The Florida Commission on Ethics decided Friday to give Hillsborough County Commission Ken Hagan the opportunity to amend a petition requesting that activist George Niemann pay his legal fees.
The decision came after a commission attorney advocated that Hagan’s petition be dismissed.
The county paid Hagan’s attorney, MarkLevine, $7,841 last year to defend the District 5 commissioner against Niemann’s ethics complaints.
Those complaints alleged that Hagan received free campaign consulting services and other assistance from public relations consultant Beth Leytham, and repaid her by steering a $1.3 million contract related to Go Hillsborough to one of her clients, Parsons Brinckerhoff.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigated the matter in 2016 and concluded there were no criminal violations. Niemann and three others then filed an ethics complaint with the state office in Tallahassee. The Ethics Commission threw out the complaint last year against Hagan, as well as complaints against Commissioner Sandy Murman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
Hagan then turned around and called on the County Commission to back his request to have Niemann reimburse the county’s legal fees to Levine. It did so on a 4-3 vote.
Among those four commissioners backing Hagan was Murman. Unlike Hagan, she opted not to pursue a claim to get the county’s legal fees spent on her behalf.
At the hearing Friday morning, Gray Schaefer, a staff attorney for the Ethics Commission, said the complaint made by Levine against Niemann was “a very general allegation,” that Niemann’s complaint contained false allegations, and that Niemann knew or should have known that it was false at the time of his filing.
“There’s nothing specific in the petition alleging why the commissioner feels Mr. Niemann knew the two allegations were false at the time he filed the complaint,” said Schafer, who added that there was no support backing up the charge that Niemann knew he was making a false complaint.
Schaefer said it was common that complaints were made from news reports and not original sourcing.
Levine responded that anyone who knew him would “clearly agree” that he’d be the last person to advocate for thwarting a citizens’ right to seek redress of violations of public trust. However, he said his understanding was that Niemann did not get his information from a newspaper article or television report, but from a specific tip from a news reporter.
Hagan was unfairly under a cloud of suspicion for the past two years, Levine said, adding that his children who attend public school have had to contend with name-calling because of the allegations.
“His children come home. They’re not very happy. Daughter crying because somebody said, ‘Your dad’s a crook,'” Levine said.
He then said that if the counsel for the Commission on Ethics felt that he had not pled the case properly, then they should give him the opportunity to amend his petition.
“It’s routinely done in circuit court,” he said, adding that he needed time in discovery to find out what Niemann knew, “when he knew it, how he knew it and what he thought about it.”
After debate, the Ethics Commission voted to give Levine 30 more days before resubmitting his petition.
Niemann has filed 10 ethics complaints over the past decade against Hagan. In 2014, he was successful. That’s when Hagan agreed to pay a $2,000 fine after admitting he violated state ethics laws by failing to properly disclose assets on annual financial disclosure forms.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that of the 2,189 complaints filed since 2007 with the Ethics Commission, less than 2 percent of defendants sought reimbursement for their fees. Among the 37 reimbursement cases finalized during that period, 30 were dismissed, two were settled and five ended in an awarding of payment.
Hagan is running for the Hillsborough County Commission District 2 seat this year, after being term-limited out of his District 5 seat.
Niemann is running as a write-in candidate for the District 5 seat.
As the Florida House was approving a proposal championed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran to ban so-called sanctuary cities, Bob Buckhorn was ridiculing the notion in front of an audience approximately 300 miles to the south.
At the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater Friday, Tampa’s mayor argued that there are no such entities in the state of Florida.
“There are no sanctuary cities in the state of Florida. That entire premise articulated by the Speaker is a bunch of B.S. There is no such thing,” Buckhorn declared.
“It is just a ploy to gin up rural voters vs. urban voters. It is an attack on local jurisdictions,” Buckhorn continued, adding that House Bill 9 is flat out wrong “both factually and morally.”
Buckhorn was making the comments at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club event, joined by fellow Tampa Bay-area Mayors Rick Kriseman from St. Petersburg and George Cretekos from Clearwater.
The meeting has become something of an annual tradition — a sit-down conversation with leaders from the three biggest regions of the Tampa Bay area.
A year ago, Kriseman got a bit of hot water after penning a post declaring St. Petersburg was all in as a sanctuary city, in response to Donald Trump‘s warning that he would attempt to deny federal funds to municipalities who made such a declaration.
Kriseman later clarified his position, saying that the city was philosophically a sanctuary, not literally. He added that the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office makes the decision to notify federal agents of an accused criminal’s immigration status.
“My officers, that’s not what they’re trained to do,” Kriseman said. “And I don’t have the personnel to have them out spending their time doing that.”
In general, sanctuary cities are defined as localities that help shield undocumented residents from deportation, refusing to fully cooperate with detention requests from federal immigration authorities.
Cretekos agreed with his mayoral brethren, giving props to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri for the stance he’s taken on the issue.
Over the past year, Gualtieri has been working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, trying to craft a national solution with local law enforcement agencies when they come into contact with undocumented immigrants.
Through those efforts, Gualtieri believes officials with the Trump administration are “uninformed” about the problem.
If enacted, HB 9would threaten local officials with fines and removal from office if they fail to fully comply with federal immigration authorities.
The mayors discussed other vital issues to their communities during the hourlong event. None has them more riled up than what has often been described as Tallahassee’s assault on the principle of home rule, where the GOP-led Legislature continues to enact laws taking power away from local governments, many led by Democrats.
But at Tiger Bay, the disdain transcended party lines.
“Republicans were taught in the crib that local government is the best government,” said Cretekos, a lifelong Republican who spent decades working for the late GOP Congressman Bill Young of Pinellas County.
“They must be drinking some strange water in Tallahassee.”
“They are trying to strip our ability to do anything,” Buckhorn charged, adding that it has become a national movement in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.
“Self-governance is out of the question because they’re pitting rural vs. urban voters.”
The Tampa mayor called it a foolhardy strategy since it’s urban areas that drive the economy both in Florida and nationwide.
“Why would you take those dollars away from us, when we do it a helluva lot better than they do in Tallahassee?”
“A government where one person controls everything is a dangerous government,” Kriseman added, referring to Corcoran. He labeled it “absurd” the degree the Legislature will go to take away local control, pointing to a bill that took away power from cities to regulate bike-share programs.
The event had a bit of a “Groundhog Day” vibe, especially when all three mayors all lamented once again over the lack of regional transportation options.
