Bob Buckhorn Archives - Page 3 of 39 - Florida Politics

Former Tampa firefighter who won sex discrimination lawsuit speaks out

Until Tuesday, only those in a courtroom heard former firefighter Tanja Vidovic detail the sexual harassment and discrimination she suffered inside the Tampa Fire Rescue Department.

It was her testimony in federal court last fall that resulted in a successful lawsuit, which she won in December.

Now it was the public’s turn to hear Vidovic speak about her life and career and how things went so wrong during her tenure at the department.

Vidovic gave a riveting and disturbing 22-minute account of her seven and half year career with Tampa Fire Rescue, which culminated in her firing in 2016 — one day after she filed a lawsuit against the city.

In December, a seven-person federal jury sided with Vidovic against Tampa, awarding her $245,000, saying the city discriminated because she was pregnant and retaliated when she complained.

In Vidovic’s account, no one — not the (male-dominated) hierarchy at Tampa Fire Rescue nor many of her colleagues — come out looking very well.

Particular villains in the tale include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), unions, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and most prominently, the city’s human resources department.

Among the instances of discrimination that Vidovic told the jury, as well as the audience gathered Tuesday morning for a workshop on sexual harassment at the Student Center on Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry campus (convened by Rep. Kathy Castor):

— Receiving inappropriate text messages from her department captains requesting sex with her. After she complained to human resources, she was banished to a busier station “as punishment.”

— Her personnel captain told her, after learning she was pregnant, that she should have said no and “just keep her legs closed” next time.

— Vidovic was often locked out of a coed bathroom and was written up if she entered when a man was already in there.

— She was subjected to a “fit-for-duty” test — wearing gear while pregnant. It was a test Vidovic said nobody had ever heard of, neither man nor woman.

— When Vidovic did file a complaint, superiors refused to take her grievances up the chain of command.

— She was labeled as failing an annual evaluation due to her pregnancy.

When Vidovic emailed Tampa’s human resources department for help on harassment claims, the department actually forwarded her emails back to the Fire Department, which she claimed resulted in further harassment.

HR told Vidovic that, in fact, she wasn’t being harassed, and did nothing to help her. A meeting with her captain about harassment claims resulted in a downgrade in her evaluation forms for complaining.

She then went to Tampa Fire Rescue’s Fire Chief Tom Forward, also to no avail.

Next was an unproductive meeting with Buckhorn.

“I requested five times to meet with the Mayor of Tampa … once in person,” she told the audience. “He just laughed at me and said no. (He) looked down at his phone and started texting.”

Vidovic said harassment didn’t just occur on a daily basis, but often multiple times in a day. She felt like the department wanted to fire her, but she believed she was a good employee, albeit one who was also pregnant and complaining about harassment.

Feeling pressured, Vidovic noted how some of her male colleagues were doing notorious things, like “DUI’s, solicitation of prostitutes, strippers at the stations being in photo shoots, throwing knives at other employees, insurance fraud.”

“But all these men kept their jobs,” she said.

Vidovic was refused help from the local firefighters union as well as the International Association of Fire Fighters. Once she learned that the EEOC offered mediation, she was excited, thinking that would solve her continuing problems in the department.

She then decided to file a complaint with that federal agency. After waiting for a response, she received a letter months later saying that if she wanted, she could sue the city.

Vidovic said she wanted mediation, and that pursuing a lawsuit was never her initial intention. But once the EEOC and Dept. of Justice notified the city about her filing a complaint, she says it ignited an uproar in the department and put a bigger target on her back.

On March 23, 2016, she filed a lawsuit against the city of Tampa. A day later, Tampa Fire Rescue fired her,  just two years before she qualified for a pension.

Vidovic had two kids at home with her husband; a third child was on the way.

After seven years of paying union dues, Vidovic believed she had union support. She was wrong.

“I was abandoned by them, and now faced to go to court on my own and pay my expenses out of pocket.”

It took more than a year and a half before she got her day in court last fall, where (after several weeks) a jury ruled in her favor.

But Vidovic didn’t sound triumphant in recounting the details of the past several years.

