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Rick Kriseman declares St. Petersburg a ‘sanctuary from harmful immigration laws’

Although St. Petersburg isn’t officially classified as a sanctuary city, Mayor Rick Kriseman all but declared that’s exactly what his town is on Saturday. And if the Trump administration wants to deny the city federal funds because of that stance, the mayor’s response is essentially, ‘We’ll see you in court.’

“While our county sheriff’s office is ultimately responsible for notifying the federal government about individuals who are here illegally, I have no hesitation in declaring St. Petersburg a sanctuary from harmful federal immigration laws,” Kriseman wrote on Medium on Saturday.

“We will not expend resources to help enforce such laws, nor will our police officers stop, question or arrest an individual solely on the basis that they may have unlawfully entered the United States,” the mayor added. “Should our solidarity with ‘Sanctuary Cities’ put in peril the millions of dollars we receive each year from the federal government or via pass-through grants, we will then challenge that decision in court. Win or lose, we will have upheld our values.”

In general, sanctuary cities are defined as localities that help shield undocumented residents from deportation by refusing to fully cooperate with detention requests from federal immigration authorities. The right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies listed Pinellas (as well as Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando) as sanctuary counties in a 2015 reportbut that classification has been strongly disputed by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

“When they ask us to do things within the law, we operate with them and their programs to help them take those that are illegal who have committed crimes . . . and get them out of here,”” Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times’ Laura Morel last week.

Although sanctuary cities and counties have existed in some form since the 1980’s, they became a much more potent political flash point in the summer of 2015, after 32-year-old Kate Steinle was fatally shot while walking on San Francisco’s Embarcadero by a Mexican national with a criminal record who had been deported several times.

On the campaign trail last year, Trump vowed to dismantle sanctuary cities, citing those areas for harboring dangerous immigrants who commit crimes against Americans. He followed up on that promise shortly after being inaugurated last month, signing an executive order threatening to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities.

While nearly every mayor of a sanctuary city has brazenly defied Trump’s executive order with rhetoric indicating that they will dig in and resist the threat (and in the case of San Francisco, gone ahead and filed a lawsuit blocking that executive order), Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been one of the few local officials to heed Trump, ordering his jails to comply with requests from the federal government on detaining illegal immigrants.

There have been efforts by immigration activists in Tampa for months to persuade Mayor Bob Buckhorn to convert his municipality into a sanctuary city, and Kriseman acknowledges in his post that he too has received similar requests. Both have deferred on the issue, saying that the responsibility for holding undocumented immigrants is left to their respective county governments and law enforcement officials.

While the issue of sanctuary cities isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it’s been superseded by the fallout from Trump’s executive order signed last week banning travel into the U.S. by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries.

On Friday, Buckhorn attended Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay mosque, where he called Trump’s actions “an attack on Islam as a religion.”

In his post on the online platform, Kriseman wrote that “the larger debate is no longer about sanctuary cities but about President Trump’s demonization of Muslims and the recent suspension of our refugee program.”

On Saturday morning, the State Department announced that previously banned travelers will be allowed to enter the U.S after a federal judge in Washington state on Friday night temporarily blocked enforcement of the president’s immigration ban.

“We have reversed the provisional revocation of visas under” Trump’s executive order, a State Department spokesman said Saturday. “Those individuals with visas that were not physically canceled may now travel if the visa is otherwise valid.”

Uber, Lyft here to stay – time to level the playing field with taxis

I have spent a lot of words arguing that Tampa and Hillsborough County should welcome the ride-share companies Uber and Lyft instead of fighting to preserve a monopoly that has been enjoyed by traditional cab companies.

I still feel that way.

However, if Uber and Lyft are allowed to operate the way they want, taxi companies should have a greater latitude to do the same – lest the free market put them out of business.

That led to an exchange Thursday at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority that could be the sign of a gathering storm.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Yellow Cab President Louis Minardi wants to renegotiate his company’s contract with Tampa International Airport. He argued the contract requiring his company to pay the airport about $35,000 a month for access isn’t fair because drivers for Uber and Lyft don’t pay a thing.

The fee is financed by a surcharge passengers pay for taking a cab out of the airport. Uber and Lyft passengers don’t fork over that dough, so their ride is cheaper.

Minardi has an excellent point. That led to a lot of “er, uh, homina homina” from airport chief Joe Lopano.

He said “we can’t change the payment plan” because the airport has already budgeted for the money. He added that this should be a matter for the Public Transportation Commission.