“Unequivocally, transportation is the Achilles’ heel of the Tampa Bay area,” Buckhorn declared. It was a line that he could have said every year since his first election in 2011.
However, it wasn’t all bad news, they said.
The mayors were generally excited about the newly reported bus rapid transit project that would run alongside Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa to St. Petersburg.
“It’s not what all of us aspired for, but it’s a victory,” said Buckhorn.
“We have an opportunity here to move the ball forward to take that first step, which we have got to take,” urged Kriseman.
“It’s another first step. We’ve gotta take it, whether it benefits us or not,” added Cretekos.
Regarding water, Tampa city officials may be coming closer to a plan discussed for years — purifying reclaimed water to add to the city’s drinking water supply.
However, officials with Tampa Bay Water, the regional agency, say the city’s plans raise a question of whether Tampa has the ability within its agreement to create potable water for itself.
That prompted Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard to ask Buckhorn if he was prepared to “pay off their debt to Tampa Bay Water.”
“We’re not dropping out of Tampa Bay Water,” Buckhorn replied. “We’re not blowing up Tampa Bay Water.”
Buckhorn continued that the city of Tampa dumps more than 50 million gallons of highly treated water into Hillsborough Bay, a situation the mayor feels is no longer tenable. Treating that water would be a benefit for the entire Bay area, he said.
In past election cycles, the Hillsborough County Democratic Party struggled to field legitimate candidates to challenge Republicans in local and statewide elections.
This year, that’s not the case, with the county’s District 5 race a shining example.
No fewer than five Democrats have filed to run in the (theoretically) open countywide seat, where the biggest name on the ballot is Republican Victor Crist, term-limited out of his current District 2 seat.
Three of the five Democrats running — Mariella Smith, Mark Nash and Elvis Pigott — spoke about themselves and some of their policy positions Wednesday night at the Hillsborough County’s LGBTA Democratic Caucus’ monthly meeting
During the Q&A portion of the forum, held at the Doubletree Hotel in Tampa, candidates were asked what they do in office to help the LGBTQ community.
Smith, an environmental activist from Ruskin, is pursuing her first run for political office. She said she would not do what Crist did in 2013 when he opposed a domestic partner registry (Crist, as well as the rest of the Republicans on the board, ultimately reversed themselves in the fall of 2014 to support such a registry).
“I would be voting for human rights across the board,” Smith said, adding that it was the right thing to do for the community.
Nash (who casually mentioned he was a member of the LGBT community) is perhaps best known as the one-time chief of staff to former Commissioner Kevin Beckner, the first openly elected gay official elected in Hillsborough County. Nash boasted about his work in helping Beckner get elected in 2008, and was supportive of more members of the LGBT community in elective office.
Pigott, a 29-year-old Riverview pastor, was less specific. It was “kind of sad that we’re still here” having to talk about boosting gay rights in 2018, he said. Pigott stressed that everyone had the right to fair treatment, and it wouldn’t be an issue if he were elected this year.
When asked where they ranked transportation regarding their priorities, Nash called it the most significant issue among many that the county needs to tackle.
To Pigott, transit was a priority, but he addressed it indirectly, saying the issue was in good hands since fellow Democrat Pat Kemp is on the board.
“I do believe that we have a spokesman and a most definitely a roadrunner for transit” in Kemp, he added.
Smith noted that she too was a fan of Kemp’s advocacy for transit, and also noted she was happy that Kemp had endorsed her in the race, “partly because I’m in sync with her views on transit.”
To improve transit, Smith said it was crucial to begin with growth management, with smart, transit-oriented growth and reduce sprawl. It was time for developers to “pay their fair share,” she added, noting how mobility fees for developers in Hillsborough are distinctly less than in adjoining counties.
When asked how they might alleviate tensions between the county and the city of Tampa, Passmore acknowledged the issue surfaced when County Administrator Mike Merrill and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn butted heads about who held power to call a curfew as Hurricane Irma approached in September.
Pigott said that he would take pride in maintaining good relations with city officials, as well as Republicans on the board of County Commission. “In order to really get things done, you gotta build relationships,” adding that he’s not afraid of conflict, but it was ultimately about “building bridges” to work successfully.
Smith knew there were tensions between the two local governments, but she didn’t understand why that remains the case at times. She would actively reach out, suggesting she could perhaps host public meetings with city and county officials.
“I would certainly be mending fences.”
Nash, a Lithia resident, said such tensions exist, in part, because Tampa embraces diversity while that isn’t always the case in other parts of the county. He did note that, in eastern Hillsborough, there are more mosques and people of color than ever.
Candidates also spoke about supporting a proposal to ban conversion therapy, which tries to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. A year ago, the city of Tampa passed such a ban.
They were also asked about expanding the homestead exemption (an issue on the statewide ballot this fall), and whether it will be a bad thing for the county since it will reduce tax revenues. Each acknowledged it would be an uphill battle to educate the public in opposition to the expansion.
“It’s a gimmick from Tallahassee,” Nash said.
Smith said the fallout for the county might not be as detrimental as some depict. Even if it passes, she believes the county “will do fine, because we’re going to be getting more and more property tax anyway.”
For Pigott, he said the challenge for candidates is to inform the public, as so many people are uninformed. If elected, he would make sure to get out in the community to educate the public about such issues.
Two other Democrats, not present Wednesday, are running in District 5. Jae Passmore was unable to attend due to obligations with the National Guard. Corey L. Reynolds is another Democrat on the ballot.
Saying he’s proud to be the underdog in the race, Topher Morrison is running for Tampa mayor, becoming the second candidate to declare for the March 2019 elections.
Morrison made the announcement Monday at the 1895 Kitchen-Bar-Market on Franklin Street (the oldest building in downtown Tampa), speaking at a podium literally backed by friends and other small-business people.
The 48-year-old Tampa small-business owner acknowledged lacking the financial resources of some candidates who will enter the race but hopes to get the financial support of the small business community in Tampa to fuel his run.
“I want to ride on the shoulders of every small business owner in the Tampa area, ” he said. “I’m not going to get the big funding dollars. I’m not as fortunate as David A Straz Jr. … that I can just bankroll and buy the election.”
Straz is another Tampa businessman possessing no political experience who is flirting with entering the mayoral contest. He said last month he will decide sometime in the coming months.
A native of Spokane, Washington, Morrison fell in love with the people of Tampa while on a three-day vacation in 2000; he moved to the Cigar City three weeks later.
