Gov. Rick Scott Archives - Page 5 of 91 - Florida Politics

Vape ’em if you got ’em, Trulieve says

A medical marijuana provider is accusing the Department of Health of dragging its feet on allowing the company to once again sell ‘vaping’ devices.

Trulieve this month filed a petition for declaratory statement with the department, which regulates medicinal cannabis through its Office of Medical Marijuana Use.

In May, the department told Trulieve to stop selling wire-mesh vape cups filled with whole flower marijuana because they could be too easily opened to get at the product inside.

Regulators were concerned the marijuana would then be smoked, not vaped—short for vaporized. State law allows medical marijuana edibles and vaping, but not smoking.

The petition explains the difference, below:

In its latest filing, Trulieve said it asked regulators this July for approval to sell ceramic vaporizer cups filled with ground marijuana flower. The department “did not act on the application within the time allowed … thus (it is) approved by default,” its petition says.

A second application to approve a different vaporizer device is similarly being sat on, and the Health Department “informally declined to recognize” the default OK of the first application under state law, according to the petition.

The department “has no basis to further delay or deny” its official approval of the vaping equipment, Trulieve says.

In 2014, lawmakers passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure legalizing low-THC, or “non-euphoric,” marijuana to help children with severe seizures and muscle spasms. THC is the chemical that causes the high from pot.

Two years later, voters approved a state constitutional amendment allowing medicinal cannabis. Lawmakers this year approved and Scott also signed an implementing bill, which gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

Orlando attorney and medical marijuana advocate John Morgan, the main backer of the amendment, is suing the state to allow patients prescribed marijuana to smoke it.

Rick Scott moves to throw Barbara Pariente off judicial appointments case

Gov. Rick Scott is moving to remove Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente from a legal challenge to his judicial appointment power, saying she’s biased against him.

Daniel Nordby, Scott’s general counsel, filed a motion for disqualification Monday.

Scott’s decision follows Pariente “making disparaging remarks after the conclusion of the oral argument in this case on November 1, 2017 which were captured on a live microphone and widely reported on,” the Governor’s Office said in a statement.

The motion also refers to statements made by Pariente while campaigning for retention in 2012, “A vote ‘yes’ will be a vote to retain me and the other two justices … A vote ‘no’ will give Gov. Scott the right to make his appointments, which will result in partisan political appointments.”

“Gov. Scott strongly believes that all Floridians deserve judges that are impartial, fair and non-partisan,” Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

“Justice Pariente’s past remarks cast grave doubt on her ability to take an objective and unbiased position when evaluating Gov. Scott’s authority in this case. She must be disqualified to ensure a fair decision.”

Pariente and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga had been caught on a ‘hot mic’ immediately after a Nov. 1 oral argument in a case over Gov. Rick Scott’s judicial appointment power.

Progressive groups claim Scott doesn’t have authority to appoint three new Supreme Court justices on the last day of his term. The openings are caused by the mandatory retirements for the court’s liberal-leaning trio of Justices R. Fred Lewis, Pariente and Peggy A. Quince.

The Governor’s Office had filed a records request for a piece of paper on the bench to which Pariente and Labarga were ostensibly referring during their exchange. That document turned out to be the current membership list of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commissionwhich happens to include Nordby.

Moments after the argument ended, Labarga can first be heard on a recording from the courtroom saying what sounds like, “…anything on there, Panuccio.” Jesse Panuccio, once Scott’s general counsel and a former head of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, is a member of the Supreme Court JNC.

Pariente then can be heard saying what sounds like “crazy.” Nordby said that was “an apparent reference either to Gov. Scott or to (his) appointees to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission—the constitutional body that will be responsible for nominating her successor.”

That’s followed by Labarga: “Izzy Reyes is on there, he’ll listen to me.” JNC member Israel U. Reyes is founder of The Reyes Law Firm in Coral Gables and a former circuit judge. He’s also one of four members nominated to the nine-member commission by The Florida Bar; the others are appointed by the governor.

