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Bury ’em: Utility chief favors underground power lines

For years (or even decades), Florida environmentalists have faulted investor-owned utilities for a reluctance to embrace solar power in the Sunshine State.

But that’s beginning to change, with no utility doing more on that front than Tampa Electric Company.

Soon after Canadian energy firm Emera purchased TECO last year for $10.4 billion, the Tampa-based utility announced plans to add six million solar panels in 10 new photovoltaic solar projects across its service territory in West Central Florida.

“I’m amazed that the price of these solar panels keeps dropping and dropping,” said Emera Technologies Inc. CEO Rob Bennett in a speech Friday at Tampa’s Oxford Exchange, part of the weekly Café Con Tampa series.

Costs for solar power have gone down dramatically in recent years, a leading factor why TECO (and to a lesser degree other Florida power companies) is now starting to embrace solar power, after initially rejecting its appeal.

In total, TECO projects it will install 600 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic solar energy to its fleet, creating enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes. When complete, nearly 7 percent of TECO’s energy generation will come from the sun — a higher percentage of solar than any other Florida utility.

Bennett said he’s trying to figure out how cheap solar panels can get, and now it’s about the cost of glass, the biggest part of the solar panel.

“I don’t know where the bottom is going to be, but it’s amazing,” Bennett said. “The idea of solar panels being cheaper than roofing panels is completely real. And that drives change and choice.”

Emera has a record of providing alternative energy in Nova Scotia, in part, Bennett acknowledged, because the Canadian government mandates that 40 percent of all power must come from renewable technologies.

Beyond that, Emera has set an equally ambitious goal — to bring the eastern Caribbean island of Barbados to one hundred percent renewables by 2045.

TECO, Bennett said, is also proposing to phase out coal at its Big Bend power plant in Apollo Beach, replacing it with natural gas. But the company still needs to generate fossil fuels until other technologies advance, he added.

Cities like Sarasota, Orlando and St. Petersburg have set similar goals for complete reliance on renewable energy sources in the coming decades.

“TECO is the only utility at this point in time that looks like it will be a partner in Tampa reaching that goal, as opposed to the other utilities that need to catch up,” said Phil Compton, senior organizing representative at Sierra Club Florida.

While the talk of solar was indeed encouraging, what Bennett said next was even more noteworthy: TECO must find a way to begin to install power lines underground.

Acknowledging that underground power lines will be expensive, Bennett told the crowd the technologies to put such systems below ground are better today than they were two decades ago, and will become better over the next two decades.

“My mission is to figure that out and find the cheapest way to put it underground,” he said.

After Hurricane Irma barreled through Florida in September, millions of Floridians lost power for days — some for more than a week — prompting calls from citizens (and some government officials) throughout the state, urging utilities to consider moving power lines underground.

Bennett pointed out his recent job change, becoming CEO of a Tampa startup called Emera Technologies, tasked with developing technologies to enhance the ability to put the power system underground and making them more resilient.

“Just because there’s a storm, even a hurricane, there’s no reason for the power to go out,” Bennett said.

One item not referenced at all during Bennett’s appearance was TECO’s recent fine and citation by federal authorities due to an investigation into an accident last June at the Big Bend plant, which led to the deaths of five workers.

Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Tampa Electric a “willful” violation — its most serious type of citation— given only to companies that either intentionally disregards its rules or act with indifference toward employee safety.

OSHA also fined TECO $126,749 for ignoring its own safety rules.

More workers have died in Tampa Electric’s power plants over the last 20 years than in those run by any other Florida electric utility, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Tampa City Council approves crackdown on massage parlors

The Tampa City Council voted 6-0 on Thursday to approve an ordinance aimed at curbing human trafficking by cracking down on illicit massage parlors.

The measure is a revision to an 1980s-era bathhouse ordinance, adapted to close the loopholes that allow such massage parlors in Tampa to operate.

It comes after months of advocacy by the group “Clean-Up Kennedy,” who have had their members fill City Hall council chambers throughout the second half of 2017 to push the council to act.

Supporting the council on Thursday was Christa Hernandez, who wrote a book about her experience as a victim of sex trafficking.

“When you’re in that life, it’s easier to act as if it’s all okay and it’s this great job, because then you don’t really have to internally feel the pain, as long as you’re acting as its great,” she said of sex workers who opposed the ordinance.

Critics of the measure say it would criminalize those in the sex trade.

“We can’t keep pushing people in the margins and expecting solutions to come forward. They do not come forward by pushing people out,” said Angelo D’Angelo with the Restorative Justice Network.