Morrison said there are three main issues to fix in the city: transportation, the city’s lack of a “brand identity” and improving relations between Tampa and Hillsborough County.
On transportation, Morrison thinks he can create a plan that allows Tampa — and not Hillsborough County — to direct its own future, a stance not usually taken by local lawmakers (one reason being that state law only permits counties, and not cities, to place tax referendums on the ballot).
While Morrison supports a multimodal approach to transit, he also showed his idiosyncratic approach by calling for an app from the city — created by the tech community — to encourage carpooling from Tampa to St. Petersburg.
“Why can’t the city of Tampa create an app that allows us to carpool and generate revenue for the city and also those individuals?” he asked. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.”
Morrison believes that in solving problems, the private sector can work more efficiently than bureaucratic government. He said small-business men like himself “eat the impossible for breakfast every day,” which doesn’t happen in bureaucracies.
“If you start asking how much things cost and why it won’t work, well that’s a surefire way to get it stopped. Too many people focus on the how. You need to focus on the who first.”
The city can’t have a “timid” mayor who only pushes for things that he (or she) knows they can get passed, Morrison added.
“We need a brave mayor, one who’s willing to go for the impossible,” he said. “And I don’t think that the impossible can be done by bureaucracy and career politicians.”
That said, Morrison was quick to compliment Bob Buckhorn, who still has more than a year to go before being term-limited from office.
“I’m a fan of Bob,” he said. “I think he’s done an exceptional job for our city and I hope I can continue his legacy and his vision and carry that forward.”
Asked if there was any policy that he took issue with the current mayor, Morrison said that he onlywished Buckhorn had been more enthusiastic about the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project that ran last fall and winter from Tampa to St. Pete. It was a project Morrison said he loved.
Tampa invested $350,000 into the project, and Buckhorn’s decision not to repeat that subsidy this year was a factor in the public-private partnership opting not to continue the pilot project forward.
Morrison provoked some controversy on his own Facebook page last month, when he posted a comment the Saturday before Christmas about three dozen homeless people in Gaslight Park “making it completely inaccessible to functioning, taxpaying citizens whose money goes to politicians that make the park so beautiful, but do nothing to keep it beautiful by offering better solutions to the homeless.”
Morrison, who lives at the Element in downtown and whose business is just blocks away, says he sees and interacts with many of the same homeless people on a daily basis. He was “confused” why there was so much focus on giving food and clothes to the homeless, but not actually giving them housing.
“Right now, I think what we’re doing is making it far too easy for the homeless to be homeless. You give them all the food they want. You give them all the clothes they want, what incentive do they have to work? It makes it very easy to make them homeless,” he said.
Morrison also believes the city of Orlando did a great job with their “housing first” approach.
As a professional speaker for over 30 years, Morrison is the founder of the Tampa-based firm, Key Person of Influence, USA. KPI-USA is a business accelerator and personal branding program. He is also a best-selling author of multiple business books.
Compared to former Police Chief Jane Castor and current council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen (all of whom are contemplating entering the mayoral race), Morrison is a relative unknown in Tampa politics. It is something that he says he’s fully aware of, which explains his relatively early entry into the contest.
Morrison’s fresh approach to politics has trickled down to his staff; he hired former Tampa Hillsborough Film Commissioner Dale Gordon to serve as campaign manager. It’s a job that Gordon never held before, though she has plenty of experience working with lawmakers in her previous career.
Unlike Straz, Morrison didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016. But at the conclusion of the news conference, he gave his own thoughts on what people might have been looking for when the Republican nominee won the Electoral College, and what has occurred since then.
“I think we were looking for leadership that embraced politically incorrectness, and people got political inappropriateness,” Morrison said. “I want to be politically appropriate, but I don’t want to be politically correct.”
Morrison is the second candidate to file for office, though it’s questionable how credible is the candidacy of Michael Anthony Hazard. He’s a Brandon citizen who announced his candidacy last spring, yet has yet to raise a single dollar in the race.
Tampa Bay is more than a body of water — so much more.
To start, an admission: I really missed writing about Tampa Bay, particularly its politics.
With all that is going on in the region surrounding my beloved St. Petersburg, it was tough to resist being drawn back into the fray.
And in the post-Rick Baker/Jack Latvala era, our political landscape here has changed.
Will those changes prove to be for the better? Only time will tell.
Either way, to rectify this absence is Not Just A Body Of Water — a new weekly newsletter focusing exclusively on Tampa Bay, its politics and players.
As a new venture, “Body of Water” presents no small challenge; we must get back up to speed, reconnect with the region, learn some fresh faces. The long-term goal is to provide you, our loyal fan base, an exclusive, subscription-only service by summer 2018.
So, among the features in “Body of Water” are big-picture analysis, interviews, and highlights in the notable work of others. There will be data, photos and interviews with the personalities helping to keep our community dynamic.
Above all, we will focus on the people and issues that make Tampa Bay — more than a humble body of water — one of hottest spots in Florida politics and beyond.
— BOB BUCKHORN’S LAST YEAR —
Term-limited Tampa Mayor Buckhorn, facing a last full calendar year in office, has been busy securing his agenda priorities — and his legacy.
While the city’s municipal elections won’t be until April 2019, Buckhorn — or at least his reputation — will be front and center throughout 2018, as voters experience what could be a contentious campaign to choose his successor.
Among Buckhorn’s most visible accomplishments include the demolition, and upcoming revitalization, of the North Boulevard Homes public housing development, to make way for a $200 million mixed-use project on the Hillsborough River waterfront.
Buckhorn also intends to collaborate further with Tampa Bay Lightning owner and Strategic Property Partners co-partner Jeff Vinik on the high-profile $3 billion Water Street Tampa project, which seeks to transform the city’s Channelside neighborhood.
Hizzonor has also been quick to promote both himself and his performance, as shown in a recent email to Tampa residents, mostly touting a recent poll giving Buckhorn high marks:
In addition to polishing his legacy, Buckhorn will spend 2018 sizing up what will soon be a growing field to vie for the mayor’s office. As of yet, no one has filed, but several names are being floated: former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, City Councilmembers Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, and civic activist David Straz.
— PIC OF THE WEEK —
— THE ‘BURG IS SPRAWLING —
The sky really isn’t much of a limit for developers in St. Petersburg.
“Construction cranes in every direction,” writes the Tampa Bay Times’ Susan Taylor Martin. “High-rises where single-story buildings once stood.”
“This isn’t your father’s St. Petersburg.”