“Not only did I lose my job, my pension, my career, my friends at the city of Tampa, my reputation,” she said. “I also lost fee charges and court expenses which are close to $30,000.”

It’s not over. Far from it. The city of Tampa has filed for U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich to declare a mistrial. “The city of Tampa has deep pockets and they know I have to continue to pay my attorney because the union refused to arbitrate for me,” she says.

As a firefighter, Vidovic was making $55,000 annually. She is now working part-time, making just $11.24 an hour at a local park. As far as she knows, none of the men who allegedly harassed her on the job have suffered any consequences.

Vidovic claims that the same captain who propositioned her for sex via text has done it with a current female member of the department.

After that woman complained, she was given a three-day suspension, and ultimately quit.

Vidovic has also heard from other female firefighters claiming harassment, but don’t dare come forward, seeing what she has experienced.

“They saw that I lost my pension. And nobody wants that. Nobody can afford that. Especially these days.”

Following Vidovic on stage at the forum was an official with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, then by Evangeline Hawthorne with the Tampa EEOC office — the same agency Vidovic said was not there for her.

Hawthorne began her presentation by commending the former firefighter for her courage and bravery.

“When you do file a complaint with us, as you can tell from her story, it’s long, often arduous process, but certainly it’s worthwhile,” Hawthorne said, looking over at Vidovic. She respectfully disagreed with Vidovic’s take that the “harassers won.”

“The fact that you’re standing here with your testimony, I don’t think that’s true at all. I think you were victorious,” Hawthorne said, adding that she is an inspiration for others experiencing similar circumstances.

This week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Tampa’s legal costs in the continuing fight in court against Vidovic could ultimately reach more than $3 million.

More questions than answers after Rays commit to play in Ybor City

After a decade searching for a new home, the Tampa Bay Rays officially committed Friday to build a new ballpark in Tampa’s historic Ybor City entertainment district.

That wasn’t much of a surprise, considering Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan had revealed that information last October. And Friday afternoon’s press conference didn’t provide many more specifics other than the proposal now has the official imprimatur from Rays owner Stuart Sternberg.

“The Ybor City location represents the finest opportunity for Major League Baseball to thrive in the Tampa Bay region for generations to come,” said Sternberg. “We are excited to explore ways to weave Ybor’s rich history into a next-generation, neighborhood ballpark.”

The proposed site is between East Fourth Avenue and Adamo Drive to the north and south and 15th Street and Channelside Drive to the east and west. Most of the area is currently industrial, and officials said that they did not believe that anybody was living in the parcels needed to construct a ballpark.

Joining Sternberg and Hagan at the press conference were Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and two members of the business community: Chuck Sykes, CEO of Sykes Enterprises, and Ron Christaldi, a partner with the white-shoe law firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick.

They’ll lead a new organization called Tampa Bay Rays 2020, designed to build community and business support in bringing the club to Hillsborough County.

While the Rays’ performance on the field has been uneven since their creation in 1998 (the high-water mark coming a decade ago when they played in the World Series), their recent home attendance has been nothing short of atrocious, as they have finished last in that metric for the past several years.

Sternberg had wanted out of Tropicana Field for longer than a decade, beginning in late 2007 when the team floated the idea of playing in a refurbished Al Lang Stadium along the waterfront.

After that proposal went nowhere, the team tread water for several years, hoping that the city of St. Petersburg would amend their lease that runs through 2027 to allow them to negotiate for a possible stadium in Hillsborough County.

Led by Mayor Rick Kriseman, it finally happened in January 2016.

News that the team had chosen a site in Ybor City was announced by Hagan last October. Buckhorn praised Kriseman for having the “political courage” to negotiate the deal with the St. Pete City Council to allow the Rays to negotiate, something that previous Mayor Bill Foster refused to do and something that Kriseman’s 2017 opponent, Rick Baker, also said he would not have done. The agreement with Hillsborough ends at the conclusion of 2018.

The overarching questions of how much the stadium will cost and who will pay for it were left to be answered for another day. Sternberg stunned longtime followers of the stadium saga when he said last year that the Rays’ contribution could be only around $150 million.

With a final price tag of potentially $800 million, the comment appeared to be out of touch with expectations.

