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FDOT Secretary says it’s time to hit reset button on TBX project

Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold told a Senate Committee Tuesday that it’s time to hit the reset button on the controversial Tampa Bay Express Project.

“We have had some challenges with getting that project to a point where the local communities that are affected are pleased with where it is, and so we have the benefit of some time before we’re ready to move forward with that project,” Boxhold told the Senate Transportation Committee.

“We probably have 2-3 years before that project is what we call ‘production ready,’ ready to turn dirt,” he added. “And so we’re going to sort of hit the reset button, bring in additional staff or different staff to manage that project, and work more intensively with the local communities.”

Among those various staff members will be someone replacing Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for the Tampa Bay district who abruptly resigned last month from the Department.

As the DOT’s public face on the project, Hunt faced intense criticism from some members of the community who bonded together to oppose the project.

The TBX project is the biggest public works project in the history of the Tampa Bay area. The plan would ultimately remake I-275, I-4 and I-75, and bring new toll lanes from Pasco County south to Manatee County and from Pinellas County east to Polk County.

Critics contend that the plan would negatively impact a low-income and minority concentrated area of Tampa, who had little input on what was happening in their neighborhood. The Tampa Bay Times reported in June that 80 percent of the registered voters living at properties that Florida’s Department of Transportation plans to demolish are black and Latino.

Boxhold addressed that issue on Tuesday.

“Needless to say, there are minority communities that are affected,” he said. “Given the project’s magnitude, it’s important that we take the time to get it right.”

“We want a project that not only the department can be proud to build, be proud to put the Governor out there for a groundbreaking, that the local community is just as proud to join us for that groundbreaking,” Boxhold continued.

St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson said the public wants improvement to the transportation roadway system, but that “the community must feel like a respected part of what’s being done.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Boxhold said.

In June, the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization voted to continue the toll roads project on pace by keeping it in its transportation improvement plan. It came after an eight-hour public hearing, where an estimated 500 people packed the county center chambers and an another floor to plead with the agency to kill the project.

But the business establishment in the Tampa Bay area is solidly behind TBX, led by the Tampa Bay Partnership, 

New poll shows Rick Kriseman is popular, but could lose to Rick Baker in 2017

Hardly a week goes by without the Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago reporting a new development in the crisis surrounding Rick Kriseman and the City of St. Petersburg’s handling of its sewage system’s overflow problems.

Most recently, Kriseman stopped a plan to hire a state employee to the city’s sewer department who was involved in the investigation of the city’s sewage system problems. That Kriseman had to step in, especially after his own spokesman shrugged off the glaring inappropriateness of such an arrangement, speaks volumes about how this issue has, um, spilled in so many unexpected directions.

A new poll suggests the sewage system issue is taking a toll on Kriseman’s political viability.

According to a survey conducted by St. Pete Polls, Kriseman would lose handily to former Mayor Rick Baker if the two were to square off in next year’s mayoral election. Forty-four percent of registered voters in the city would vote for Baker, while 35 percent would support Kriseman.

This is a dramatic change from earlier this year, when a St. Pete Polls survey showed Kriseman and Baker essentially tied.

Fortunately for Kriseman, it’s not clear whether Baker is interested in serving another term at City Hall.

As Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times reported, Baker, 60, has been letting people know he’s mulling a run for governor in 2018. Also, Baker now has his hands full with the effort to make the Tampa Bay Rowdies a Major League Soccer franchise.

If Baker doesn’t run, the new St. Pete Polls survey suggest Kriseman should be in the clear. He easily defeats term-limited City Councilman Karl Nurse (44 to 26 percent), outspoken Kriseman administration critic Steve Kornell (44 to 21 percent), and St. Petersburg state Senator Jeff Brandes (43 to 29 percent).

This poll of 1,100 registered voters in St. Petersburg was conducted on December 12. The survey has a 3.0 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level.

Pinellas GOP chief Nick DiCeglie to run for head of state chairs

After successfully leading his county into the red in last month’s presidential election, newly re-elected Pinellas County Republican Party Executive Committee Chairman Nick DiCigle is thinking ‘bigly’ for 2017. At next month’s state party meeting in Orlando, he intends to run for the Chairman’s Caucus Chairman, the leader of all 67 county GOP leaders from across the state.

“My goal – if successful – is to share what worked for us here in Pinellas County with the other chairmen in the state of Florida,” DiCeglie said last week in an interview at the Pinellas GOP’s offices in Clearwater.