Estimated construction costs in the 130-year old town have reached $500 million, and there are 17 major projects underway. Five of those projects will add 1,500 rental units in St. Petersburg — complementing the 1,340 finished in the last three years.
The Beach Drive condos in the area have fared well, perhaps serving as a successful case study for investors. But the significant investments also mirror that of what’s going on in the city across the bay. The success of the Fusion 1560 complex also isn’t making investors shy away, writes Morgan.
Still, questions remain about whether St. Petersburg’s identity is enough to support major real estate ventures.
Ahead of demand?: Darron Kattan, managing director of Tampa’s Franklin Street brokerage, acknowledged there could be difficulty filling hundreds of new apartments immediately. St. Petersburg’s Avanti Apartments — one of the five underway — already is offering a free month’s rent.
But there’s optimism: “Downtown St. Pete is so dynamic that in the long run, it will support thousands more units,” Kattan said. “There’s been a fundamental kind of shift of people wanting to live in the core that we have not seen since the ‘60s.”
And the longtime residents don’t seem to mind: Former City Councilman Herbert Polson, who’s lived in St. Petersburg since 1959, “likes what he sees happening in downtown and the rest of St. Petersburg.”
— RICK KRISEMAN REJECTS LOCAL PIER RESTAURANT CONCEPT BY RICK BAKER SUPPORTER —
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille was selected to be the restaurant four the newly rebuilt St. Petersburg Pier, with a spot in what is currently the city’s Pelican parking lot.
As first reported by Janelle Irwin of the Tampa Bay Business Journal, Mayor Kriseman chose the Florida chain over a local concept by Steve Westphal, a St. Pete restaurateur — and a donor and supporter of Baker, who lost to Kriseman in his campaign for mayor.
Westphal owns the Hangar Restaurant & Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport, Cafe Gala at the Dali Museum and the Annex at 400 Beach.
Doc Ford’s, named after a character in a series of novels from Florida-based author Randy Wayne White, has locations in Sanibel Island, Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach. White is a partner in the restaurant chain.
“Doc Ford’s has already established a reputation as a highly successful destination restaurant. The restaurant’s name and Florida theme, based on the novels by New York Times best-selling author Randy Wayne White, will appeal to both residents and visitors,” Kriseman wrote in a January memo announcing the choice.
The project, as well as the renovated Pier, is scheduled to open next year.
— ST. PETE CHAMBER SCHEDULES TALLY TRIP, ANNUAL MTG. —
St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce will be making its annual Tallahassee trip Jan. 30-31, to meet with legislative leaders and advocate for its city and members.
Members of the chamber Public Policy Committee can use the promotion code “PP17” to save 10 percent on registration. This discount is available through Jan. 12.
In a celebration of accomplishments in 2017, the Chamber will also hold its annual meeting to honor community leaders and discuss the future of the Chamber and the community.
Scheduled Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 6 p.m. in St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater, the event will name the Chamber’s Member of the Year as well as pass the gavel from the outgoing Board of Governors Chair to the incoming Chair.
Event sponsors include Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Duke Energy, St. Anthony’s Hospital and the Tampa International/Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.
Chamber members received two free tickets, with more information and sponsorship opportunities at stpete.com/annualmeeting.
>>>As of November, Matt Lettelleir, has joined the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce as Advocacy Manager. The former director of communications for the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee will now oversee tracking city, county and state legislation on behalf of Chamber members.
— PINELLAS POLS RUE JACK LATVALA’S ABSENCE —
While former Sen. Latvala faces a possible criminal investigation after his abrupt resignation, some prominent Pinellas County lawmakers are withholding judgment on the Clearwater Republican.
“I’m old enough and wise enough and I’ve been around long enough to know that you can say anything about anybody,” says Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, a Democrat. “But the last time I checked this is still the United States and you’re still supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
Long’s stance was similar that taken by Latvala and his legal team when he was initially accused by six women of inappropriate touching or uttering demeaning remarks about their bodies, as reported by POLITICO Florida in early November.
But Latvala gave up the fight only hours after a second blockbuster report on his misconduct went public Dec. 20 — the most explosive claim centering on allegations of a quid pro quo of legislative support for sexual intimacy with an unnamed lobbyist — now under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Among the fallout felt throughout Pinellas:
— Former Pinellas County Congressman David Jolly was “shocked” to read the report from retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, named Special Master for the Senate, who referred his sexual harassment report to law enforcement for criminal investigation. “This isn’t the Jack Latvala that we know … I think that Jack made the right decision, and now it’s a matter for him personally and his family.”
— In resigning, “the Senator did the right thing,” says Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee Chair Nick DiCeglie. “It was a very difficult situation for him. It was a very difficult situation for his family. And I think ultimately he did the right thing there.”
— “I was certainly surprised, like everybody” reading the Swanson report, says Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “I had no idea.”
— “He’s a character, no question. He can be a bully and he’s a tough, tough guy when it comes to getting stuff done, but it’s a tough, tough atmosphere,” says Long, who has known Latvala for more than 40 years. He always treated her with dignity and respect, Long adds, and was proud that she was never on the receiving end of what she labels his “hissy fits.”
— “Not only Clearwater, not only Pinellas, but really the Tampa Bay area is going to not have the chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, so we are all going to have to work a little harder, and our delegation is going to have to work a little bit harder, and I’m confident that they will,” says Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos.
— NEW LAWMAKER READY FOR RE-ELECTION RUN —
Less than three weeks after winning a special election in a Hillsborough County House district, Republican Lawrence McClure is planning a re-election bid this fall.
McClure, who defeated three other candidates Dec. 19 to replace former Rep. Dan Raulerson opened a campaign account Friday for the November election, according to the state Division of Elections website.
Unaffiliated candidate Shawn Gilliam of Plant City also has opened an account for the District 58 race.
— POST-SESSION FUNDRAISING FRENZY BEGINS IN TAMPA —
Nothing says post-Session in Florida like a good, old-fashioned fundraising frenzy.
And with the balance of the Senate in play, especially with an expected “wave election,” raising big money for campaigns is more essential than ever.
On Tuesday, March 27, just after the end of the annual 60-day legislative work session, a group of first-term Republican state lawmakers from across Florida is holding a joint fundraiser in Tampa to support their re-election efforts.
Listed on the invite are Sens. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Doug Broxson of Pensacola, Panama City’s George Gainer, Travis Hutson of Palm Coast, Melbourne’s Debbie Mayfield, Kathleen Passidomo of Naples, Gainesville’s Keith Perry, Sarasota’s Greg Steube and Dana Young of Tampa.