That would be fine, except the PTC is on life-support legislatively and might not exist much longer. The PTC also is under siege after county attorneys reported that public records have been scrubbed from as many as seven agency cellphones. This may not be the best time to bring the PTC into anything, if you get my drift.

The contract between the airport and Yellow Cab runs until the end of February 2018. That’s basically 13 more months where ride-share drivers have a significant pricing advantage over traditional cab companies.

This is all a bit awkward.

To Lopano’s point about the PTC, taxi companies have enjoyed a cozy relationship for years that agency. It sets rates and other rules for them to follow, which they are happy to do because the PTC pays them back by restricting competition.

Uber and Lyft didn’t play ball, though. They fought against the PTC, resulting in threats and harassment against their companies until they won a temporary contract last November to operate freely until the end of this year.

There is no turning back. They’re going to be around for a long, long time.

Cab companies are the big loser in this, of course. That explains why Minardi was making the case to the airport board for a level playing field. I don’t blame him a bit.

What’s fair for one should be fair for all. What we have now at the airport doesn’t qualify.

MADD, sheriffs and emergency air medical campaign urge safety on Super Bowl weekend

When a drunken driver nearly killed Robin Powell during Tampa’s Super Bowl XXXV weekend in 2001, an air ambulance saved her life.

On Thursday, Powell, along with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, and the Save Our Air Medical Resources (SOAR) Campaign, urge Tampa Bay citizens to avoid drinking and driving this Super Bowl weekend.

 “If there weren’t an air ambulance available to me on that awful day in 2001, I wouldn’t be here today as proof of what can happen when people mix drinking with driving,” said Powell, who is now a longtime MADD supporter. “It’s difficult to articulate the pain drunk driving caused me and my family, but also our gratitude that the medical helicopter was there to save me.”

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that Super Bowl Sunday has become one of the most dangerous days of the year for traffic fatalities, increasing by as much as 50 percent. Forty percent of those deaths are connected to drunk driving.

“Our deputies will be out in full force this weekend to make sure Hillsborough County roads remain safe while people watch the big game,” said Colonel J.R. Burton, HCSO Commander of Patrol Services. “It pains us to dispatch to the scene of a crash where a drunken driver has forever changed lives. Everyone needs to make the smart decision this weekend and leave the keys behind if they plan on drinking.”

Emergency air medical services are often the only way to get crash victims in critical condition quickly to an available trauma center. More than 3,000 such air transports take place in Florida every year. SOAR is a national campaign to ensure Americans nationwide have access to this lifesaving emergency service.

“While we’re grateful air medical services are able to help people like Robin, our goal is that we never need to deploy air ambulances to car crashes thanks to safe roads,” said Scott Fetterman, flight paramedic at Bayflite at St. Josephs’ Hospital and a member of the SOAR Campaign. “However, we’ve seen time and time again how important it is for these life-saving services to be available when people need them the most.”

To reduce the potential of drunk drivers, the HCSO recommends Super Bowl partygoers choose a designated driver or plan some other type of transportation before the party begins.

“Emergency air medical services play such an important role in quickly transporting patients from the scene of a crash to a trauma center, so they can get the quality of care they desperately need when every second counts,” said Amanda Thayer, national representative for the SOAR Campaign. “Our mission is to ensure that these services remain available for people like Robin, whose life depended on it.”


Personnel note: Christopher Moody named Hillsborough County Chief Assistant State Attorney

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren selected prosecutor Christopher Moody to serve as the new Chief Assistant State Attorney.

As Chief Assistant, Moody will supervise the 135 Assistant State Attorneys who prosecute cases on behalf of the Office.  In addition, he will be responsible for executing the State Attorney’s policy initiatives, overseeing the daily operations of the prosecutorial staff, and training and evaluating the Assistant State Attorneys.

Moody, a former U.S. Marine Corps veteran and high school teacher, is being promoted from his current position as the Office’s Felony Bureau Chief. He has extensive prosecutorial and leadership experience, having served previously in the Homicide Division and as the Chief of the Sexual Offense and Juvenile Divisions, among other positions during his over 21 years with the Office.

Moody received his law and undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida.

Warren said: “Chris is an accomplished prosecutor and dedicated leader who is highly-regarded by our attorneys, judges, law enforcement agencies and the community. He is an invaluable asset to this Office and will be instrumental in fulfilling my vision of making our community safer while ensuring justice and fairness for everyone in Hillsborough.”

Moody said: “I am honored to continue serving our community in this new role, and I’m excited to work with Mr. Warren as we fight on behalf of the citizens of Hillsborough County.”