Initially elected in 2014 and re-elected Monday night, DiCigle says that unlike many other county chairs across the state, he has the luxury of being in a large county with a substantial donor base and other resources that he’s been able to adroitly tap into.

“I want to be able to share not on my successes and our successes here in the party, but to share those successes, so that collectively we can come together as a group of chairmen, (so) when these folks go back to their counties, they’re more knowledgeable, they’ve  learned something, and they can improve what their doing locally, that’s the ultimate goal,” DiCigle says.

The Long Island native has been active with the Pinellas Republican Party since 2009. After a stint as vice chair, he was elected chairman of the REC in 2014 when he defeated two other challengers to take the reigns of the local party. His biggest accomplishment to date was leading Pinellas to go red for Donald Trump in last month’s presidential election, a significant development in comparison to 2012, when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by nearly ten percentage points in the county.

DiCeglie is aware that some of the migration to the local Republican party in 2016 emanated directly from those attracted to Trump, and that some of those voters don’t necessarily have that strong of an allegiance to the GOP. His goal is to make them want to stay in the party.

“I think this is an opportunity for Republicans,  and we have a responsibility as a local party as well to change minds, and as we change minds, and as things improve in this country, we’re going to be able to not only register Republicans as voters, we’re going to bypass the Dems by significant margins,” he says, adding that one of his goals over the next to years is to “identify, engage, communicate and motivate this new electorate.”

The next big thing in Pinellas when it comes to elections is the St. Petersburg Mayor’s race, taking place next November. And while Rick Kriseman has been struggling at City Hall regarding  his handling of the sewage crisis, he still doesn’t appear to be in danger for re-election unless Rick Baker were to leave the private sector and run for the job he held from 2000-2009.

DiCeglie acknowledges that the list of potential challengers to Kriseman begins with Baker, but says if he doesn’t pull the trigger “there are other Republicans that we’re going to be engaging,’ though he says he can’t say who those people are just yet. He grows impassioned when discussing what he says has been a distressing lack of leadership at City Hall.

The GOP leader scoffs at the idea that the mayoral race is nonpartisan. “Tell that to Rick Kriseman,” he says. “He made that race extremely partisan four years ago,” referring to the tens of thousands of dollars that the Florida Democratic Party contributed to his campaign in 2013.

“We certainly want to play a role,” he says about the municipal election, where four City Council seats will also be on the ballot. “We don’t know exactly what that’s going to be, but there’s a significant concern about the direction about the city of St Petersburg, and we’re firm believers that any leader of mayor, who focuses on limited government and fiscally conservative values is certainly better than what we’re seeing right now.”

Regarding the election for state party chair, DiCeglie is a Blaise Ingoglia man, but says he’s friends with his challenger, Sarasota state committeeman Christian Ziegler. “They’re both great people, and either way, we’re going to have a very strong party coming into this next cycle, no question about it.”

Salvation Army feeling chill at Red Kettles, donations down this Christmas

One charity in Florida might be feeling a bit of winter chill, as people in the Tampa Bay area are keeping wallets and purses closed at iconic Salvation Army Red Kettles this season.

As the holidays approach, Salvation Army donations are down by more than 12 percent across the Tampa Bay Area, according to Capt. Andrew Miller, Area Commander for The Salvation Army of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

“With less than three weeks left before Christmas, we’re hoping that shoppers will think of their neighbors in need the next time they pass a Salvation Army bellringer and give what they can,” Miller said.

Miller notes that a drop in donations means fewer meals for the hungry and beds for homeless in the Bay Area.

“This is the time of year when The Salvation Army raises most of its individual contributions,” he said. “So any drop in donations could negatively impact The Salvation Army’s ability to meet needs here in Tampa Bay.”

While time is running short, gifts can still be made to Red Kettles, which are stationed in front of Publix, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart stores and other local retailers throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Donations provide meals and shelter for families in need and Christmas toys for children, as well as many other services throughout the community. Salvation Army representatives say volunteers served more than 101,000 men, women, and children In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties last year alone.

The Salvation Army encourages will the public to donate this holiday season through either its Red Kettles or at www.SalvationArmyTampaBay.org.

Personnel Note: Charlie Crist taps Hill veteran Erin Moffet as Communications Director

Congressman-elect Charlie Crist is naming Erin Moffet as Communications Director for his Capitol Hill office.

Moffet has spent nearly seven years running the press operations for Florida members serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Erin will be a strong addition to our team given her years of experience working with the Florida press corps,” Crist, the former Governor who now represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District, said in a statement Monday. “Her passion and understanding of the issues impacting Floridians will help us communicate effectively with the residents of Pinellas County to better serve our constituents.”