The event begins 5 p.m. at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club, 5320 Interbay Blvd. in Tampa.
— FORMER RICK SCOTT OFFICIAL IN LINE FOR PINELLAS-PASCO JUDGESHIP —
Mary Thomas, a former top attorney at the Department of Elder Affairs under Gov. Scott, is under consideration for a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judgeship.
Thomas, who was a onetime candidate for North Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, is a finalist on the list of 11 names for the 6th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), sent to Scott in November to fill two vacancies created by the retirements of Mark I. Shames and John A. Schaefer.
After years living in Tallahassee, Thomas, a former state government lawyer under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, relocated to Pinellas County. In 2016, she lost the GOP primary to Panama City urological surgeon Neal Dunn, who later went on to win the now GOP-leaning district.
Pinellas Park Fire Chief Guy Keirn is retiring after last three years as chief. Deputy Chief Brett Schlatterer will be Keirn’s replacement.
Keirn’s last day is Jan. 22.
In his retirement letter, Keirn, a 33-year veteran of the fire department, said he wants to spend more time with family and his 1-year-old grandson.
Keirn said while having dinner recently, he and his wife, Susie, began discussing retirement, where he said: “It’s time.” He added that working for the Pinellas Park Fire Department was the “best decision I made in my life.”
— GRAND MARSHAL —
It is that time of year again for the Gulf Coast — Gasparilla.
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla named former Tampa Bay Lightning Center Vincent Lecavalier as Grand Marshal of the 2018 Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest and Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates.
This year, Pirate Fest will be Saturday, January 27. EventFest Inc. produces the annual celebration; Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — Tampa serves as title sponsor.
“Tampa Bay is a special place with great traditions, and the Lightning and Gasparilla are two of them. I look forward to representing both with pride in the parade,” Lecavalier, an NHL All-Star, said in a statement.
Gasparilla is Tampa’s historic community celebration of the apocryphal legend of pirate José Gaspar, featuring a series of events (for both adults and kids) that include the Gasparilla Invasion, Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, the Gasparilla Distance Classic, a film festival, and the Parade of the Pirates, which has been presented by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla since 1904.
Gasparilla’s 2015 centennialwas the third largest parade in the United States, with more than 300,000 people — over a million people attending at least one of the various events — generating nearly $23 million for Tampa’s economy.
Events also include the Pirate Fest Street Festival, presented by Budweiser with live entertainment in downtown Tampa both before and after the parade.
Diane Bailey Morton is starting the new year as executive director of the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District by launching a new membership drive. Local business executive and community advocate Lorna Taylor is pledging a $10,000 match if the Warehouse Arts District Association can add 200 new members during the drive.
A healthy lifestyle can start early, according to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
But it starts with family support — a perfect household New Year’s Resolution.
Per All Children’s, “Families that eat right, get plenty of physical activity, limit screen time and have good sleep habits are more likely to raise children with a normal body weight.”
The hospital recommends the following each day: nine hours of sleep, five servings of fruit and vegetables, no more than two hours in front of a screen, and an hour of physical activity.
Oh, and stop the sweetened drinks, too. That means no soda, sweet tea, lemonade, sports drinks, or even juice.
Need some help?: First Steps: Fit4AllKids is a free six-week program available for families with overweight children in the community. It’s offered year-round in St. Pete for children ages seven-plus.
Don’t forget about the flu: The Bay area already is seeing an increase in patients with the flu virus, according to All Children’s, and over a dozen pediatric deaths have occurred from the flu nationwide. The hospital recommends getting a flu shot (it’s not too late) and routinely washing hands to avoid the virus.
Dance against cancer: Dance Marathon is a nationwide movement that raises funds for Children’s Miracle Network through a multi-hour long “dance marathon.” It’s coming to Braden River High School on Jan. 20.
For years, the Tampa mayor’s name was always listed in Florida political reporters stories about potential 2018 Democratic gubernatorial possibilities, and the mayor did nothing to quash such speculation.
But his ascendant trajectory took a significant hit in 2015, shortly after his re-election victory by an otherworldly 96 percent. First and foremost was the backlash to his reaction to a Tampa Bay Times expose of the Tampa Police Department’s disproportionate citing of black cyclists for infractions. That issue led to a variety of progressive groups to call for a police citizen’s review board, but the mayor initially resisted those efforts, alienating him from many of his Democratic Party friends.
Fallout from the failed Go Hillsborough transit effort also bruised his brand, to the point that by early 2016, all such talk about being a candidate in 2018 began dying down. It revived (momentarily) after a stirring speech to the Florida delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2016, but very few people responded by donating to his political committee formed around his potential gubernatorial candidacy.
When Buckhorn announced in March he would not run for governor, very few expressed surprise. In the aftermath of DonaldTrump‘s election, Buckhorn said he didn’t see a path for himself in Tallahassee, and he always wanted to continue to stay close to Tampa as his daughters grow up.
If you count when news first leaked that the Rays were in discussions with the Rick Baker administration about an open-air stadium to be built at the Al Lang site in the fall of 2007, it’s been a full decade of speculation about where the Bay area’s Major League Baseball franchise would ultimately go.
The decades-long saga had innumerable twists and turns, to the extent that when Hagan leaked word that the Rays had selected the Ybor area, it wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering announcement.
Maybe because there’s a lot of doubt about how to fund this purported $600-$700 million stadium, and how many people actually care at this point? The Rays have suffered four straight losing years, but have an even longer streak of finishing dead last in attendance.
Owner Stuart Sternberg‘s announcement that he could see the Rays perhaps paying just $150 million of the final price tag was also a non-inspiring moment.
Transportation remains the biggest vexing issue in the community, a year after the Go Hillsborough proposal died without ever getting before the voters.
Eagan’s announcement in November that she would be departing as CEO of HART to run the transit agency in Pittsburgh was a tough blow for some transit advocates in Hillsborough to stomach, but nobody could blame her. In addition to getting a $40,000 raise for becoming the new CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, she was also going to an agency with four times the budget of HART.
“It’s your gain and our loss,” HART Board Chair LesMiller told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, adding, “I’m very, very, very troubled to see her leave. It hurts.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are very few people mourning the dissolution of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC). The controversial agency, created by a special act by the Legislature in the mid-70s and killed by it during the 2017 Session, had become a bureaucratic behemoth whose public image was shattered during the two-and-a-half years that it battled Uber and Lyft’s entry into the Bay area.