But Dottie Groover-Skipper, Salvation Army’s anti-trafficking campaign coordinator, disagreed.

“There is a safety net,” she said, adding that she was working with the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office, the council and the 13th Judicial Circuit to implement a diversion court for those caught up in the industry.

“They will not go to jail,” she insisted, adding that prostitution is against the law.

City Councilman Mike Suarez said he sympathized with the critics of the proposal, but said, “this not a criminal statute. This is an ordinance. It is not about criminalizing people who are victims of sexual trafficking.”

Councilman Harry Cohen told opponents that just because the ordinance was passed doesn’t mean it can’t continue to be improved.

“We’re all ears, just because we passed an ordinance today doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to work on the topic. It’s really the beginning, not the end.”

Council Chair Yolie Capin left the meeting early, and did not participate in the final vote.

Nick DiCeglie’s fundraising outpaces Berny Jacques’ in HD 66 primary

One of the most competitive Republican primaries in Tampa Bay is the race for the House District 66 seat being vacated by Seminole Republican Larry Ahern. 

Pinellas GOP Chairman Nick DiCeglie is taking on St. Petersburg attorney Berny Jacques. Jacques entered the race early last year, and has raised a total of $133,000 for his bid – $91,354 in his own campaign coffers, and an additional $42,000 in his PAC, Protect Pinellas.

However, for most of 2017 he was the only man running in the race. As the first-in candidate he raised nearly $30,000 for his campaign in its opening month, but followed that early success with middling campaign reports until his opponent filed. DiCeglie has outraised Jacques since entering the race, but Jacques’ best fundraising report since his first came after DiCeglie entered.

DiCeglie, who runs Clearwater-based trash removal and recycling company Solar Sanitation, entered the race late last summer and has now raised $72,714 after taking in 8,990 in December. The sum of his four campaign finance reports show him with $59,427 on hand at the start of year.

Jacques raised $4,420 for his campaign account in December and added no contributions to his political committee. He finished the year with $106,302 cash on hand.

In addition to making strides on the campaign finance front, DiCeglie has been able to pull in some major endorsements for his campaign, including a nod from former House Speaker Will Weatherford and Seminole Vice Mayor Chris Burke, who had endorsed Jacques before pulling an about face and throwing his support behind DiCeglie.

A Democrat, Pinellas educator Alex Heeren, entered the contest earlier this week, but HD 66 is reliably Republican with about 10,000 more registered GOP voters than registered Democrats. Ahern has comfortably won each of his three elections in the district and the district’s next representative will more than likely come down to the Jacques v. DiCeglie primary.

Reform Party candidate Paul Anthony Bachmann is also in the contest. He did not bring in any money in December, and has only raised $345 to date.

Wengay Newton continues to increase fundraising advantage in HD 70 race

St. Petersburg House District 70 Democrat Wengay Newton now has two opponents going after him as he attempts to win reelection this summer, but at least at this early junction, he’s not being challenged seriously when it comes to fundraising.

Newton raised $1,000 in December, and has now raised $17,370 overall for the seat with a little over $15,000 of that money on hand.

Vito Sheeley, a former congressional aide to both Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist, raised just $200 last month, and has brought in $4,922 since announcing his candidacy over the summer. He had about $2,000 in the bank at the start of 2018.

Sheeley was endorsed earlier this week by a number of high profile St. Petersburg Democrats, indicating that Newton could be vulnerable in the August 28 Democratic Primary, but if so, it has yet to translate into campaign dollars.

St. Petersburg attorney and civic activist Keisha Bell announced last week that she would soon officially enter the HD 70 Democratic race, but hasn’t done so yet.

Sheely and Bell, if she makes it official, will have a chance to catch up to Newton over the next several weeks as lawmakers are not allowed to raise money while the Legislature is in session. That means Newton will post a goose egg in February and depending on how well his pre-Session fundraiser went in St. Petersburg, he may even do a bit of a backslide in January.

Newton put out the call to his supporters in the fundraising invite, asking them to “consider supporting the campaign early” due to the primary threat.

HD 70 is a Democratic stronghold and the winner of the 2018 race will certainly come out of the Democratic Primary. The minority access seat covers parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. About 45 percent of the population is black, and 15 percent is Hispanic.

Newton won his first term last year, when he replaced now-Sen. Darryl Rouson in the district. In that race, he defeated his Republican opponent, Cori Fournier, with 76 percent of the vote on Election Day.

Democrat Margaret Good fundraising coming on strong as HD 72 special election heats up

Siesta Key Democrat Margaret Good raised nearly twice as much campaign money than Republican James Buchanan in December in the special election for House District 72.