“It is an honor to continue working on behalf of the people of the great state of Florida as Communications Director in Governor Crist’s Congressional office,” Moffet said. “I am humbled to work for a true public servant who I know will always do what is best for his constituents, working each and every day to move our country forward.”

A former resident of West Palm Beach, Moffet has deep experience as a communicator in the Florida congressional delegation. Moffet got her start as Press Secretary for Congressman Alcee Hastings and later became Communications Director for Congresswoman Lois Frankel.  She currently serves as Communications Director for retiring Congressman Patrick Murphy, working in his Congressional office since 2013 as well as on his successful House campaigns in 2012 and 2014.

Moffet received her undergraduate degree from Elon University and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, with a concentration in political communications.

Women slam Donald Trump in Tampa as part of a national day of protest

Approximately thirty people gathered in Tampa’s Lykes Gaslight Park on Monday to participate in a protest by women and their “allies in solidarity” against what they call Donald Trump’s hate.

The event was one of at least two dozen being held around the nation. In New York, protesters were gathering at Columbus Circle at 2 p.m., where they were then scheduled later in the day to march to Trump Tower to speak out against the president-elect.

“Part of the objective was to do this before the 19th to try to get the attention of the electoral college voters, however far fetched that might be,” said Suzanne Young, the organizer of the Tampa event.

December 19 is when the 538 members of the Electoral College will cast their ballots for president. Those electors are picked by their political parties, and in the states where Trump took the popular vote like in Florida, the Republican party’s slate of electorate will get to vote.

But a group of rogue electors known as the Hamilton Electors have been engaged in a last-ditch effort to stop Trump from becoming president. To do they must convince at least 37 of the 306 Republican electors currently pledged to Trump to instead support a moderate Republican alternative. Democratic electors have taken the lead in this long-shot effort, which if successful at denying any candidate 270 electoral votes could ultimately throw the presidential election into the hands of the House of Representatives.

“I have a fear for their own safety, because they can’t vote their conscious,” said one anonymous demonstrator about the electors at the Tampa rally. She told this reporter she feared retribution from her boss if she said her name while attending the event.

Others at the rally spoke in dark terms of what a Trump presidency could mean for the nation.

“I’ve lost a lot of elections, but I always had the security of knowing that the U.S. was going to be in pretty good hands. This time I feel that the entire world is at stake,” said Laura Manson from Dade City.”I’m an older women. I have studied some history. And I see some similarities, quite frankly, to Hitler, and I always said to myself, that couldn’t happen. Now I think it could happen. And if history has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a time to stand up.”

Nearly all the protestors in Lykes Gaslight Park were women, some of whom said they feared that under a Trump administration they could lose fundamental rights, such as the right to have an abortion. Trump has said that he supports pro-life justices to sit on the Supreme Court.

“We’ve got to stand up or we’re going to lose,” Geanne Marks from St. Petersburg said with concern. “All that we’ve fought for is going to go down the tubes. We have got to stand up. He’s in. We can’t do anything about that. But we can sure let our voice be heard, that we’re not going to put up with the kind of things that he’s shown while he was campaigning.”

Marks said she has only become more alarmed in the five weeks since the election by the choice of Trump’s Cabinet selections. “I mean you choose somebody for EPA who doesn’t believe in global warming?” she asked incredulously about the choice of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead that agency“You chose a woman for education who doesn’t believe in public education?” she added, referring to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s selection to head the Dept. of Education.

Over the weekend Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio slammed Trump for considering ExonMobil Corporation head Rex Tillerson as be his choice for secretary of state. The 64-year-old Tillerson, who took home $27 million last year, also has close ties with Russia, which has led to the objections by Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Tampa resident Erin Feichtinger said after reading Rubio’s tweet about Tillerson, she called his office on Monday to tell him she appreciated the comment. “We should identify these issues that I don’t think should be partisan, that affect all of Americans, and so I think it’s important that I call him,” she said. “I’m going to continue to call the office and hold him to that and let him know that his constituents do see that and do support that.”

Protests against Trump began the night after the election and continued for over a week in the Tampa Bay area and around the nation.  There haven’t been as many recently, but several people who attended Monday’s rally say they’ll be active the entire time that Trump is in office.

Susan from St. Petersburg (she did not feel comfortable giving us her full name) said uncertain whether the Democrats are up to being the opposition party in full in challenging Trump, but she says she won’t quit.