While many other local governments around the country and the world had similar problems with what some call Uber’s “arrogance,” it was never a fair fight on where the public came down, ostensibly due to the agency’s previous reputation for corruption (Kevin White, anyone?)
While not inherently “political,” the search for the person who killed four people in the half-mile part of Southeast Seminole Heights this fall became a national story that climaxed when McDonald’s employee Delonda Walker went up to Tampa Police Officer Randi Whitney in Ybor with a gun that an employee left with a co-worker.
That employee was Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, who has since been criminally charged in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20; and Ronald Felton, 60.
Although some were critical of Chief Brian Dugan‘s decision to arrest a lot of people in Seminole Heights during the manhunt, overall the new chief (awarded the job full-time by the mayor during the search) earned plaudits from the community for his handling of an incredibly tense time in recent Tampa history.
While there were problems with debris pickup and the electricity companies fully restoring power to hundreds of thousands of people in the aftermath of the storm, Tampa Bay lucked out (again) during Hurricane Irma, which barreled through the state on the night of Sunday, Sept. 10.
What had been increasing anxiety broke out into a full-on panic for many residents when the forecast for the storm shifted directly toward the Tampa Bay area late Friday night, Sept. 8. That led to a mass exodus that clogged the state’s highways for days both before and after the storm.
Buckhorn’s decision to impose a curfew in the city as the storm approached became an issue when Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill contradicted the action hours later.
Questions remain about who has authority to call for mandatory evacuations.
The announced crowd of more than 20,000 people who gathered in the ‘Burg on that sunny Saturday in January was called the largest demonstration in the city’s history, indicating how powerful “the resistance” would be against President Donald Trump.
Meeting five weeks before the scheduled date of Jan. 21, organizers in St. Petersburg contemplated forming a crowd of several hundred people but instead were blown away when several thousand of people of all genders, ages and races gathered at Demens Landing Park before marching.
Organizers scheduled a second such protest rally again in January.
Being a Republican in St. Petersburg was never more divisive than in 2017, when Democratic activists rallied around Gina Driscoll as she easily defeated businessman Justin Bean in the District 6 City Council race.
In the August primary (limited only to voters who actually live in District 6), Bean took the most votes, while Driscoll barely survived elimination, receiving a mere two more votes than the only other Republican in the eight-person field, Robert Blackmon.
Bean immediately went on the defensive over his GOP bona fides (not helped by the fact that he attended Trump’s inauguration), as well as his issues with the law, which included a DUI and resisting arrest charge about which Driscoll and her campaign team were surprisingly aggressive.
The District 2 race featured two classy candidates, Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless. Call it the year of the woman (or something similar), but in the end, it wasn’t close — Gabbard, a realtor, easily bested Harless.
Council Chair Darden Rice vanquished her young challenger, 21-year-old Jerick Johnson, while Amy Foster ran unopposed.
Meanwhile, in December, the council members named Lisa Wheeler-Bowman aschair.
Our world changed (perhaps forever?) in October when The New York Times published a lengthy story detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against famed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (followed up almost immediately with an equally devastating New Yorker story).
Numerous other famous men in politics, media, Hollywood and other industries were soon outed over allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior.
But the story hit home in Tallahassee and Pinellas County when POLITICO Florida reported the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 3, in which six unidentified women claimed the Clearwater Republican senator (and GOP gubernatorial candidate) had inappropriately touched them without consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies.
Latvala immediately denied the story, and — unlike many of the men accused of such actions — continued fighting to clear his good name as the weeks progressed. The Florida Legislature intervened.
Almost immediately, Latvala’s quixotic gubernatorial ambitions dissolved, and after a special master filed what became the 2017 Florida version of the Starr Report, Latvala is a now-resigned senator facing a criminal investigation for quid pro quo, or sex-for-votes, propositions that surfaced in two earlier investigations.
2. — Rick Kriseman defeatsRick Baker by two points for re-election as St. Pete mayor.
As the six-month campaign ebbed and flowed, the race carried plenty of emotion, seemingly dividing the city between the progressive incumbent and his more conservative-leaning predecessor.
In the end, Baker’s goodwill — particularly in St. Pete’s black community — made this an extremely close race throughout.
Kriseman’s handling of the sewage situation hung around him like an albatross, with the Tampa Bay Times editorial page making sure it never strayed too far from the top of the agenda.
Sewage was probably not what Kriseman wanted to talk too much about, since it was clear his handling of it was not his finest hour of the first term.
Knowing that the city is growing more progressive by the day, the mayor and his team emphasized Kriseman’s liberal ideology, which became a major value in helping him.
Baker knew his vulnerability was in his relationship with LGBT community going back to his first two terms, with the Pride Parade, in particular, becoming an even more significant event in the city since he left City Hall seven years earlier.
And then there was Trump.
Simply put, the former mayor’s inability to handle the Kriseman campaign’s linkage to the Republican standard-bearer killed him in the end.
Baker simply could not man up and confess that he had probably voted for Trump, instead arguing the question was irrelevant, and federal politics had no place in a municipal election.
On a certain level, he was right, but not in the world as it is today, where everybody holds an opinion about the 45th POTUS.
Kriseman looked like a dead-incumbent-walking after an internal poll by the Florida Democratic Party leaked to the public in early August showed him trailing by 11 points. Conventional wisdom had most people speculating whether Baker would gather enough votes on the Aug. 29 primary to win outright, but Kriseman stunned the world that night with a narrow victory by only 70 votes.
Baker’s advisers say their polling showed Trump’s disturbing comments in Augustafter the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, changed the trajectory of the race. Anti-Trump sentiment trickled down and ultimately hurt Baker.
In this saga, Charlottesville also played a part, because it was only resolved after white supremacists and counter-demonstrators clashed that Saturday in mid-August.
In late June, the Commission stunningly voted 4-3 to keep the memorial in place, unlike other southern communities that decided such monuments were a relic of the Jim Crow era — no longer appropriate in 2017.
After the vote garnered both local and national outrage, the board returned in late July, voting 4-2 to move the monument. Commissioner Sandy Murman changed her vote, with the proviso that it could only happen if the money to move the statue was raised privately. County Administrator Mike Merrill said such an effort could not be guaranteed, and the county would be responsible for raising the remaining funds needed if the private sector could not come up with more than $200,000 to move it.