When asked at the press conference if he was willing to adjust that number on Friday, Sternberg was vague, saying “we anticipate to be putting up a good amount of money to this project.”

When asked how much he believes the Rays should commit, Buckhorn said essentially it could (or should) be as much as half of the ultimate costs.

“That would be nice,” he said to a reporter who mentioned the $400 million figure.

Regarding how to finance the public portion to pay for the park, nobody came up with any specifics on Friday. Options previously discussed include funding from hotel bed taxes and car rental fees that are mostly paid by tourists, as well as Community Redevelopment Area funds collected through the district.

“I don’t at this point see a light at the end of the tunnel yet, but that’s because we really haven’t crunched the numbers yet,” Buckhorn said, adding that there will probably be more “equity partners” and developers who might want to develop around the project. He also speculated that there could be an additional entertainment tax within Ybor City.

“So we don’t know what those revenues are,” he said. “We know some of the tools that we have available, and we can crunch those numbers, but it’s about doing the math.”

Putting a possible dent in those plans is legislation (HB 13) that passed the Florida House that would prohibit sports franchises from building or improving stadiums on public land.

Buckhorn responded by saying that Richard Corcoran, who backs the bill, will no longer be Speaker in just a few months (technically he will be until the fall), and that he and other mayors in Florida are working hard to kill that bill now that it’s with the Senate.

 “(W)e appreciate the Mayor’s recognition that one man stands between Hard-working taxpayers and a bloated government that is looking to give their hard-earned tax dollars to billionaire sports owners and charge illegal taxes, but I can assure him, it is an an overwhelming majority of the Florida House, Corcoran spokesman Fred Piccolo said.

Patrick Manteiga, the editor and publisher of the Ybor City-based weekly La Gaceta and a champion of all things Ybor, said it’s “fantastic” that the Rays are considering pulling up stakes in the historic district.

“I’m sure there’s going to be bumps on the road,” he said, referring to the design process which will include discussions about the height of a proposed park, as well as traffic and parking concerns.

“But at this moment, I don’t think it’s time to talk about the difficulties. I think it’s time to talk about how we need to get behind this effort, because there is going to be some heavy lifting.”

(Photo credit: Kim DeFalco)

Ed Turanchik tees up next Tampa mayoral bid

Reflecting on his 2010-2011 bid for Tampa mayor, Ed Turanchik said that in that campaign Bob Buckhorn schooled him on messaging — and he learned his lesson.

Perhaps that explains Turanchik’s emphasis on branding his candidacy as a “vision” to lead Tampa in 2019 and beyond — reflected both on his campaign website and in encounters Friday with the media upon launching his run for mayor.

“I see the larger issue is framing a vision of what the city needs to be,” Turanchik told Florida Politics just hours after officially filing for office.

“I’ve had this consistent vision, and it’s all about creating a 21st-century city.”

Key components of that vision: transit, community building and innovation.

In 2011, the attorney/developer/transit activist finished fourth out of five contestants, but that doesn’t accurately reflect the impact Turanchik had on the campaign.

Before the primary, Turanchik won endorsements from both the (late) Tampa Tribune and Creative Loafing, and those covering the campaign questioned whether the fresh ideas being espoused by both him and Buckhorn would be rewarded by the voters, who in early polling seemed more comfortable with old-school Tampa natives Rose Ferlita and Dick Greco.

The answer was mixed, with Ferlita receiving the most votes in the first round of balloting; Buckhorn beat out Greco by just 384 votes to qualify. Then, Buckhorn trounced Ferlita in the general election.

Turanchik, 62, entered that contest relatively late in 2010, which became a significant factor in his extraordinarily early entry into the election that is still more than a year away.

He also brings a formidable resume with him into the race.

In fact, while any of his presumed opponents (which already include businessman Topher Morrison and Michael Anthony Hazard) may ultimately offer a more compelling message than Turanchik, it’s doubtful that they’ll be able to match him regarding accomplishments earned over the decades in Hillsborough County

Those achievements include a body of work that seems to contradict the notion he’s more of a dreamer than an executor of policy.