Moody joins Gary Weisman, Chief of Staff and Rena Frazier, Chief of Policy & Communication, to complete Warren’s executive team.

Warren was sworn-in as the State Attorney for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida, serving Hillsborough County, on Jan. 3, 2017, after being elected in November. He was previously a federal prosecutor with the United States Department of Justice in Tampa and Washington, DC, and earned multiple accolades from the Justice Department and federal law enforcement agencies for his prosecution of complex white collar crime, including the 2013 Attorney General Award for Trial Litigation.

A native of Gainesville, Warren graduated from Brandeis University as a double-major in economics and political science before earning his J.D. from Columbia University Law School.


Charlie Crist named to three key financial services subcommittees

Charlie Crist, as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, was tapped to serve on three of its principal subcommittees.

The freshman St. Petersburg Democrat has been named to:

— Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, which covers all matters relating to banking, including oversight of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, mortgages, and federal regulators of financial institutions;

— Monetary Policy and Trade, which has jurisdiction over the Export-Import Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, which impacts access to capital and interest rates; and

— Oversight and Investigation, which is tasked with overseeing administration actions relating to financial services to promote good governance in this sector.

These assignments will serve as a complement to Crist’s work on the full committee, such as ensuring flood insurance is more affordable and enacting Wall Street reform.

“Our work on the Financial Services Committee — and particularly these subcommittees — will have a direct impact on residents of Pinellas County,” Crist said in a statement. “I look forward to having the opportunity to affect policies to increase access to capital for small businesses, particularly women- and minority-owned businesses that drive our local economy, as well as defending the Export-Import Bank, which has supported $200 million in exports from Pinellas County businesses since 2012On the Oversight Subcommittee, I will be a faithful watchdog on behalf of the people and their hard-earned tax dollars.”

More information on the roles and responsibilities of Financial Services is available on the committee website.


Tampa Bay Legislative Delegation attempts to find answers for regional transportation fix

Tampa Bay’s Legislative Delegation, with state lawmakers representing the area’s eight counties, spent two hours Wednesday in Clearwater discussing how to begin addressing the region’s myriad transportation issues.

According to a new white paper prepared by the D.C.-based Enos Center for Transportation for the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional structure for transportation planning, operations and decision-making is paramount to the development of a regional transport network.

That conclusion might make an interested observer ask — isn’t that what TBARTA was supposed to be?

A decade ago, the Florida Legislature created the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority to develop and implement a regional transportation master plan of the seven-county West Central Florida region. As Manatee County GOP Senator Bill Galvano recounted Wednesday, it was produced without a funding mechanism, after then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the $8 million in appropriations set for its conception.

“That was  a shock to all of us,” Galvano said, adding: “I don’t think he (Crist) realized the connection and it fell through the cracks.”

Whether TBARTA can ultimately become that vehicle as intended was only mentioned toward the end of the meeting held at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Lawmakers also heard from Tampa Bay Lightning owner and Channelside developer Jeff Vinik and Barry Shevlin, co-chairs from the transportation group working with the Tampa Bay Partnership. The group also worked with the Enos Center to produce the white paper.

Vinik’s comments were more general. Waiting for another five to ten years to develop a master plan, he said, will constrain the growth of the Tampa Bay area. Vinik said all options for transportation improvements — roadway expansion, BRT lines, light rail, commuter rail, etc. — all were on the table.

“I know it’s critical that we reach consensus in a direction that we want to head,” he said.

Shevlin delved more into specifics.

“We’re a top twenty metro area, but we’re acting like a collection of municipalities and counties and not a region,” he stated, adding that there was obviously no regional structure for transportation planning or decision-making in general happening in the area.

And twice during his public comments, Shevlin lamented the fact that as of last Saturday, there were 14 different buses moving from Dover in Eastern Hillsborough County to downtown Tampa, yet there wasn’t a single vehicle going from Tampa to Clearwater or St. Petersburg.

Shevlin outlined four priorities the Partnership believes need to happen.

One is to create a multicounty Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The second plan is to support a regional center for transit operations. Shevlin said HART and PSTA, the two biggest transit agencies in the Bay area, should have a “closer relationship,” but left it open as to how that happens.

Clearwater Republican Senator Jack Latvala called for a consolidation of the two agencies more than four years ago. After conducting two different studies, that merger never happened, though the agencies are poised to sign an interlocal agreement which will necessitate more joint efforts.

Shevlin also called for a uniform regulatory law in the state regarding ride share, which Tampa Republican Representative Jamie Grant later assured would happen in this year’s session. And the fourth priority is the regional transit study being conducted right now by the Florida Dept. of Transportation which involves the very controversial Tampa Bay Express project.