When previously asked if he might pursue recusals of Labarga and Pariente from his case, Scott has said, “I think we have to find out. Let’s put the facts on the table. Then we can make a decision of how we should go forward.”

Nordby’s filing says Pariente’s comments, combined with her previous public statements, “provide a reasonable basis to question her impartiality … Scott is reasonably in doubt that this case will not be decided fairly.”

Pariente, Labarga and court spokesman Craig Waters have not commented publicly on the matter.

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Updated Wednesday – Kendra Arnold, executive director of the conservative Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), issued a statement that her group supports Scott’s motion.

It filed a public records request for Pariente’s and Labarga’s emails over what it calls “the justices’ overt political bias.”

“In a verbal attack on one of Scott’s appointees to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, as well as making other past politically biased comments, she has shown herself to be clearly unfit to hear this case objectively,” Arnold said.

“Justice Pariente may not like Gov. Scott or his politics, but a justice’s No. 1 job is to be just, not political. In fact, judicial ethics rules clearly state that any personal bias or prejudice shown by a justice toward a given party is grounds for recusal.”

Legislative leaders could get influence over judicial appointments

The state’s Senate President and House Speaker could get an indirect say over judicial appointments—including state Supreme Court justices—under legislation filed Monday.

White

The bill (HB 753), filed by Pensacola state Rep. Frank White—also a 2018 GOP candidate for attorney general—would allow the top Senate and House leaders to appoint people to judicial nominating commissions (JNCs), the panels that recommend lawyers for judgeships.

White’s bill also removes The Florida Bar from its role of recommending some JNC members, all of whom ultimately are selected by the governor.

Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker said the organization in general “opposes any changes to the current JNC process that would impair the independence of the commissions.” A request for comment to White is pending.

JNCs help determine the makeup of the state’s judiciary, and the GOP-controlled House long has complained about “judicial activism,” even pushing a bill that died last Session that would have allowed lawmakers to override court decisions they don’t like.

And Gov. Rick Scott has said he wants “judges (who) say what the law is, rather than what it should be.”

Here’s how it works now: When a judicial vacancy occurs that must be filled by appointment, a JNC “submit(s) three to six names of the most highly qualified applicants to the governor, who must make a final selection from the list,” according to the Bar.

A judicial nominating commission has nine members. “Five members are appointed directly by the Governor, and the Bar sends nominations to the Governor to fill the remaining four spots,” the Bar’s website explains.

The governor must select from the Bar’s recommendations, but state law allows for the governor to “reject all of the nominees recommended for a position and request that the (Bar) submit a new list.”

That way, a governor can simply turn down the Bar until he gets the names he wants.

In January, Scott rejected all of the Bar’s suggestions to fill vacancies in several of the state’s JNCs, giving no reasons why. At the time, that made at least 90 of the Bar’s recommendations for JNC openings that Scott turned down since taking office in 2011.

Nominees that Scott has rejected over the years include Vero Beach lawyer Erin Grall, now a Republican state representative, and nationally known civil-rights attorney Ben Crump of Tallahassee.

Moreover, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justice Barbara Pariente were caught on a ‘hot mic’ talking about Supreme Court JNC members immediately after a Nov. 1 oral argument in a case over Gov. Rick Scott’s judicial appointment power.

Labarga could be heard saying, “Izzy Reyes is on there, he’ll listen to me,” an apparent reference to Supreme Court JNC member Israel U. Reyes, founder of The Reyes Law Firm in Coral Gables and a former circuit judge. Reyes also is one of four members who was recommended to the nine-member commission by the Bar.

Under White’s bill, the speaker and president would “each appoint two members to fill positions as they expire or are vacated, that previously were held by members nominated by the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar.”

For example, “for selections to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, the President of the Senate shall appoint the members for the first and third positions that become vacant and the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall appoint the members for the second and fourth positions.”

