Bush’s, the last president elected without winning the popular vote. Jolly said that Bush 43 surrounding himself with senior Washington officials like Dick Cheney and Andy Card, who, he said, “whether you liked them or not, we’re a steady hand.”

“We will see turnover, and frankly, this 31-year old should not have been the voice of the president on Sunday morning TV when we’re in such a pivotal moment,” Jolly said.

Jolly also questioned how seriously Trump is taking his job as the most powerful man in the free world.

“I think this is the very quiet anxiety of most Republicans, including congressional Republicans, is how serious is the president taking this job?” he asked. “He is our president. President Donald Trump. Like him or loath him. But how seriously is he accepting this responsibility and the anxiety we have is based upon the decisions he made in the first 30 days, the people he is surrounding himself with?” Jolly asked.

Jolly appeared Monday on CNN’s New Day as well and is scheduled to make another appearance on MNSBC later this week.

The 44-year-old Jolly has been increasing his media profile in recent weeks (complete with stylish glasses and a new beard) as he keeps his options open regarding 2018. Jolly lost by 3.8 percentage points against Charlie Crist, in the race for Florida’s 13th Congressional District last fall.

He engendered speculation that he was considering another run for the seat in 2018 when he hired former Crist staffer Vito Sheeley last monthThe circumstances behind Sheeley’s departure from working for Crist remain shrouded in mystery, part of was has led people to wonder about Crist’s somewhat rough beginning in his short time in Congress.

Kathy Castor calls some of Donald Trump’s actions ‘beneath the dignity of the office’

It’s less than a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, but Congresswoman Kathy Castor is not impressed so far, describing some of his actions and demeanor “beneath the dignity of the office.”

“President Trump is simply unprecedented,” the Tampa Democrat said to reporters following a news conference held at the USF College of Nursing George & Marian Miller Center for Virtual Learning. “His actions and demeanor are really beneath the dignity of the office. And I worry about young people and kids seeing that as an example of their president and Commander in Chief. Hopefully he’ll rein that in.”

Castor joined her House Democratic colleagues at a retreat in Baltimore last week, where they attempted to find a common strategy to combat Trump and the GOP-majority Congress over the next two years. She said that she is well aware that the Democratic base is alive and engaged in politics in a way never before seen in her decade long in Washington.

“The grassroots are on fire,” she said. “People want to know – what’s coming up on the floor of the House this week. So that’s a little bit different, where we’re having to educate all of our neighbors and encourage them and teach them how to weigh in.”

Castor says that the nature of Trump’s attempted ban on refugees and his “playing footsie” with Russian leader Vladimir Putin are actions that “really undermine our national security.”

“So there are a lot of very serious issues, and you can’t blame our neighbors for being on edge, upset and wanting to be engaged,” she surmised.

For the second consecutive weekend, one of Castor’s GOP colleagues in the Tampa Bay Congressional delegation, Pasco/Pinellas Representative Gus Bilirakis heard from dozens of angry constituents regarding his intent to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act. Eight years ago, it was Castor who was singled out for her support of the ACA, specifically when facing a hostile crowd of Tea Party activists at a town hall on the ACA at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.

“People are scared and that’s what you’re seeing at these town hall meetings for members of Congress,”she said, adding that “folks are reasonably frightened that there’s going to be this radical repeal plan, they’re just going to rip the rug out from under families. That’s the fight right now.”

Vern Buchanan to co-chair Florida Delegation meeting on water issues

The co-chairs of Florida’s congressional delegation, Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, and Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings will hold a bipartisan delegation meeting on some of the state’s most pressing water issues.

The meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 8:30 a.m. in 2020 Rayburn House Office Building, in Washington, DC.

The delegation will discuss red tide, harmful algal blooms, beach renourishment and other water quality issues. This will be the first meeting of the 29-member bipartisan Florida congressional delegation in 2017.