Good raised $106,830 in December, Buchanan $55,000. Libertarian Alison Foxall raised $3,480 last month.

The special election will take place on Feb. 13 to replace Republican Alex Miller, who stepped down unexpectedly from the seat late last summer.

Buchanan,the son of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, was the early favorite in the race, as Republicans have generally dominated legislative elections in the Sarasota area (the district encompasses parts of Sarasota and western Sarasota County, as well as all of Siesta Key).

Buchanan also had a head start in fundraising, as he began campaigning for the House District 71 last March. He switched to the HD 72 seat in September once it became an open seat.

And while Buchanan’s $282,630 leads the race in fundraising, Good actually has more cash-on-hand with just over four weeks before the election.

Good has raised $227,314, but has $146,220 cash on hand. Buchanan now has $125,547 cash on hand.

The race between Good and Buchanan is becoming contentious.

On Wednesday, the Good campaign lashed out at a negative television ad paid for by the Republican Party of Florida that attacks her for being a liberal attorney who has “defended allegations of fraud, negligence, Ponzi schemes, and financial mismanagement.”

The Good campaign called on Buchanan to “man up” and request that the RPOF to take down “their false advertisements.”

Buchanan declined to comment on the ad.

Republican Ray Blacklidge continues fundraising lead in HD 69

(UPDATED)

House District 69 Republican candidate Ray Blacklidge raised $10,395 during December, his campaign announced Tuesday.

This latest haul brings Blacklidge’s total amount to more than $87,000.

When combined with funds raised for his political committee, Friends of Ray Blacklidge, his total amount now exceeds $100,000.

“Our momentum in this campaign continues to grow,” he said in a statement. “Our fundraising strength demonstrates that more and more people are jumping on board with our vision for more jobs and a stronger economy, and I look forward to continuing to get our message out to the voters of District 69.” 

The Madeira Beach-based Blacklidge works as an insurance executive and attorney in the management of a Florida-based insurance company.

Blacklidge faces St. Petersburg attorney Jeremy Bailie in the GOP primary for HD 69, vacated later this year by South Pasadena Republican Kathleen Peters.

On the Democratic side, St. Pete attorney Javier Centonizo joined Jennifer Webb in the race. Webb raised $13,641 in December, and has raised $34,866.

Bailie reported taking in $3,350 in December, and $29,090 overall.

HD 69 covers the south Pinellas beach communities from Redington Shores to Fort DeSoto, as well as portions of St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Kenneth City, and Pinellas Park. It’s a swing district, broken up almost into equal thirds of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

Margaret Good campaign blasts attack ad airing in contentious HD 72 special election

A special election in Sarasota-area House District 72 is starting to get nasty, with still more than a month before voters go to the polls.

In the past week, the Republican Party of Florida began airing a commercial attacking Democrat Margaret Good, the Siesta Key-based attorney who won her Party’s primary last month.

Good is running against Republican James Buchanan; the special election is March 13.

The ad, a thirty-second verbal assault on the Democrat, begins with the narrator describing her as “liberal lawyer Margaret Good. Just plain bad.”

It goes on to say that, as an attorney,  Good “defended allegations of fraud, negligence, Ponzi schemes, and financial mismanagement.”

Next, the spot says she “sides with liberals” in making Sarasota a “sanctuary city for illegal aliens,” and that she once tried to stop a Sarasota schoolteacher from earning a bonus.

The narrator concludes: “Defending fraud, negligence, Ponzi schemes. Liberal Lawyer Margaret Good — just plain bad.”

On Wednesday, Good’s campaign pushed back hard.

“This ad is 30 seconds of lies and is funded by special interests groups and insiders who want to continue business as usual in Tallahassee,” said Kevin Lata, Good’s campaign manager.

“Margaret Good will stand up for our community,” Lata said. “She will ensure everyone has affordable and accessible health care, invest in education, and protect our environment. It is time Buchanan Jr. man up and call on these special interests groups to take down their false advertisements.”

Lata also called on Buchanan to debate Good publicly “as opposed to hiding behind the special interests groups who are lying about her record and distorting those she has represented in court.”

For weeks, Good’s campaign has criticized Buchanan for his refusal to engage in a one-on-one debate for the special election.

The HD 72 seat was last held by Republican Alex Miller, who unexpectedly stepped down in early September, forcing a special election.

It is the 35-year-old Buchanan’s first run for political office. A real estate agent and broker in Sarasota, he initially filed a year ago to run in the nearby House District 71 race but transitioned to HD 72 after Miller announced she was stepping down from the seat.

He’s also the son of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan. 