When asked for comment, Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said the governor “will review any legislation that makes it to his desk.”

Where are the Groveland Four pardons? Their story continues in silence

There is no pardon for the Groveland Four.

At least not yet, and possibly not in the foreseeable future, despite much celebration last spring that they deserved and should receive posthumous pardons.

The Groveland Four are the young, black men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in rural Lake County in 1949. It was an infamous case that unraveled into a pile of racial hatred, apparent lies and reportedly manufactured evidence, all coming to light largely through the efforts of legendary NAACP attorney and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But the truth began to emerge too late to save any of them from the fates suffered by so many black men in the Jim Crow era. Two were killed in custody, and the other two were wrongly [the record now shows] convicted and imprisoned.

Their story, largely unknown or forgotten even in Florida, was spread internationally by Gilbert King’s best-selling book, Devil in the Grove, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and awakened Florida’s conscience about the matter.

Last spring, in a passionate flurry that rivaled any call anywhere for belated justice, the Florida Legislature approved a resolution apologizing to the families of Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas and urging full pardons for Irvin and Greenlee, the only two who lived long enough to be convicted and imprisoned.

The resolution declared the quartet, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history.”

“This is Florida’s version of the Scotsboro Boys. This is our To Kill a Mockingbird,” state Sen. Gary Farmer declared after the resolution’s adoption. “We cannot change the hands of time. We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it. But we can acknowledge our wrongs. And we can bring peace, and healing, and closure to the families who have suffered so long.”

Yet seven months after the Florida Legislature passed CS/HCR 631 by votes of 117-0 in the Florida House of Representatives and 36-0 in the Florida Senate, the request it contained for pardons has vanished into bureaucracy.

And no one wants to talk about it.

Several communications by Florida Politics to the office of Gov. Rick Scott last week resulted in no response, except a referral to the Florida Commission on Offender Review, which declined to comment on Greenlee or Irvin. Neither Farmer nor state Rep. Bobby DuBose, the Broward County Democrats who sponsored the resolutions in the Senate and House respectively, responded to requests to talk about the pardons either.

“I’m not aware of anything going on,” said former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, the Orlando Democrat who first brought the Groveland Four to the Legislature’s attention in 2016, in a resolution that failed that Session, shortly before she left the Senate herself.

Also not aware of anything going on is Josh Venkataraman, the young activist who carried the matter back to the Florida Legislature this year, and who, as it turned out, wound up being the one who actually filed the request for pardons.

“They [Farmer, DuBose and others including House Speaker Richard Corcoran] did an incredible job of making this happen, and really bringing the passion to it. I just don’t know that they knew how to get this next step,” said Venkataraman, who now lives and works in New York City. “I think the passion is still there. I just don’t know if they have the answers. And, frankly, nobody does. As of this moment, the only thing I’ve been told is it’s a waiting process.”

Technically, it turned out, the Legislature demanding pardons was not the same thing as someone formally requesting pardons. That may have gone unrealized until weeks later. When he discovered there were no pardon requests on file from anyone, Venkataraman took it upon himself to write and file one in June.

At the suggestion of the office of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who as a member of the Florida Cabinet will have a final vote on the pardons, Venkataraman also wrote what is called a “Request for Review” application and submitted it to Scott’s office. That’s the legal document that could get the case expedited, if Scott pursues the request. Venkataraman also submitted that in June.

And that, apparently, was the last anyone on the outside has heard of the pardons requested for Greenlee and Irvin.

Kelly Corder, director of communications for the Florida Commission on Offender Review, said law mandates that any specific pardon request remain confidential. She could not discuss it.

“Investigations are processed in the order in which they are received by the Office of Executive Clemency, and maintained in chronological order based upon the original application date,” Corder explained.

Think of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the crate is wheeled into a stadium-sized warehouse and shoved into its appointed spot.

“As of November 1, 2017, there were 22,376 pending clemency cases,” Corder added.