“Our pristine beaches and rivers are a draw for Floridians and countless visitors each year,” Buchanan said. “That’s why it’s so important that our delegation works together to ensure Florida’s oceans and waterways are clean and healthy.”

Recently, red tide outbreaks left thousands of dead fish along the Suncoast’s shores. The tide produces a toxin that can harm and kill a variety of animals, including birds, fish, sea turtles and marine mammals such as dolphins and the already endangered Florida manatee. It can also have devastating effects on humans, as shellfish from active red tide areas can cause poisoning.

Panelists will include Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw and representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Each year, red tide poses a serious threat to Southwest Florida’s wildlife, ecosystems and economy,” Buchanan said. “We need to do everything we can to stop future damage.”

This past summer, record amounts of toxic algae wreaked havoc across Florida, producing a bloom so large it was visible from space. The blue-green guacamole-thick algae, also known as cyanobacteria, forced many Floridians to wear masks near the water and some complained of skin rashes, headaches and respiratory issues, according to press reports.

Harmful algae blooms cause $82 million in economic losses to the seafood, restaurant and tourism industries each year in the U.S., according to NOAA.

Buchanan said he also looks forward to hearing from Mayor Shaw about beach renourishment. In 2007, the congressman secured $1.7 million in federal funding for beach renourishment projects in the 16th Congressional District.

Rick Kriseman campaign says it has raised $200K towards re-election

Incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has some important news to share about his re-election campaign.

“Now that we’ve had a chance to add everything up and double-check everything, it’s clear we’ve passed an important milestone,” Kriseman wrote in an email that was distributed last week. That milestone is that he has crossed the $200,000 raised threshold for his re-election bid.

Kriseman is seeking a second term as mayor of the Sunshine City. Voters will decide his fate later this year, with a primary election in August and a general election in November.

Currently, no serious contender has filed to challenge Kriseman, but it’s widely reported that former Mayor Rick Baker is contemplating a return to local politics.

Having $200,000 in the bank should send any would-be challengers the message that Kriseman is not taking his re-election chances for granted.

As impressive as that $200K number sounds, it should be noted that $92,450 of it came in before the end of 2016, according to Kriseman campaign staffer Tom Alte. That’s contrary to how the Times’ Adam Smith framed it when he reported that “the mayor raised $200,000 in the first month since he announced his re-election kickoff.”

Still, 200 grand is 200 grand. That will buy a lot of TV time and direct mail in a citywide race. As Kriseman noted in his email, this is a “historic” level of early support.

“Mayor Kriseman is grateful to have the support of voters, activists, community leaders, and employers who have donated to his campaign so that he can continue leading St. Petersburg,” Alte said. “They’ve said loudly and clearly that when we stand together for progress, we can take on the tough issues and move our city forward.”

St. Pete City Council candidate Barclay Harless hosting young professional fundraiser Feb. 21

A trio of local young professionals are holding a fundraiser next week to support Barclay Harless in his bid for St. Petersburg City Council.

The event is Tuesday, Feb. 21 at the Brewer’s Tasting Room, 11270 4th St. N in St. Petersburg. Suggested contribution is $50.

Harless is running for the District 2 seat, which covers most of Northeast St. Petersburg and is now held by term-limited Jim Kennedy.

Hosting the event are attorney Gill Lazenby, banker Mark Stroud Jr., and wealth manager Brooks Wallington. Both Harless and Stroud serve as vice presidents at the Bank of the Ozarks in St. Petersburg.

So far, Harless will face Brandi Gabbard, a former president of the Pinellas Realtor Organization.

Information and donations to Harless’ campaign can be made through voteharless.com.

Primaries for the City of St. Petersburg mayoral race are Aug. 29; general election at-large voting is Nov. 7.

Pasco County GOP official in trouble after social media posts go national

Pasco County Republican Executive Committee Secretary Bill Akins is under fire  after a story about his history of pushing out racist jokes and conspiracy theories on social media was published Sunday by the Washington Post.

