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Opponents of All Aboard Florida charge finance meeting may violate Sunshine Laws

Indian River and Martin counties and Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida are seeking to delay and move Florida Development Finance Corporation consideration of financing for the All Aboard Florida train, charging that the meeting could violate Florida’s open meeting laws.

The two counties and CARE-Florida are opponents of All Aboard Florida’s plans to develop a private, high-speed, passenger train system from West Palm Beach to Orlando. They want the meeting delayed until they can receive and review meeting packets, and for the meeting to be moved from Jacksonville to somewhere within the rail route’s corridor, contending that holding the meeting 150 miles away could be prejudicial to the issue.

The Florida Development Finance Corporation has scheduled an emergency meeting in Jacksonville for 10 a.m. on Dec. 18

All Aboard Florida is seeking Florida Development Finance Corporation backing for the issuance of $1.15 billion in lower-interest, Private Activity Bonds to finance upgrades of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, and and to construct new tracks from Cocoa to the Orlando International Airport. All Aboard Florida is preparing to launch its private “Brightline” passenger train service between West Palm Beach and Miami in a matter of weeks. The second phase of that project would, in a couple of years, run Brightline trains at speeds of up to 110 mph between West Palm and Cocoa, and up to 125 mph between Cocoa and Orlando.

Opponents, mainly in the ride-over counties of Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie, have fought against that second phase, arguing the trains would cause safety and environmental concerns with up to 32 trains a day crossing more than 100 at-grade street and road crossings and numerous canals and rivers at high speeds.

All Aboard Florida contends it will be meeting the nation’s highest rail safety and environmental protection standards.

Financing the second phase has been an issue; in 2016  the U.S. Department of Transportation withdrew its allocation for $1.75 billion in Private Activity Bonds, and allocated $600 million worth of the bonds only for the South Florida phase.

In a letter sent Thursday to William Spivey, executive director of the Florida Development Finance Corporation, Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold, Martin County Senior Assistant County Attorney Ruth Holmes, and CARE-Florida counsel Stephen M. Ryan charge that the emergency meeting in Jacksonville appears to them to be in violation of Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

“As the Florida Development Finance Corporation has not provided us with any agenda packet materials, we believe that any decision made by the FDFC must be postponed,” they wrote.

“Additionally, we respectfully request that the meeting be relocated to somewhere within the corridor of the proposed project. It is highly prejudicial to conduct a meeting concerning the issuance of $1.15 billion in bonds 150 miles from the closest point of the proposed project. This is highly suspicious considering the meeting is being conducted far away from the FDFC offices, which do lie near the location of the proposed project,” they continued.

After cutting murder plea deal, Aramis Ayala demands answers from Rick Scott

The ongoing conflict between Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala and Gov. Rick Scott over her death penalty policies took another turn as Ayala cut a murder deal with a suspect that avoids a death penalty then answered the governor’s questions by asking her own questions.

Scott and Ayala, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit, have been battling, at high stakes, since March when she first announced she would not seek capital punishment. Yet even since the Florida Supreme Court told her she cannot take that position and she relented, the conflict continues.

It’s now in a war of public records requests and information demands. Part of that has to do with the case of Emerita Mapp, who would have been Ayala’s first death penalty case. Scott charged Ayala missed a critical deadline, blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that, but then on Friday cut a plea bargain with Mapp in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence in an April slaying in Kissimmee.

Last week Scott’s General Counsel Daniel Nordby demanded detailed reports on how Ayala’s death penalty review process operated, and why she missed the deadline, and what she would do about it. Her response Monday continued to deny that the capital punishment case was compromised, and once again charged that the governor himself missed the case back when he was reassigning all potential death penalty cases to another state attorney.

“I would like to know what method/procedure you used in determining which cases you decided to take from my office,” Ayala wrote the governor on Monday.

She made it a records request. And she informed the governor that she had forwarded Nordby’s requests for information to her own public records department.

Governor’s office accuses Aramis Ayala of negligence, possible ‘willful disregard’

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration upped the pressure on Orlando’s State Attorney Aramis Ayala with a letter Monday demanding answers on why she apparently missed a deadline for filing notice of a death penalty case and accusing her of possible “willful disregard” of the law.

The letter from Scott’s general counsel Daniel Nordby might be setting the stage for a new round of battles between the governor and the state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit who refused for months to recognize Florida’s capital-punishment law, until she lost a legal battle with Scott in the Florida Supreme Court in August.

Scott had stripped 30 death-penalty cases from her jurisdiction during that time, but resisted harsher calls from her critics who wanted to see him take action, including possible ouster proceedings, against Ayala, who was elected in the fall of 2016, becoming Florida’s first African-American state attorney.

Nordby’s letter seems to be setting the stage for possible additional actions.

Ayala’s office replied late Monday that it had only just received the letter and would reserve any comments until after the office had looked into it.

The current matter hinges on the case of murder suspect Emerita Mapp, charged with killing one man and wounding another during a violent April encounter at a Kissimmee motel. After Ayala agreed to pursue death penalty cases following the Supreme Court decision, using a panel of assistant state attorneys that would not include her, Mapp became the first case that her office elevated to first-degree, capital murder.

But according to Scott, Ayala missed the filing deadline for a required Notice of Intent to Seek Death, when she filed it on Oct. 31, more than three weeks late.