The Florida Legislature didn’t just call for their full pardons last spring. In CS/HCR 631, lawmakers unanimously urged the “Governor and Cabinet to expedite review of the cases” toward those pardons.

Corder noted that “The [Florida] Commission [of Offender Review] cannot consider an application out of order without direction from a member of the Clemency Board,” which is the cabinet: Scott, Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Venkataraman filed his request for review with Scott, and said he has not heard back. Scott’s office did not respond to Florida Politics inquiry on whether he had accepted the request, or was considering it, or had any statement at all on the Groveland Four.

Irvin and Greenlee were released from prison in the 1960s. Irvin returned to Lake County in 1969 to attend a relative’s funeral, but never showed up. Eventually he was found dead in his car. Greenlee died in 2012.

Transportation chief points to ‘effective’ job on debris removal

Florida’s transportation secretary is giving his agency a passing mark for debris removal after Hurricane Irma.

But with debris still along some roads, particularly in pockets of the Florida Keys, Department of Transportation Secretary Michael Dew said officials will look at how they can improve before the next storm.

“I think we did an effective job, but I think we can always do better,” Dew said Thursday during a meeting of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

The pace and cost of debris collection has been a point of contention in the government’s response to Hurricane Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and then barreled up the state.

The Department of Transportation has spent $15 million on debris removal from state highways, with Dew expecting reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Some of that money related to getting called in to help after local governments complained that debris haulers failed to honor pre-storm contracts as subcontractors went in pursuit of better deals in areas harder hit by the storm.

Dew, whose department will conduct a storm-response review next month, said he wants to see if language about penalties and liabilities can be strengthened in contracts with disaster relief companies.

“We had a couple of incidents in areas around the state where we were promised 25 cut-and-toss crews but maybe only 15 showed up,” Dew said. “I’d like to see some more teeth in the contracts so that we can rely on the numbers that are in there, because a lot of our critical planning relies on having those crews available to us.”

Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican whose panel is expected next month to make a series of recommendations that could lead to legislation, said debris removal might be one of those topics.

“I don’t necessarily believe that that is a state’s role to manage county-by-county contracts, but I think the state needs to take a long hard look at it and see what we can do at the state level to develop perhaps reciprocal agreements with other states,” Nunez said. “I believe there is a role to play. How much, that’s yet to be determined.”

Other topics the committee has looked at include health-care facilities, evacuations, petroleum supplies, electric utilities, housing, agriculture, shelter management, education and beaches.

“Obviously, there will be short-term things that need to be taken care of in the immediate, upcoming session,” Nunez said. “And then, as we saw back in (Hurricane) Andrew, or during the ’04-’05 season, legislatures will deal with this issue for years to come.”

A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week found that 70 percent of Floridians rated the handling of the storm as good or better. Meanwhile, delays in debris cleanup resulted in 44 percent of the same people rating debris removal as fair or poor.

Last month, questions were raised about emergency debris-removal contracts issued by the Department of Transportation to two firms and whether the state was paying high rates — three to 10 times in some cases — for the work. Meanwhile, Attorney General Pam Bondi‘s office has looked into claims that three other debris-removal companies hadn’t fulfilled post-Hurricane Irma contracts.

After Democrats from Florida’s congressional delegation last month asked questions about the emergency-debris contracting, Gov. Rick Scott‘s office said local communities had reported that haulers were not providing agreed-to services.

“After the storm, the governor heard from many local communities, including Monroe County, that many of these companies were not providing the agreed-upon service and were demanding higher prices. This is unacceptable,” Scott’s office said at the time. “Monroe County asked for additional help to pick up debris following the storm. FDOT went above and beyond the requirements of Florida law

Personnel note: Chris Hart IV to head Court Clerks group

Chris Hart IV, who last was with Florida TaxWatch, will be the next CEO of the statewide Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers association, according to a Friday press release. He starts Dec. 4.