The reason that the previously little-known local Republican even earned the interest of the Post was because of what happened on Saturday at Congressman Gus Bilirakis raucous town hall meeting in New Port RicheyThat’s where Akins told a crowd of mostly supporters of the Affordable Care Act that it was a fact that they would face “death panels” at the age of 74 under the legislation.

“Death Panels” were often mentioned by Tea Party activists at town hall meetings back in 2009 when the ACA was initially being discussed. PolitFact called the term the “Lie of the Year” in 2009.

As soon as Akins finished pronouncing “panel,” the crowd erupted into arguably the loudest amount of jeering from the two hour meeting.

“OK, children. Alright, children,” Akins stated, mocking the crowd in an exchange that was repeatedly by CNN and MSNBC on Saturday.

Akins apparently deleted all of his posts on his Facebook page on Saturday night, after the story by the Post’s Dave Weigel went live. The earliest posts now available to see on his page go back to 2011.

Among the controversial statements that Akins made included comparing black protesters to monkeys, accusing former President Barack Obama of being a foreign-born Muslim, and that Bill and Hillary Clinton had potential trial witnesses against them murdered.

He claimed that former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might have been murdered, that “Climate Change” is a globalist hoax, and that Nancy Pelosi is mentally handicapped.

The Pasco County GOP Facebook page was filled with angry responses on Sunday.

“Rep Bilirakis SR was a truthful and honorable man,” wrote Chris Perfusion Clay. “The present Representative (who used to be my Representative until they gerrymandered again) makes a fool of himself by agreeing with a delusional Bill Akins. Mr Akins Facebook page is an example of why Republicans are seen as seriously problematic.”

Pasco County State Committeeman Bill Bunting said the revelation about Akins social media history was a definite “black eye for us, no question about it.”

At the town hall, Akins identified himself as being the Secretary of the Pasco REC. He was only recently elected to that post.

Akins did not return our request for comment on Sunday afternoon. Nor did Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia.

At heated town hall, Gus Bilirakis once again hears overwhelming sentiment to improve — not repeal — the Affordable Care Act

For the second consecutive Saturday, Tampa Bay U.S. Representative Gus Bilirakis waded into a lion’s den of sorts, hosting a town hall meeting that was dominated by those pleading with him to vote to improve – but not replace – the Affordable Care Act.

As hundreds crammed into the West Pasco Government Center in Florida’s 12th Congressional District (with at least another hundred listening to the meeting via an audio transmission outside the chambers), the atmosphere was at times raucous and rude, although the audience was overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats and supporters of the health care law.

It’s a scene that’s playing out throughout the country, as Republicans are being met with fervent Democratic activism, a level at which has not been seen in decades. The energy has been compared to the Tea Party rebellion that flared up during the town hall meetings that Democrats held eight years ago when rolling out the ACA, with one of the most infamous being a Kathy Castor town hall in Ybor City that made national headlines.

Bilirakis is on record as voting to repeal the Affordable Act Act, but he expressed sympathy with those who are worried about the uncertainty of what comes next, now that the Republicans control all branches of the federal government and are charging full ahead of doing something different with the health care system.

“We do have some bills that are filed. However, the replacement bill has not been filed,” the Tarpon Springs Republican admitted in his opening remarks to the crowd. “There is a blueprint. But that’s why were here to add to that blueprint, and that’s why I want to hear your personal stories — how Obamacare has affected you.”

But using the “O” word was a mistake to many of the Democrats in the room, who began shouting at him.

“Okay, excuse me, the ACA,” he corrected himself, while noting that Nancy Pelosi (and Barack Obama himself) has referred to the 2010 law as Obamacare.

Bill Akins, the secretary of the Pasco County Republican Executive Committee further inflamed the crowd when he brought up one of the issues that ignited Tea Party activists at town hall meetings back in 2009 – the famed “death panels.”