Among the projects Turanchik played a substantial (or tangential) part include the creation of Tampa Bay Water, placing Amalie Arena in Channelside and the Cross-Bay Ferry (down this winter but expected to resume in the fall).

Turanchik also takes credit for projects that initially didn’t pan out, like his work in the early aughts to bring the 2012 Summer Olympics to Tampa. Although that idea died at the hands of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2002, the bid did accomplish one thing — pushing the state to create a right of way for potential high-speed rail along I-4.

On that, his work with ConnectUS bore fruit in 2010 (only to be rejected in 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott).

While his mixed-used residential and commercial development (known as Civitas) died in 2004, Turanchik said it became the genesis of what Buckhorn is now doing right now with the InVision plan for the West River area.

A Hillsborough County Commissioner from 1990-1998, Turanchik also takes credit for helping pass an indigent health care tax in 1991 (sponsored by Phyllis Busansky), as well as the Community Investment Tax in 1996.

Since 2011, he’s worked in the public policy practice group at the law firm of Akerman LLP, where in 2016 he helped bring in WS Development, a Boston developer, to revitalize Hyde Park Village.

But to some, Turanchik will always be known as being a transit advocate.

That said, he wants to clear the air about what modes of transportation he does (and doesn’t) prefer.

“For the record, I’ve never been a fan or proponent or supporter of light rail, because it requires a separate dedicated right of way,” he said. “And it’s bloody expensive. I have always  been in favor of using the CSX corridors with compatible technology.”

And without getting too specific, Turanchik also boldly asserts that “we’re going to have really brand new transit within two years of me getting elected into the mayor’s office without a tax increase.”

He’s not a fan of the recently announced regional transit feasibility plan that calls for bus rapid transit to run from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg. The product is a product produced by Jacobs Engineering, a transportation consultant.

“I have a very simple adage born from my Sierra Club activism days which used to be, ‘think globally, act locally,'” he says. “Mine is, think regionally, act locally. I’m a little bit concerned that this is being turned around, to say, let’s do big regional projects that don’t address local needs.”

News has surfaced in recent ways of Buckhorn trying to advance a long-discussed plan to turn some of Tampa’s treated wastewater into drinking water (affectionally known in some quarters as ‘toilet to tap’).

Unable to come to a deal with Tampa Bay Water, the mayor had local legislators attempt to push a bill in the Legislature this winter that would give the city the right to use reclaimed water to supplement its water supply. Vigorously challenged by officials with Tampa Bay Water, the proposal is now dead in Tallahassee.

Turanchik supports where Buckhorn is going on reclaimed water, but warned it would be calamitous to blow up Tampa Bay Water.

“Tampa Bay Water needs to embrace the project and get going,” he said, adding that if he were in charge,  he would be going around throughout the region to all of TBW’s partners to sell the proposal.

“It’s a fundamentally sound project. It will have a huge benefit for the Bay, huge benefit for the environment.”

With the campaign still months away from starting in earnest, candidates — who range from former Police Chief Jane Castor to city council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen to philanthropist David Straz and perhaps others — still could enter the race.

Turanchik called them all “good people” and is looking forward to a “friendly public-policy-laden discussion, something he maintains Tampa voters prefer.

“We all live here. We all like each other Everyone cares about the city. We’ve just got different strengths and perspectives, and I am not running against any of those people,” he added. “I am running for the future of the city of Tampa, and  it’s my credentials, my vision, and my approach is what I hope voters will look at, and the same with them.”

Tampa City Council revives plan to close Bayshore Blvd on occasional Sundays

On Thursday, Tampa City Councilmembers kept hope alive for transit activists who want Bayshore Blvd. shut down occasionally on Sundays for bicyclists, walker, runners, rollerbladers and others to use without fear of getting hit by a vehicle.

Members of “Walk Bike Tampa” appeared before the Council to advocate for a plan to redirect vehicular traffic on Tampa’s signature roadway one or more Sundays a month. It would enable more people to enjoy what they call the “crown jewel” of the Tampa Park system.

Chair Yolie Capin showed some initial disdain for the proposal, saying councilmembers could expect to hear an earful from Bayshore residents. They should consider other areas for “diversity,” she said.