Hart “will provide strong leadership to our association,” said Marcia M. Johnson, Franklin County Clerk and Comptroller and 2017-18 Board President, in a statement.

“He brings extensive knowledge of the legislative process, which will be critical as we work together with lawmakers to establish sustainable funding for our offices,” she said.

Hart served in the Florida House of Representatives for Hillsborough County’s District 57 in 1998-2002. He later was president and CEO of CareerSource Florida, the state’s employment services operation, from 2007-17.

He left that position to become CEO of Enterprise Florida (EFI), but stepped down after less than three months on the job.

“I’ve come to realize that Gov. (RickScott and I do not share a common vision or understanding for how Enterprise Florida can best provide value within his administration,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “This difference of opinion is of such a critical nature that I no longer believe I can be effective in my position.”

He then joined TaxWatch as the organization’s executive vice president.

Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers represents the interests of Florida’s 67 elected Clerks of the Circuit Court and one independently elected County Comptroller.

“Clerks are independently elected as their duties provide a system of checks and balances, ensuring transparency, access and accountability in local government,” the release said. “While the Constitution Revision Commission convenes this year, Hart and the association will support preserving the roles of constitutional officers as elected, not appointed, positions.”

“Our association can achieve great things with a sharpened focus on our vision and mission,” Hart said in a statement.

“This is a pivotal point in time for the Clerks and Comptrollers, and I look forward to supporting them in their shared commitment to excellence as they seek to effectively and efficiently serve the citizens of Florida.”

He also has been interim director of the now-defunct Governor’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development under both Scott and Gov. Charlie Crist.

Hart was appointed by Crist in 2010 to chair the Governor’s Gulf Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force, responsible for coordinating state efforts in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

He received an MBA from the University of South Florida and an undergraduate degree in political science from Florida State University. Hart and his wife Amy reside in Tallahassee and have two adult children.

Tom Lee defends dog racing ban; Pam Bondi noncommittal

State Sen. Tom Lee fired off a tweetstorm Wednesday in support of his proposed constitutional amendment to ban greyhound racing in Florida.

Lee—a Thonotosassa Republican, previous Senate president and current candidate for Chief Financial Officer—called dog racing “cruel and inhumane,” and added the “greyhound industry opposes any real reform.” (His tweets are at bottom.)

He filed the proposal as a member of the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), which convenes every 20 years to review and propose changes to the state’s governing document.

Meantime, Attorney General Pam Bondi—a Tampa Republican who regularly brings shelter dogs to state Cabinet meetings to get them adopted—declined to say whether she would support the amendment. Bondi also sits on the 37-member CRC.

“As a member of the commission, I look forward to reviewing the more than one hundred proposals that have been filed,” Bondi said in a one-sentence statement to Florida Politics.

Lee’s amendment would phase out live racing over three years, mandating a one-third reduction in race days in 2019-20 and a two-thirds reduction in 2020-21.

“All dog racing in connection with any wager for money or any other thing of value is prohibited on and after July 1, 2021,” the proposal says.

Lawmakers have long failed to pass legislation that would remove the requirement that tracks offer live racing to offer other kinds of gambling, known as “decoupling.”

Efforts to ban the use of steroids in dogs also have died; in fact, a draft bill circulating this month would ensure that trainers could give dogs steroids and allow trace amounts of cocaine in their system.  The 2018 Legislative Session begins in January.

Jack Cory, spokesman for the Florida Greyhound Association, has said Lee’s proposal “is bad for Florida and it is bad for the greyhounds.”

“It would cost over 3,000 Florida jobs, put over 8,000 beautiful greyhounds at risk and create 19 mini-casinos throughout Florida,” Cory said, referring to other gambling, such as cards, that would continue at pari-mutuel facilities.

Lee’s tweets are below:

Legal challenges bog down medical cannabis process

A litany of lawsuits continues to jam up the state’s medical marijuana licensure process, the state’s top marijuana official told House lawmakers Wednesday.