“I believe that radical change and incremental change can co-exist,” she said. “I believe in both kinds of change and it doesn’t hurt me to participate in incremental change while I advocate for radical change.”

After dead veteran scandal, someone needs to say ‘you’re fired’ at Bay Pines VA

I was about to muse aloud why someone hasn’t been fired yet from the Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Health Care System when this statement came in from U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents the district where the facility is located.

“Unsurprisingly, not a single VA employee has been fired following this incident, despite a clear lack of concern and respect for the Veteran. The men and women who sacrificed on behalf of our nation deserve better.”

Yep. Unsurprising.

That is the sad truth in the aftermath of the shocking report late last week that instead of transporting a deceased veteran from the hospice wing at the facility to the morgue, he was left unattended for nine hours, first in the hallway and then in the shower room.

That was bad enough.

But then, as a 24-page report first revealed by the Tampa Bay Times details, there was an attempt to cover up that incident from February before anyone found out. I can only imagine how that went down.

“Uh, what’s this body doing here?”

“I don’t know. Think we should tell someone?”

“Are you kidding? People don’t need to know this. We’ll just tidy things up and pretend this never happened. Let’s get some lunch and figure out a plan.”

That plan, according to the report, included falsifying records. That should be a firing offense right there.

Following this to its logical conclusion, though, it appears that covering your backside, in this case, was a lot more important than doing things right and treating a deceased veteran with the respect he deserved and promised as a quid pro quo for the service he gave to his country.

And hasn’t that been a problem in the VA for a long, long time now?

As Bilirakis says, “The report details a total failure on the part of the Department of Veterans Affairs and an urgent need for greater accountability.”

That “total failure” included numerous breakdowns in procedures for dealing with deceased veterans. There can be no excuse.

Bay Pines is far from the only Veterans Affairs facility to come under fire, and it appears to be a systemwide problem. Issues with the giant agency will be a stain on the legacy of President Obama as he prepares to leave office next month.

For now, as far as we know, no one lost their job at Bay Pines over this, even though it happened about 10 months ago. There apparently was a lot of finger-pointing, according to the report, and attempts to deflect blame, but somebody screwed up big time and needs to pay the price.

A spokesman for Bay Pines told the Times that, “We feel that we have taken strong, appropriate and expeditious steps to strengthen and improve our existing systems and processes within the unit.”

That’s a good thing.

This is one time, though, where it would be smart to borrow a line from incoming President Donald Trump. Whoever is responsible needs to hear those magic words: You’re fired.

Lyft says its presence in Tampa has led to nearly $12 million in new spending in local economy

With Lyft (along with Uber) now street legal in Tampa after more than two-and-half-years of wrangling with the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission, the San Francisco-based ridesharing company is making some bold claims about its impact on the local economy.

In a report based on surveys conducted with Lyft drivers and passengers in Tampa released Monday, the company says that more than $11.9 million in new spending was generated in the local economy in 2016 because of its presence.

When asked its motivation for requesting a Lyft ride, 78 percent said it was to travel to and from restaurants or entertainment venues, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that these riders don’t want to drink and drive. A full 92 percent say are more likely to avoid driving while intoxicated because they can get a Lyft ride, and 61 percent of passengers say they use Lyft for friends and family who need assistance after drinking.

“People are going out more, staying out longer, and visiting areas of their city that weren’t easily accessible before Lyft,” said Peter Gigante, Lyft’s Head of Policy Research. “This has had a real impact on local businesses and economies, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars spent by residents and visitors. Passengers also save both time and money when they can choose a Lyft ride as opposed to the hassle and expense of driving their personal vehicle.”

Lyft also claims that their presence has led to a 51 percent increase in spending at local businesses.

The company says that it saves Tampa denizens 143,000 hours a year, which translates into $6.8 million in save travel time value, and they say that 25 percent of those rides start in underserved areas.

There is some interesting data about Lyft drivers as well, such as the fact that 48 percent “self-identity with a minority group”; 20 percent are female, 31 percent of drivers are over 50 years old, and nine percent are over 65.

Lyft did not provide any backup data regarding their survey, which they classify as their “2017 Economic Impact Study.”

While Lyft is now officially in legal compliance with local regulations in Hillsborough County, there are still not uniform rules for transportation network companies throughout Florida. Some state legislators have said they will attempt such legislation to regulate them again in the 2017 session, a sentiment they’ve made in previous years, to no success.

Tampa Bay Times’ Anthony Cormier leaving to work for BuzzFeed News

Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Anthony Cormier is leaving the paper to join BuzzFeed News in New York next month.