Capin then suggested using West Cypress Street as an alternative, as it runs from one end of the city to the other.

Not all Bayshore residents agreed.

Catherine Durkin Robinson called the roadway “dangerous,” adding that every couple of months “someone from my community is hurt on Bayshore.”

“Every so often — once a week — we can open Bayshore to runners, walkers and cyclists,” she said.

Councilman Luis Viera noted that he just turned 40, and knows he could be in better shape. He said getting behind the proposal made sense in endorsing the idea of making Tampa a healthier community.

But the concept appeared dead on arrival when Transportation and Stormwater Director Jean Duncan said conversion would be too costly for a variety of city departments, and the Bob Buckhorn administration does not support the idea.

That’s when Councilman Mike Suarez intervened.

Suarez reminded Duncan that Bayshore Blvd. will be shut down on the last weekend of this month for the morning hours for various Gasparilla running events, including a marathon, half-marathon, 15K races and others, a tradition going back years.

“If they’re closed off for the road race, and then continued to close it off for the rest of the afternoon, we’re not stretching ourselves as thin as you might think,” he said. “We might want to be a little bit more creative in our thinking so that we can probably do something like this.”

Suarez recommended that such shutdowns be spread out throughout the city, like Cypress Street.

Councilman Harry Cohen said the city should try a pilot project on up to four different roadways throughout Tampa, including Bayshore and Cypress.

Suarez noted that cities like San Francisco have shut down streets on selected Sundays during the year.

In fact, JFK Drive in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has been closed down on Sundays to motorists since the late 1960s, and in 2007, extending the shutdown to Saturdays between April and September.

Walk Bike Tampa proposes that northbound lanes of Bayshore be opened to pedestrian and other non-vehicular traffic. Inside, eastern, or median southbound lanes would be for parking, which would accommodate more than 1000 parked cars.

The remaining outside (western) southbound lane would be for southbound traffic.

They also would like to connect that shutdown to the downtown Riverwalk, Curtis Hixon Park, Cotanchobee Park, Channelside, Waterworks Park and Julian B. Lane Park.

The city will workshop on the issue March 22, with members of the city’s legal, parks and recreation, police and transportation departments involved.

In related news, Cohen informed those who worry about safety on Bayshore that the city intends to reduce the speed limit from 40 miles-per-hour to 35 miles-per-hour. A lot of motorists often drive faster than 50 mph there.

Also, the city is considering adding several more mid-block crossings between Howard Avenue and downtown, Cohen said.

Pirates got me thinking: The Gasparilla parade and Florida politics

There’s one event for which this proud St. Petersburg native will always cross the bridge.

It’s Robert and Nancy Watkins‘ party, held in conjunction with the Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza, an alcohol-free event celebrating the pirates’ return to Tampa Bay.

Gasparilla is an annual celebration that began in 1904. Held each year in late January or early February, it celebrates the legend of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate who supposedly operated in Southwest Florida. There is the main parade one weekend and a night parade held the following week. But to kick it all off, there is the family-friendly children’s parade.

To those who may not know them — and very few people operating in Florida politics DON’T know them — Robert and Nancy may be two of the most essential players in the state’s political universe.

Through their South Tampa accounting firm moves tens (if not hundreds) of millions in political contributions and expenditures. Additionally, Nancy serves as treasurer for dozens of candidates and committees. Among her too-many-to-name Florida clients are several A-list members of Congress and the Florida Legislature.

As we have the past five years, my wife, daughter, and I gladly accepted an invitation to view the parade from the Watkins’ beautiful home. And while my daughter was there for the beads and the floats, I attended for the politics, as the party draws many of Tampa Bay’s leading politicos.

With Bloody Mary in hand most of the day, my conversations with those participating were not for attribution. Nevertheless, I was able to glean several insights into state and local politics.

But first, a quick note about two of the children at the parade.

The first is about Lizzy Brandes, the amazing seven-year-old recently adopted by Natalie and Jeff Brandes. I say “amazing” because that’s precisely what she is. She is so much more acclimated to American life than what you could believe can happen in such a short period.