James Buchanan did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

HD 72 covers all of Siesta Key, parts of Sarasota and western Sarasota County.

Six candidates to vie for three open Safety Harbor City Commission seats

Six candidates will be running for three open city commission seats in Safety Harbor’s 2018 municipal election. The qualifying period ended noon Tuesday for the March 13 ballot.

The candidates, listed alphabetically by seat:

SEAT #1:

Nancy Besore

Scott Long (incumbent)

SEAT #2:

Spencer Bell

Cliff Merz (i)

SEAT #3:

Damon Lister

Andy Zodrow (i)

The group is flush with political experience at the local and state level.

Long, Merz and Zodrow are incumbents seeking another term; Besore served six years on the SHCC and ran for mayor in 2014 and commission last year; Lister ran for Seat 1 last year and recently resigned as the city’s economic development liaison to run for Seat 3 this year; and Bell is a relative unknown in town but a veteran of Florida politics who led Jackie Toledo’s successful campaign for State House in October and served as the regional director for the Republican Party of Florida from 2014-2016.

The depth of the field and experience of the candidates is impressive, as well as a good sign for the city moving forward, according to Mayor Joe Ayoub.

“It is great that so many people are willing and interested to put themselves out there and go through the rigorous process of running a campaign so that they can hopefully serve our community,” Ayoub said via email.

“It benefits our residents and our city as a whole to have so many qualified candidates debating the issues and sharing their vision so that our citizens can have a choice in how our city is governed and the direction it is taken.”

The six candidates are scheduled to participate in a forum Thursday, Feb. 1, beginning with a meet and greet at 6 p.m. at Safety Harbor City Hall, located at 750 Main Street.

For more information on Safety Harbor’s 2018 municipal election, visit cityofsafetyharbor.com.

Democrat Alex Heeren enters House District 66 race

A Democrat finally emerges to run in the open Pinellas County House District 66 this year.

He’s Alex Heeren, a Technology Integration Coordinator with the Pinellas County School District.

“I’m running for the Florida House because District 66 deserves a representative who will actually listen to the residents,” Heeren said Tuesday. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to be heard, and as this district’s representative, I’ll have an open-door policy. We must work together to make progress in our state.”

As Technology Integration Coordinator with Pinellas County Schools, Heeren helps teachers incorporate technology into their classrooms. He previously taught at Meadowlawn Middle School in St. Petersburg, as well as ran the Girls Who Code after school program. Heeren still coaches the middle school’s volleyball team. He is also an Eagle Scout and has lived in Pinellas County his entire life.

For the past seven years, HD 66 has been represented by Seminole Republican Larry Ahern, now term-limited out of office this fall. Republicans Berny Jacques and Nick DiCeglie are running against each other for the GOP primary.

Heeren lives in Seminole with his wife Teal, who is also a teacher.

Mike Fasano endorses Mike Wells for Pasco County Commission

Mike Wells picked up an endorsement Tuesday for his Pasco County Commission re-election campaign from county tax collector and former Republican state Rep. Mike Fasano.

“It is my honor to endorse Mike Wells for Pasco County Commissioner. Mike is a true community servant, with the experience necessary to effectively advocate on behalf of Pasco County and its residents. He has worked relentlessly to promote a business-friendly environment for our community and increase economic development,” Fasano said.

“Most important to me; Mike is a compassionate conservative, who stands up for our seniors and children. Mike is dedicated to standing up and speaking out for those who need it most.  This election, Mike Wells has my support and endorsement for Pasco County Commissioner, District 4.”

Wells, a longtime Pasco resident, was elected to the commission in 2014 and currently serves as its vice chairman and is the commission’s representative on a number of area boards, including the Area Agency on Aging, the Department of Juvenile Justice Circuit Advisory Board and the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties.

The New Port Richey Republican said he was “humbled” to have Fasano’s backing for his re-election bid.

“Mike Fasano has always fought for our seniors and children. He stands up and speaks for those who are often overlooked.  Mike Fasano has served the people of Pasco County for many years and represented us well in our state capitol.  I am humbled and grateful to have Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano’s endorsement and support,” he said.

Fasano’s endorsement follows nods from other Pasco County leaders, including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Sheriff Chris Nocco, Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, former House Speaker Will Weatherford and Republican Rep. Danny Burgess.

Both Wells and fellow Republican commissioner Mike Moore, who holds the District 2 seat, are up for re-election in 2018.

Wells is currently running against Democrat Brandi Geoit, over whom he holds a massive cash on hand advantage. Through November, he had raised $131,255 and had more than $120,000 on hand, while Geoit had about $3,300 in her campaign account through the same date.

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