TBX was almost an afterthought in the discussions, even though the multibillion-dollar plan was hailed as a much-needed congestion relief package. Democrats Sean Shaw and Darryl Rouson, who represented the neighborhoods slated to be deleteriously affected by the TBX proposal, both counseled FDOT to double down on its efforts to communicate with the local community. “As it relates to TBX, my constituents don’t feel that they’ve been heard,” Shaw said.

Senator Galvano said that there had been too much parochialism in the past when it comes to local governments wanted to help out other governments in the 2.9 million universe that is the Tampa Bay area.

“I don’t know if we can get there,” he admitted. “It’s a real challenge, getting the mindset that you may have to ante up in your community for a regional plan that’s not going to impact your community for maybe one, two, three or maybe four years.”

As to whether TBARTA could ever become that agency?

“They are operating on a shoestring budget, cobbled together on donations from local governments,” said Shawn Harrison, who served on the TBARTA board after its creation.

“If we can take that vision and expand, I really do think we do have at our disposal a vehicle that can plan and put assets on the road,” added Harrison, a Republican who now represents House District 63.

“We do have a shoestring budget,” echoed Ray Chiaramonte, TBARTA’s executive director. He did say that every local government except for Sarasota funded the agency last year.

Galvano appreciated the work of the Tampa Bay Partnership, but said looking at his colleagues from counties as diverse as Sarasota to Polk: “It’s not about the Tampa Bay Partnership, it’s about us, and it’s going to take some effort.”

Barclay Harless starts off strong in St. Pete City Council bid

Barclay Harless is enjoying a strong start to his bid for St. Petersburg City Council.

In the first week since announcing, the local banker and community leader has received more than 100 individual contributors to his campaign for District 2, which represents most of northern St. Pete and the Gandy area.

“We are running a grassroots campaign powered by small businesses, St. Pete residents, and community members who want a fresh perspective to get things done in city hall,” Harless said in a statement Tuesday. “The challenges that face our city may seem daunting, but they are man-made, so we have the power to solve them.”

“We will not find solutions in finger-pointing or empty political rhetoric. Rather, our problems require bold, decisive action to get things done.”

Thanking his early supporters, Harless listed his top priorities, which include a renewed focus on the Pier, Tropicana Field, wastewater, small business growth and engagement with the people of St. Pete, to give them a larger voice in City Hall.

A fifth-generation Floridian, Harless has played significant roles in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. After graduating from the University of South Florida in 2010, he went to work for then-state Rep. Darryl Rouson. Harless also served on the board of R’Club Childcare, Inc., as well as the Louise Graham Center for Regeneration for three and half years. He served as state policy chair in the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as on grant boards for the Suncoast United Way. In 2015, Harless was appointed to the Pinellas Charter Review Commission where he sponsored a county amendment stipulating citizen-sponsored redistricting for the county commission.

Harless will face Brandi Gabbard, a former president of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, who filed Monday for the District 2 seat.

Poll shows Charlie Crist would beat David Jolly if a rematch is in the cards

Even though there are more than 20 months before Election Day 2018, a week does not go by without a mention — or several — in the media about a possible rematch between Charlie Crist and David Jolly in Florida’s 13th Congressional District.

In a new StPetePolls survey of CD 13 voters, Crist would edge out Jolly by about eight points if such a rematch were held today. Crist would get nearly 49 percent, compared to Jolly, who gets just under 41 percent. Nearly 11 percent of respondents were undecided.

As the incumbent, Crist received the support of almost 72 percent of Democrats, along with nearly 24 percent of Republicans. Those numbers are significantly better than his Republican predecessor; Jolly wins only 69 percent support from voters of his own party, while getting 18 percent of Democrats. Chris also has better numbers with independents (49 percent to 34 percent for Jolly).

Crist also does slightly better among white voters (46 percent to 45 percent for Jolly) and considerably better with black voters (66 percent to 20 percent for Jolly). The former Republican governor also fares well in every age bracket – except with voters over the age of 70, who prefer Jolly 48 percent to Crist’s 42 percent.

The poll was conducted Jan. 30 for FloridaPolitics.com using an automated phone call system with a sample size of 1,289. Results were weighted to account for proportional differences in demographics and that of the active voter population of CD13 as of Dec. 6, 2016. Demographics included political party, race, age and gender. The results have a 2.7 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level.