And think about, Lizzy knows nothing about our traditions, like a parade idolizing a mythical pirate. Think about how that must look through her eyes. Yet there she was, catching beads with the best of them.

The second note is about Maverick Griffin, the surprise addition to Melanie and Mike Griffin‘s lives. He’s just as cool in person as his name would suggest and it’s just incredible to see Melanie and Mike, perhaps the city’s best known young professional couple, embrace parenthood with as much enthusiasm as they have the other aspects of their lives.

Now, on to politics.

First and foremost, the attitude of the decidedly Republican crowd was less celebratory than it was in 2017. Last year, the party took place at about the same time as Donald Trump‘s inauguration and so there were plenty of folks sporting red “Make American Great Again” hats. This year, however, with the parade taking place just hours after the federal government officially shut down, there were very few, if any, outspoken supporters of the president.

Speaking of which, it’s astonishing to think of the transition one guest has made since I last blogged about the Watkins’ Gasparilla party.

I’m referring, of course, to former U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

Two years ago, Jolly held a sizable lead over his rivals for the Republican nomination for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat. Today, he is among the most prominent critics of Trump. In fact, he may be THE most prominent Florida-based Trump critic.

It remains to be seen what Jolly will do in 2018 and beyond. I doubt he runs for office. And I know Jolly would like to book a full-time gig with a cable network. But can he make that happen?

Jolly also had an impressive set of comments about the #NeverTrump movement. He spoke about what will happen AFTER the fever breaks. And about how those Republicans who did not stand up to Trump may be judged. I agree with the former congressman that reckoning will come for the Paul Ryans of the world who not only did not stand up to Trump, but enabled him.

He’s not exactly a #NeverTrump’er, but he’s close enough: Will Weatherford was missing from the Watkins’ party, although his lovely wife, Courtney, stopped by.

I guess Will’s just too busy making money in the private sector to stop what he’s doing for a parade.

State Sens. Jeff Brandes and Dana Young both made appearances Saturday.

While Brandes has yet to draw a Democratic opponent, Young learned last week that Bob Buesing would run against her again in 2018.

In a way, Brandes and Young’s fates are intertwined. It’s like that Florida Democrats do not have the resources to fund a candidate against both Brandes and Young, so now that Buesing is in against Young, Brandes may be closer to being off-the-hook.

Yet the upside for Young is higher than it is for Brandes: if she can get past Buesing, she has a better-than-even-money chance to be the first female Senate president in decades. There’s no doubt Young faces a stiff challenge from Buesing, but I think the book on him is still the same as it was in 2016, no matter how much the political environment has changed. He’s a smart man and, by all accounts, a solid lawyer and valuable member of the community.

But is he a good politician?

Young, meanwhile, has beat back everything opponents have ever thrown at her. And if she could beat the late Stacey Frank in 2010, I wager she’ll be able to get by Buesing this year.

Hard at work on the campaign trail is political consultant Anthony Pedicini, who is always one of the first to arrive at the Watkins party. He also brings much of his extended, parade-loving family to the event. And they’re great.

Of course, Pedicini spent much of the day on the phone, working on the special election in House District 72. Pedicini and his partner, Tom Piccolo, are on a tear, winning one special election after another in 2017-2018. But there’s something afoot in HD 72, despite advantages Republicans hold in that seat.

For several reasons, Democrats are excited about Margaret Good‘s chances in this seat. They’re raising serious money, although Republican James Buchanan is too. For some time, the fur has been flying in this race (no doubt part of what Pedicini was working Saturday), so keep this contest on your radar.

Finally, if there is one takeaway I want to impart about Saturday, it’s about how, um, interested Bob Buckhorn might be … could be … in the running for, um, Florida Governor … in 2018.

Hizzoner always comes to the Watkins party after working the parade route and, even more so than in years past; he was a man in full. Buckhorn knows what kind of job he’s done in Tampa and really, really would like to do the same for Florida.

I joked with him about how great it would be if he could give a speech years from now and say “Florida has its swagger back” just the way he was able to say the same thing about Tampa.