Attorney Tom Scarritt, who had led the private fundraising campaign, found it tough going, with contributions not coming close to what was necessary for the move.
Then on Saturday, August 12, Charlottesville happened; Trump weighed in later that day — notably by not specifically criticizing the white nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans, but blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
Contributions started kicking in, but only after the BOCC voted five days later to reverse themselves once again and keep the monument in place — provided Scarritt could raise the $140,000 required within the 30 days.
What followed was an avalanche of contributions; none was more than that from Bob Gries, the founder and managing partner of Gries Investment Funds in Tampa.
Watching CNN that Wednesday night, Gries learned the Board of County Commissioners reversed its position yet again on moving the monument. His $50,000 donation spurred others (including the owners of Tampa Bay’s three professional sports franchises that initially turned Scarritt down) to help move the monument.
A new citywide poll is showing three-quarters of Tampa voters approve of the mayor’s job performance — and more than half will support a mayor like Buckhorn, one who will continue his policies.
They also favor Tampa developing a citywide rail system to ease traffic congestion, paid for by taxpayers.
The survey, taken in late November, was from Washington D.C.’s Keith Fredrick, a frequent Buckhorn campaign pollster. The poll asked 350 registered city voters — nearly half on cellphones — with a margin of error of +/- 5.3 percent.
Sixty-two percent of respondents said the city is headed in the right direction, with about 26 percent saying it was mixed (or they didn’t know); 12 percent say Tampa is going the wrong way. Fifty-one percent said they want the city’s next mayor — Buckhorn is term-limited from running again — to be “like Buckhorn and will continue with his policies.”
In addition to Buckhorn’s job approval — 75 percent saying he is either “excellent” (23 percent) or “good” (52 percent) — 88 percent of respondents said they liked the job performance of Tampa police. Seventy percent felt safe and “free from the threat of crime.” And 68 percent were feeling positive about race relations.
African-Americans in Tampa gave the police very or somewhat positive ratings (82 percent), as did 90 percent of Hispanic respondents and 88 percent of Anglos.
Among other issues, 64 percent of city voters support a higher sales tax for a citywide rail system; 28 percent opposed. Traffic congestion is the biggest concern on the minds of Tampainians (51 percent said it was either first or second on a list of six top issues), followed by “better-paying jobs” (34 percent and “street flooding and sea level rise” (27 percent).
Buckhorn also received high marks for how he handled Hurricane Irma, with 81 percent saying it was either “excellent” (45 percent) or “good” (36 percent). On that, Hispanics were the most favorable, with 91 percent applauding both the city and mayor in how they handled September’s storm.
Seventy-eight percent of voters overall also support the mayor’s welcoming residents of Puerto Rico to Tampa after Hurricane Maria. Fifteen percent opposed.
The also poll asked how Tampa residents felt about President Donald Trump and how he managed Puerto Rico relief efforts in the wake of Maria. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of respondents felt either somewhat or very negative about Trump and how he managed the territory after the storm; only 28 percent were positive. As for Republicans, however, they approved of the president 67 to 23 percent.
Pollsters also asked whether voters agreed with a national organization recently rating Tampa as one of America’s Best Cities to live; 81 percent agreed overall — with Republicans favoring most (88 percent), followed by independents (80 percent) and Democrats (79 percent). Only 15 percent of all respondents disagreed.
Like most of his colleagues, Mike Suarez will soon be heading into his final year on the Tampa City Council—he’s term-limited in 2019.
But the 54-year-old West Tampa native and District 1 councilman is considered to be set on staying in city government once his term ends. How? By becoming the next mayor, succeeding a similarly term-limited Bob Buckhorn.
If Suarez does decide to run for mayor in 2019, it could be a crowded field, with former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, former Police Chief Jane Castor, philanthropist David Straz and fellow councilman Harry Cohen all possibly being in the mix.
With that election still more than 14 months away, however, there wasn’t any discussion of future ambitions when Suarez addressed a crowd gathered at the Oxford Exchange for Café Con Tampa on Friday morning.
Instead the talk focused primarily on quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods, particularly transportation.
“Most of our lives are spent about three miles in radius to our own homes,” he said. “That sense of community, that sense of place, is something that we need to continue to do.”
But Suarez was dismissive of an announcement Thursday by Republican lawmakers Jamie Grant and Dana Young about a bill that could provide millions of dollars to the area for non-rail related projects.
“In their mind, the only technology that matters is autonomous vehicle, and some other things,” Suarez said. “I think we need to be a more efficient and smarter city, we have to invest in those things that deal with how we get around, where we have to park, and using technology to make it easier for us.”
He said he wants to encourage efforts with city engineers to make Tampa a more walkable city, saying transpiration is ultimately about “the freedom that you have.”
And that’s only possible with more information that city officials can provide, he added: “That’s much less expensive … than try to invest in an argument about which is the best investment.”
Tampa has a sorry reputation when it comes to the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists. And Suarez said that reputation is well deserved.
“Almost everywhere you go it’s extremely dangerous to walk. That’s ridiculous,” he said. “And that’s why when we talk about transportation, we talk about large projects … we need to do things like make our sidewalks better, and wider, and easier to walk.”
Suarez said he was OK with reducing the speed limit on Bayshore Boulevard from 40 mph to 35, but says there needs to be more enforcement since many motorists go well above the current speed limit everyday.
Suarez was asked by several in the audience about affordable housing. He said he hoped to “convince” developers into building more affordable units, something he said has not been a focus at City Hall, and wished that those developers would consult with Council as much as they do the mayor in bringing their projects to City Hall.
Like so many local officials in Florida, Suarez took his turn at lambasting the Florida Legislature for eviscerating the now quaint concept of “home rule” in the Sunshine State.
“The Legislature keeps taking more and more and more of your rights as a citizen of this city away from you,” he said, arguing that it wasn’t about taking power away from local lawmakers but from the citizenry.
The most recent source of the City Council’s angst towards Tallahassee is legislation passed during the 2017 Session that pre-empts the city’s authority to regulate where new 5G wireless antennas will be placed.
“Any people living along the Bayshore? Watch out. Look at what happens. You’re going to see some of these things pop (up) over the next few years,” referring to the antennas, which can be as big as a kitchen refrigerator.
Recently two members of Council visited Cuba, something that’s become a regular occurrence between parts of the business and political establishment over the past five years or so.
Suarez, a Cuban-American, has been resistant; as recently as last month he challenged Chair Yolie Capin to say whether members on the most recent trip had met with dissidents (they did not).