Along with the Times’ Leonora LaPeter Anton and the Sarasota Herald Tribune’s Michael Braga, Cormier shared in taking home the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a series on Florida’s unsafe system of state-run mental hospitals.

The 2015 series uncovered nearly 1,000 assaults or injuries in mental hospitals during a period in which $100 million was slashed from the state’s mental health budget. That forced staffing cuts and created an environment where employees were forced to work double shifts and supervise more than a dozen violent and unstable patients alone.

In response, Florida lawmakers passed a measure in the 2016 session that added $16 million to the mental hospitals’ budgets, $2.4 million to contract with psychiatrists and other professional staff members, and $1.5 million for safety equipment such as security cameras and body alarms.

Prior to coming to the Times, Cormier reported for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Among his accomplishments there was an investigative series with Braga called, “Breaking the Banks,” The stories showed how some Florida bankers broke the law and looted their own institutions in the pursuit of quick and easy profits during the real estate boom. The reports ultimately led to the indictments of three bankers and lawsuits from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. It won first prize in the print/online-small category award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2014.

Cormier will work in Buzzfeed’s Investigative Unit, which is led by Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Mark Schoofs.  He told POLITICO that Buzzfeed received nearly 700 applications for the investigative reporter position that ultimately went to Cormier.

“We chose Anthony because he has done great work on a whole range of topics, of which [the hospital investigation] is merely the most decorated of his stories,” Schoofs told the website. “If you look at the range of topics that Anthony has covered, it is astounding.”

Cormier is graduate of Florida State University.

Pinellas GOP, Democrats poised to elect party leaders this Monday night

When it comes to drama with their upcoming party reorganization meetings taking place next week, Pinellas County Republicans and Democrats have nothing on their Hillsborough County brethren.

This coming Monday night, the local executive committees for the Republican and Democratic Parties in Pinellas County will be voting for their party leaders, and in both cases, it doesn’t appear to be many changes at hand – at least not yet.

Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee Chair Susan McGrath is running to serve a second term, after defeating Mark Hanisee in a contentious election back in 2014. She has no competition at the moment. Amos Miers is running for vice chair, Wanda Schwerer, who is running for state committee woman, and Rick Boylan, who is running as state committee man. That meeting will take place at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater at 7:00 p.m.

“We are fortunate to have some solid unity and forward momentum in Pinellas with 4 of 7 people running for December PCDEC Board positions who are new, 3 of which are Berniecrats (Bonnie Agan for Secretary) and two who were Bernie Delegates (Wanda Schwerer for re-election to State Committee Woman and myself running for Vice Chair for the first time ever),” Miers said on Saturday.

Over in the Republican world, incumbent Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee Chair Nick DiCeglie is also running unopposed for a second term this Monday night as well. A former vice chair, DiCeglie defeated Lee Pilon and George Farrell for the top position two years ago.

Todd Jennings is also running again as vice chairmanThe Pinellas GOP meeting takes place at the Feather Sound Country Club in Clearwater at 7:00 p.m.

While there is little competition in the local party elections, there is a definite rivalry between McGrath and DiCeglie.

McGrath boasts that the Democratic Party leads the GOP in terms of registered voters, and that that the “two most important seats that local parties include, the Board of County Commissioners and Florida’s 13th Congressional District went to Dems,” despite the turnout advantage for the Republicans last month.

The Democratic Party took control of the Board of County Commissioners for the first time in decades after the 2014 election and maintained it last month, while Charlie Crist defeated David Jolly in the CD 13 contest.

DiCeglie concedes the Pinellas Democrats have retaken the lead in voter registration, but says his party took the real prize when Pinellas went for Donald Trump last month over Hillary Clinton, after Barack Obama had taken Pinellas by nearly ten percentage points four years ago.

“The minute a president wins an election and caries that county, this is now a Red county,” he says.

The relative no-drama party elections are in stark contrast with the R’s and D’s across the bay in Hillsborough.

Although Ione Townsend won re-election as Hillsborough Democratic party chair this past week with no opponent, some local Democrats are still cross with her after Monday night’s controversial meeting which resulted in the locally elected Democrats being told that the by-laws of their DEC banned them from participating in the race.

The Republican Executive Committee of Hillsborough County doesn’t get together until Tuesday, December 20, but that could be interesting. Incumbent chair Deborah Tamargo, who defeated former chair Debbie Cox-Roush for the top role two years ago, is being challenged by Jonny Torres.

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