Charlie Crist says Trump administration needs to rethink its executive order on refugees

It took awhile, but Charlie Crist is finally weighing in on Donald Trump’s controversial executive order temporarily placing a ban on refugees entering the U.S.

While nearly every member of the Florida congressional delegation, and certainly every Democrat was eager over the weekend or on Monday to express their opinion, the St. Petersburg Democrat was quiet. Until now.

Although he does not believe it to be a de facto ban on Muslims, Crist says that the idea of a religious test of any kind “is unconstitutional,” adding that the administration needs to rethink the strategy “immediately.”

Here is the statement in full:

“Our number one priority is to keep America safe. But we must also ensure that America continues to be the beacon of light and hope to the world. These policies are not mutually exclusive. We can and should take steps to improve our vetting processes, while also allowing refugees fleeing persecution to seek a better life in the U.S.

“The confusion and fear created by the lack of coordination around this Executive Order is shocking and deeply troubling. It also appears the so-called religious test it would implement is unconstitutional. The administration needs to rethink this strategy immediately.”

Citizinvestor’s Tony DeSisto takes on new challenge, launches Simple Greek franchise

Tony DeSisto, the Tampa-based civic activist, is rising to accept a new challenge — restaurateur.

The co-founder of Citizinvestor, an online crowdfunding platform for public and community infrastructure projects, will open the first Florida franchise of The Simple Greek, an innovative fast-casual concept that seeks to transform the idea of a traditional Greek restaurant.

Starting in mid-February, The Simple Greek – with a Chipotle-goes-to-Athens vibe – will be serving customers an interactive experience, using simple ordering (described as a “build-your-own assembly line-style”), open kitchens and only fresh, high-quality ingredients.

As the company website says: “We want our guests to experience The Simple Greek as if they were traveling to Greece the very first time.”

The idea for Simple Greek began in 2004, when Mike Ference and Kathleen Kamouyerou-Ference opened a small Greek pita stand out of a garage in McMurray, a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After attempts to franchise a few locations with sons Andreas and Michael, the family reached out to Marcus Lemonis, host of the CNBC show The Profit.

Lemonis – who is of Greek descent and always expressed an interest in sharing his culture and love of the food from his ancestral home – made a deal with the family, which they accepted.

“Marcus came in, invested in the company and took a majority,” DeSisto says, “rebranding it and turning it into the concept it is now … an open kitchen feel, fresh, healthy build-your-own meal-style.”

A critical element for the success of any small business is having the right staff in the right roles. Knowing this, Lemonis brought on a management team to work alongside the Ference family, giving each distinct functions and responsibilities within the organization.

DeSisto first learned about The Simple Greek through The Profit, where Lemonis preaches simple advice for future franchisees: “Know your numbers, trust the process, and remember we are working together to build something special.”

DeSisto was hooked.

“I’ve always been interested in the restaurant business,” DeSisto says, “particularly in franchises.” Although he admits he has no restaurant experience, DeSisto says he had been looking at new opportunities for quite some time, and Simple Greek offered just the right business model, with an excellent fit and a “great company behind it.”

And coupling that open, interactive concept with Greek food was a “really good spin,” he adds.

“I looked at [franchises] over a number of years,” DeSisto says, “But, for one reason or another, never went through with it – the content didn’t work or the numbers didn’t make sense.”

“With [Simple Greek], I thought it was a great concept. I think it’s the way we’re moving … people love eating healthy, fresh food that they can see prepared as they go through the line.”

After investing to secure the territory of South Tampa, Channelside and Ybor City through Hillsborough County, DeSisto selected the Carrollwood location — at 12908 N. Dale Mabry Highway near W. Fletcher Avenue — for the first Simply Greek in Florida. DeSisto is also beginning construction on another on in Rhode Island, his family home.

Currently, Simply Greek has three locations in Pennsylvania; one in Wichita Falls, Texas; and about 20 more expected to open soon on the East Coast, in Texas, Chicago and Arizona. The North Tampa location, which can be reached at 5, also has an active presence on Facebook, asking friends and followers to #shareyourinnergreek.

As for why he chose that particular plaza – which includes Side Splitters Comedy Club – there’s nothing that matched the healthy Simple Greek approach.

“I think the great thing about that [Carrolwood] location is its high traffic area,” DeSisto says about the neighborhood, “with people going up-and-down Dale Mabry all day. There’s a number of fast casual restaurants there, and demand for that kind of food.”

Now about two weeks from grand opening, DeSisto anticipates his new venture will become a solid starting point for future Simple Greek locations throughout the Tampa area.

“If we deliver a good product,” DeSisto says, “we will be successful.”

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