Admitting he’s been bashed in certain quarters for his Cold War attitude (shared by Mayor Buckhorn), Suarez didn’t seem eager to get too deep into the topic.
“To me, we spend a little too much time on that and not enough time on what our issues are here,” he said, adding,”If they want to talk about Cuba, I think that they should talk to their elected officials.”
In answering a question about funding the arts, Suarez said he didn’t agree with the Buckhorn administration’s decision to cut funding for entities like the Tampa Museum of Art and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts (all nonprofits took a 10 percent “haircut” in the budget).
“I didn’t understand that,” Suarez said, referring to the budget that raises taxes for the first time in 29 years. He said that the majority of that increase was going to personnel in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
When asked about Jeff Vinik’s Water Street Tampa mega-development, Suarez mused—while acknowledging that he had no inside information—that Vinik’s team is having a difficult time luring a major company to relocate their headquarters there.
That’s because of what audience member Cathy James said was “stagnant wages, not enough affordable housing and horrible public transportation.”
He did applaud Vinik for making the project more walkable, and said he hoped Vinik would invest some of his own capital into local transportation projects to make the $3 billion project a success.
If found guilty of murder, the accused Seminole Heights killer should receive the death penalty, so say Republican attorney general candidates Ashley Moody and Ross Spano.
In a letter Wednesday to Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, Spano, who also serves as the chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee in the Florida Legislature, says the facts in the case “warrant a prompt decision to seek the death penalty.”
He repeated that Wednesday night while speaking to the media.
“If there is a legal basis to seek the death penalty, and it’s consistent with the wishes of the victims’ families, we intend to seek the death penalty,” Warren told reporters in Tampa. He was not available to comment on Spano’s letter later in the day.
Spano isn’t satisfied with that response, and he asked what legal basis Warren would need to refuse to seek the death penalty.
“It is time for you to decisively pursue justice,” the Dover Republican wrote.
Spano is involved in a four-way race for the Republican nomination for attorney general against Moody, aformer Hillsborough County circuit judge,and state Reps. Jay Fant and Frank White.
Moody said she would also call for the death penalty.
“If I were in State Attorney Warren’s shoes I would seek the death penalty for anyone found guilty of these heinous acts,” she said in a statement. “This is exactly the type of premeditated murder case that would merit the death penalty, and the victims and their families deserve justice.”
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week that he too would like to see Donaldson executed if found guilty in a court of law.
Ryan Torrens, the lone Democrat running for attorney general, said he would not dictate what Warren should do.
“I’ve said the attorney general’s office needs to decide these cases on a case-by-case basis, and I would not want state attorney try to tell me how to do my job,” he said. “I do not feel it appropriate for me to try to tell Andrew how to do his job. This is his decision, and I’m going to live it to him to make that decision.”
Donaldson III, 24, was arrested last week and accused of the killings, seemingly at random, in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa in October and November. Anthony Naiboa, Monica Hoffa, Benjamin Mitchell and Ronald Felton were all shot and killed in separate incidents while walking alone at night or in the early morning in the neighborhood.
Donaldson’s father, Howell Donaldson Jr., refused to answer questions posed to him by Hillsborough County prosecutors earlier this week. A hearing has been scheduled Thursday before County Judge Margaret Taylor on whether Donaldson’s parents, Howell Jr. and Rosita Donaldson, should answer such questions.
Nearly three months after Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn engaged in a verbal skirmish about who had the power to call for an emergency curfew in Tampa, County Commissioners would like local state legislators to weigh in.
The issue goes back to the days leading up the arrival of Hurricane Irma in the Tampa Bay area, which was predicted to bring major damage to the region.
On Sunday morning, Sept. 10, hours before Irma’s expected arrival, Buckhorn and Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan declared a curfew would begin in Tampa Sunday at 6 p.m., and would not be lifted until he and other city officials deemed it safe after the storm passed.
“If you are out on the streets after six o’clock, we are going to challenge you and find out what you’re doing out there,” said Dugan. “We are relying on the good people of Tampa to tell us what’s going on in their neighborhoods, and to point out who doesn’t belong in their neighborhoods.”
Five hours later, however, Merrill held his own news conference saying: “I have not called for a mandatory curfew. We urge residents to get to a safe place, to shelter in place.”
Buckhorn didn’t back down; a curfew was in place as Irma hit late Sunday night into Monday morning. After daybreak Monday, the city of Tampa said the curfew was no longer in affect.
At Wednesday’s Board of County Commission meeting, county attorney Chip Fletcher said that he had been in consultation with the city attorney’s office in Tampa regarding mandatory evacuations, another issue where there was a conflict between the city and county leading up to Irma’s arrival. He said issues were less clear when it came to the power of ordering curfews.
Commissioner Les Miller, who served in Tallahassee for more than a decade before coming on the board in 2010, said he remembered that the Legislature had enacted specific rules after a similar incident happened in Tampa in 2005. He said this was the time to go back to the Hillsborough County legislative delegation to review those statutes to make sure they’re complementing each other.
“We might not be the only county that’s having these issue,” Miller said. “We could be working out an agreement with all the mayors and the emergency management policy group, but who’s to say that two years from now, when there’s a new mayor, the same issue does not come about?”
The board then approved a motion proposed by Miller to have the board write a letter to the Hillsborough legislative delegation to review all statutes that deal with emergency management policies and operations dealing with issues like curfews.
Another conflicting issue that took place between the county and city occurred Friday, Sept. 8, when Buckhorn called for a mandatory evacuation in Tampa of residents of Zone A. At the time, Hillsborough County had only issued a voluntary evacuation for special-needs residents of that zone.
The announcement directed people to the county’s shelters. Unfortunately, Hillsborough hadn’t opened their general population shelters yet.
Fletcher said that it’s now “clear” that the county has the ultimate emergency management authority when it comes to ordering evacuations.
Commissioner Sandy Murman said that it was important to get this policy right, saying she was getting her hair done in South Tampa that Friday afternoon when she learned that the city had called for an evacuation, “and I knew full well that the shelters weren’t open.”
“That’s when confusion starts,” she said. “People need to know they have a place to go.”
The issue was brought up initially at Wednesday’s meeting by a member of the general public.
“I’m not pleased how that was communicated to the public,” said Gerald White. “We all need to be on the same page during a crisis.”
“It was a little embarrassing and very confusing what took place,” Commissioner Victor Crist acknowledged.