“There is a provision in there, that anyone over the age of 74, has to go before, what is effectively, a death panel-“

As soon as Akins finished pronouncing “panel,” the crowd erupted into arguably the loudest amount of jeering from the two hour meeting.

“OK, children. Alright, children,” Akins stated, mocking the crowd (The segment was shown throughout the day on CNN).

A few moments later, 77-year-old Pat Seeley told Akins he was full of it.

“I think it is unconscionable for this politician to tell me at 74, I will be facing death panels.”

It should be noted that PolitiFact judged the death panels argument as the “Lie of the Year” in 2009.

Immediately following Akins to the mic was Beverly Ledbetter, the secretary for the Pasco County Democratic Executive Committee. She thanked Bilirakis for “having the courage” to host a town hall, which “so many of your compatriots are cancelling.” But she said it wasn’t enough for the six-term congressman to listen to his constituents. No, she said, it was incumbent on him to act on what the voters were saying.

“I’m asking that you make a commitment to us and you act the way that we, the people who elected you and sent you to Washington D.C. to be our voice, and to vote according to the directions that we have, and not the line of the Republican Party,” Ledbetter said.

Although there were plenty of speakers who sang the praises of Obama’s signature domestic achievement, there were several others who acknowledged that improvements were essential to improving the ACA, though the underlying message to Bilirakis was not to dismantle it without something similar in scope.

Like President Trump and many other Republicans, Bilirakis said he wants to retain the bill’s most popular provisions: no more discriminating against pre-existing conditions; no more lifetime caps; and keeping people under 26 years of age on their parents policy.

The chief nemesis called out by the ACA supporters at the meeting wasn’t Republicans, but the health care industry, followed by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sitting in a wheelchair, Ellen Floriani said that she was hit with a hospital bill of $98,000, but because of Medicare, it was negotiated down to $6,000, with her co-pay only $1,000. “Those of you under 65, don’t you wish you had that kind of coverage?” she asked, adding that everybody could get that type of coverage if a Medicare-for-all (i.e., single payer) system was implemented, a sentiment several other people suggested as well.

It wasn’t all nastiness. One speaker said Congress should look at adding an excise tax on marijuana purchases. “There’s a lot of states now selling marijuana for recreational use, and this is an excise tax to plug the hole and subsidize the deductibles that people have.”

The crowd wasn’t devoid of Republicans who proudly said they supported Donald Trump for president.

“My request to you is to rip the Obamacare bill, the way it is now, to shreds,” asked Pete Franco to Bilirakis. “There’s plenty of people obviously who like Obamacare, but there’s a massive amount who don’t.”

“Alternative news,” yelled an ACA fan from the back.

And so it went. Bilirakis promised to hold a third town hall meeting soon, at a place to be determined.

While he was earning plaudits from even his sternest critics for facing the heat on the issue, countless Democrats managed to sneak in a diss to another prominent Florida Republican not in attendance.

“Where’s Marco?” was a refrain heard throughout the morning. Democrats contend Senator Marco Rubio has been AWOL in even having staffers answer calls in his Washington or local district offices over the past couple of weeks.

Rick Scott salutes Jeff Atwater’s work as CFO

Gov. Rick Scott praised the work of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who announced Friday he will be joining Florida Atlantic University after the 2017 Legislative Session.

“I got to know CFO Jeff Atwater well in 2010 on the campaign trail, and like me, he has been laser-focused on keeping the cost of living low for all Floridians,” Scott said in a statement. “I am proud that the state has paid down over $7.6 billion in debt since 2011,” adding that Atwater “aggressively helped us achieve that goal.”

Scott noted Atwater’s fight “to reduce burdensome regulations that hinder job growth, protect families from financial fraud” and as well as his efforts to return $1 billion in unclaimed property to the rightful owners.

Calling Atwater “a proud Floridian, father, husband and friend,” the governor said he will “truly miss” working with him.

“The role of the CFO is incredibly important to our state,” Scott said, “and I will begin the process to appoint someone to serve Florida families.”

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