Christian Bax, executive director of the state Health Department’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use, gave the House Health Quality Subcommittee an overview of his work, including the latest tally of legal challenges.

“(Our) position is, we need to see whether a judge will stop this process prior to accepting applications,” Bax said. “We want to start accepting applications and move forward.”

To name just a couple, Tropiflora of Sarasota recently sued the state over its preference in granting medical marijuana licenses to companies with underused or shuttered citrus factories.

Tropiflora calls that an “unconstitutional special advantage” that “adversely impacts” its chance of getting one of 10 more available licenses to be a “medical marijuana treatment center.”

There’s also a constitutional challenge pending from attorney John Morgan over lawmakers’ ban on smoking medicinal cannabis. Morgan was the main backer of the state constitutional amendment authorizing marijuana as medicine and approved by voters last year.

Morgan’s suit seeks a declaratory judgment that the smoking ban runs counter to the amendment’s intent. Lawmakers recently approved and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an implementing bill (SB 8-A) for the amendment that does not allow medicinal marijuana to be smoked.

House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues, for example, has said “we don’t believe you smoke medicine.” Edibles and “vaping” are permitted, however. Bax told the committee his office is still developing rules on edible marijuana products.

There also are administrative challenges, such as a bid protest over the contract for producing the marijuana patient ID cards.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican and dermatologist, likened Health Department officials working on marijuana to the proverbial Dutch boy who plugs a dike with his finger: “They can only hold it for so long.”

At the same time, he said, department officials must “work hard to enforce the law that we worked hard to pass.”

Right-leaning watchdog now wants judicial emails after ‘hot mic’

A conservative watchdog says it’s filed a public records request for emails from Justice Barbara Pariente and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga after what it calls “the justices’ overt political bias.”

The D.C.-based Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) late Monday released a copy of its request to the Florida Supreme Court.

It asks for copies of emails to or from Pariente and Labarga “that contain the phrases ‘Judicial Nominating Commission’ or ‘JNC,’ or any names” of members of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

The two jurists had been caught on a ‘hot mic‘ immediately after a Nov. 1 oral argument in a case over Gov. Rick Scott’s judicial appointment power.

Progressive groups claim Scott doesn’t have authority to appoint three new Supreme Court justices on the last day of his term. The openings are caused by the mandatory retirements for the court’s liberal-leaning trio of Justices R. Fred Lewis, Pariente and Peggy A. Quince.

Moments after the argument ended, Labarga can first be heard on a recording from the courtroom saying what sounds like, “…anything on there, Panuccio.” Jesse Panuccio, once Scott’s general counsel and a former head of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, is a member of the Supreme Court JNC.

Pariente then can be heard saying what sounds like “crazy.” That’s followed by Labarga: “Izzy Reyes is on there, he’ll listen to me.”

JNC member Israel U. Reyes is founder of The Reyes Law Firm in Coral Gables and a former circuit judge. He’s also one of four members nominated to the nine-member commission by The Florida Bar; the others are appointed by the governor.

Kendra Arnold, FACT’s executive director, used the 14 words that could be made out in the conversation to assign “political bias” to the two justices. Pariente has served almost 20 years on the high court; Labarga has served nearly nine years.

“Judicial temperament that includes threatening lawyers short and long-term as Justice Labarga has done, attacking other public officials in the midst of a political campaign as Justice Pariente has done, and now attacking members of the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, destroys public faith in the courts,” Arnold said in a statement.

The organization was formed “in 2014 as a conservative counterweight to watchdog groups viewed as more left-of-center, such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Governor’s Office also filed a records request for a piece of paper on the bench to which Pariente and Labarga were ostensibly referring during their exchange. That document turned out to be the current membership list of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

When asked if he might pursue recusals of Labarga and Pariente from his case, Scott has said, “I think we have to find out. Let’s put the facts on the table. Then we can make a decision of how we should go forward.”