Lobbyist Ana Cruz and I spent thirty minutes practically begging Buckhorn to reconsider not running in 2018, primarily since John Morgan — who would’ve clogged the same lane Buckhorn would run in — has taken himself out of the running.

Buckhorn’s problem is that while he would almost certainly do well in a general election, he would struggle to escape the identity-based politics of the Democratic nomination. It probably won’t be the year for another middle-aged white guy — no matter how great his story — and Buckhorn’s story in Tampa is great. That is a damn shame. Because, in Buckhorn, you can literally see the same appeal Joe Biden has at the national level.

There is at least one upshot to Buckhorn not running in 2018. We’ll be able to see him swagger down Bayshore Boulevard one last time in 2019.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn greets a boy along the parade route of the 2018 Children’s Gasparilla Experience.

Ethics commission delays Ken Hagan’s legal fee case

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, Mark Levine, $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.

Tampa Bay mayors come out swinging against GOP-led Legislature at Tiger Bay

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 cityin 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 9 would 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.

Hillsborough Democrats host District 5 forum, first for 2018

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.

Self-proclaimed underdog Topher Morrison announces bid for Tampa mayor

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 only wished 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.

Not Just A Body Of Water — 1.7.18

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.

“I have no intention of being a lame duck,” Buckhorn told Janelle Irwin of the Tampa Bay Business Journal. “I am not going to let up on one iota of the job I came to do.”

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:

— “Buckhorn does his own poll on transit, Donald Trump and Puerto Rico and … Bob Buckhorn” via Richard Danielson of the Tampa Bay Times

— “New survey shows Tampa voters really like Buckhorn, police” via Florida Politics

— “Transit is a top priority for Tampa residents, Buckhorn survey shows” via Janelle Irwin of the Tampa Bay Business Journal

— “Hero: Tampa firefighter works full shift, arrives home to rescue neighbor from burning house” via WFLA

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.

Bob Buckhorn joins WWE superstar Titus O’Neil and other community partners for the 8th Annual Joy of Giving to give out more than 10,000 gifts for the holiday season.

— PIC OF THE WEEK —

On the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall, Rick Kriseman is sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 2, for his second term as mayor. Photo credit: Kim DeFalco

— 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.

To register, visit stpete.com/Tallahassee.

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.

“Mary came aboard with me right after I got elected back in 2010 and worked in my general counsel office, and to give her bragging rights, everything she touched, it worked,” Scott said at a Club for Growth event in 2016, as reported by POLITICO. “So, thank you for helping her, and hopefully she has a big win.”

“If Gov. Rick Scott selects Thomas, she will oversee cases like divorces, child support issues and adoptions,” The Tampa Bay Times writes.

— PINELLAS CO. MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS ON THE WAY —

A handful of municipal offices throughout Pinellas County are up for election March 13, including mayors of the cities of Belleair, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Treasure Island and Pinellas Park.

Also, up for grabs are council seats in Belleair Beach, Clearwater, Gulfport, Indian Rocks Beach, Kenneth City, Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, Safety Harbor, South Pasadena and Treasure Island.

— “Qualifying period begins for St. Pete Beach City Commission

— “Four candidates qualify for South Pasadena City Commission election

— “Patrick Soranno goes uncontested for Indian Shores mayor

— “St. Pete Beach commissioners re-elected without opposition

— “Indian Rocks Beach voters set to pick new mayor, commissioners in 2018

— “Qualifying period begins for Treasure Island commission seats

— “Six candidates qualify for Belleair Beach City Council race

— “Qualifying period begins for three Safety Harbor commission seats

— “Six qualify for three seats in Treasure Island election

— “Realtor group endorses David Allbritton for Clearwater City Council

— PINELLAS PARK NAMES NEW FIRE CHIEF —

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 centennial was 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.

Details are at GasparillaPirateFest.com, which is regularly updated; reserved Gasparilla Invasion Brunch and Gasparilla Parade tickets are available at GasparillaTreasures.com, or by calling (813) 251-8844.

— NEW BOSS —

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.

For more information, a schedule of Arts District events for January, to donate or become a continuing member, visit warehouseartsdistrictstpete.com/Membership.

— EAT HEALTHY —

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.

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