In her statement, Arnold was less circumspect: “Both justices should immediately recuse themselves from this case as they have demonstrated a bias against the governor.”

Central Florida officials ask Rick Scott for more coordination for Puerto Rico evacuees

The influx of Puerto Ricans evacuating their devastated homes in Puerto Rico are beginning to test the capacities of Central Florida and in particular Osceola County, and more state coordination is needed, a group of local officials told Gov. Rick Scott Monday.

Those officials, including Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez, Osceola County Schools Superintendent Debra Pace, and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, told Scott during a roundtable meeting in Kissimmee Monday morning that they want to do all they can to help Puerto Ricans displace by Hurricane Maria but they expect to reach their limits, as Central Florida appears to be the first-choice of most of the more than 143,000 who’ve come to Florida already.

The problem is that evacuating people seek first to live with or near family they have stateside, and that means concentrated communities in South Florida, the Tampa Bay area, and the State Road 417 corridor through Seminole Orange and Osceola counties of Central Florida. While so far the vast majority of evacuees appear to be finding places to stay, mostly with families, officials are expecting an already-existant housing shortage to become a crisis. And certain schools already are crowding.

More than 6,300 children from Puerto Rico have enrolled in Florida schools since Hurricane Maria, following the pattern of their evacuee parents into communities that already have large Puerto Rican populations.

“We have 1,352 new students from Puerto Rico specifically from Hurricane Maria, and an additional 100 from the other storms,” Pace said.

That’s the equivalent of two full elementary schools of new students who arrived in a few weeks. And more are on the way, as some projections exceed 300,000 for the number of Puerto Ricans likely to relocate to Florida. Osceola schools already were peaking beyond projections before Hurricane Maria, Pace said.

“We’re welcoming them and doing all we can to serve them. But capacity is becoming a true issue: teacher needs, staffing to help support them,” Pace said. “And as you notice the conditions down there are not good, so the children are stressed. The families are stressed. It is really taking an emotional toll as well to educate them as well as to love them.”

The dilemma is created because the existing large communities of Puerto Ricans in Florida are where the evacuees are most likely to have family and friends who can offer them spare bedrooms, couches, and a few hot meals. But if they want to stay, and indications are most are expecting to stay, that’s a temporary situation that would last only a few months, and then the housing shortage and jobs pool will become bigger factors.

Housing is the next big challenge, Alvarez predicted. He made a couple of suggestions, including the placement of FEMA trailers, and the possibility of converting closed motels in the U.S. Highway 192 corridor into FEMA housing.

“We need to look at how we are going to get that resolved before that becomes a problem,” he said.

And the schools already are experiencing the imbalances, as Pace described.

“If they want to stay in Central Florida, which is a logical thing for them to want to do, even if we brought in housing, our schools may not be able to handle it,” Jacobs said. “So that’s why we’ve been looking to see if FEMA has a broader approach if we need it.”

Jacobs had written to Scott, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Florida Division of Emergency Management two weeks ago, along with the chairs of Osceola and Seminole counties, urging a meeting such as the one Monday be set up to examine how the federal, state and local authorities could plan long term and coordinate more closely to try avoid service capacity issues by overwhelmed areas, while other areas of the state might have plenty of housing, school capacity and jobs going untapped.

In addition to providing relief resources to the island of Puerto Rico, Scott has coordinated a number of efforts in Florida to assist evacuees, starting with the creation and opening of welcome centers at the Miami and Orlando international airports which have helped direct more than 26,000 evacuees and their families toward housing, food, transpiration, education, job placement, and other services, and, last week, directing the Florida Division of Emergency Management to activate the State Emergency Operations Center to Level 2, to better coordinate transitional housing.

“The biggest thing is to figure out how we go forward,” Scott said. “We’re going to continue to have housing, education, jobs, we’ll have all these issues.”

Jacobs said she heard what she hoped to hear.

“This addresses the need for a meeting, absolutely,” Jacobs said. “We were very pleased.”

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