“More troubling, your more recent public comments indicate that you were well aware of the deadline, but knowingly filed the notice long after it had elapsed,” Nordby wrote. “At best, this suggests negligence — and at worst, willful disregard — in the faithful performance of the duties of your constitutional office.”

Two weeks ago, after Scott first criticized her handling of the Mapp case, Ayala’s office disputed that she had missed the deadline, and contended that the capital case against Mapp had not been compromised in any way. She accused Scott of making misleading statements about the case. She also charged that if a deadline had been missed, it would have been Scott’s fault, because the governor’s office was meticulously identifying and transferring cases out of her office while their dispute over powers was underway at the Florida Supreme Court. And that period included the period of the Mapp case, she argued.

Nordby’s letter sought a number of things from Ayala, including explanations about how her dealt penalty review panel works, when it meets, and what it has done so far; explanations of why she had rejected an offer for assistance from Brad King, state attorney for Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit; and all records pertaining to the law firm and public relations firm she hired earlier this year to represent her in the case that went to the Supreme Court.

“In light of your office’s delinquent filing — and your ongoing attempts to blame others for your office’s failures — Floridians deserve to better understand what happened and what you intend to do to remedy the situation, and what steps you intend to take to ensure that a similar failure will never occur again,” Nordby wrote.

Gwen Graham moving campaign HQ to Orlando

Gwen Graham is moving to Orlando.

At least her gubernatorial campaign is doing so. The campaign confirmed Thursday that it’s moving its headquarters from Tallahassee, her home for decades, to settle into the City Beautiful, taking advantage of its centralized location to better accommodate campaigning and putting focus on the I-4 corridor battle.

The campaign expects to open an Orlando-area headquarters “in coming months” while keeping its Tallahassee office open, according to a statement.

“Gwen learned in 2014 to win in Florida you have to talk to every voter in every community. From day one of her gubernatorial campaign, we have been dedicated to building a statewide operation,” campaign manager Julia Woodward said in the statement. “Opening an Orlando area headquarters will allow us to reach even more voters along the I-4 corridor and easily travel to any corner of this state.”

She’ll be moving her campaign from sharing a town with Democratic rival candidate Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, to sharing a town with Democratic rival candidate Chris King, a Winter Park businessman. It also will put her in a much easier distance to South Florida, with its critical mass of Democratic voters. Graham has roots there, and it’s also home to her other Democratic rival, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

“I was born and raised in Miami, started a family in Tallahassee and have spent my life traveling this state,” Graham said in the statement. “Wherever I am in Florida, whether it’s talking to members of our military in Pensacola or discussing environmental protection in the Keys, I feel at home.”

Since announcing in May, Graham has put more than 50,000 miles on her SUV, which she calls the “Chev Victory,” according to the statement.

She is not, her campaign implied, giving up on North Florida, where her father, former U.S. Sen. and former Gov. Bob Graham, always fared well, and where she was elected to Congress.

Winning the election from Tallahassee in her off-year 2014 race, Graham outperformed Barack Obama in North Florida by 4.5 percent — a wide margin in a year only one other Democrat in the nation was able to defeat an incumbent Republican congressman, the campaign noted.

“By opening offices in Leon County and conservative counties like Bay and Jackson in 2014, we were able to energize progressive voters in deep blue areas and win over older Democrats, independents, and even Republicans in cities and towns Democrats typically don’t campaign in,” Woodward said.

Graham is planning to keep her Tallahassee office active and already has an active volunteer base in Miami, along with her parents, Bob and Adele Graham.

“We are replicating that same 2014 strategy by exciting our base in North Florida, South Florida and the I-4 corridor — along with reaching out to voters in conservative counties and rural areas,” Woodward said. “We are building an Obama-style coalition to take back the Governor’s Office,” she added.

King sent a welcome basket, of sorts.

“Kristien & I are pleased to welcome @GwenGraham to Central FL,” King tweeted. “This community raised me, educated me & has lifted my candidacy to serve as the next #FlGov. I Trust Gwen will find my hometown a diverse, dynamic & welcoming place.”

Orlando contemplating immigrant ‘trust’ resolution

The city of Orlando is considering a resolution that would have the City Council and Mayor Buddy Dyer formally declare their policy that police and other city officials not get involved in immigration matters, including a policy against questioning people whether their status is legal or not.

The resolution would state what already is the city’s policy. Under Dyer and Police Chief John Mina, police and other officials are not supposed to inquire about whether a traffic stop driver, a suspect, a victim, a witness, or anyone else interacting with city officials is a citizen or properly documented immigrant.

But that’s not on enforceable paper.

And while a resolution would put it on paper, it wouldn’t make it law.

The resolution proposal, pushed by Dyer and others in recent weeks, is a compromise offer between the city’s informal policies that essentially make it unofficially a safe city for undocumented residents, and immigration activists that have been pushing last summer for an ordinance that would make it law.

The debate in Orlando, at least in all public ways, is not about whether the city should be assisting federal authorities in identifying and detaining undocumented immigrants. It’s about how far the city wants to go in rejecting that approach.

A coalition of activists that includes 35 social justice, labor, and progressive groups and is part of a national movement, has been pushing for an ordinance since last summer, with rallies on the City Hall steps, art protests, and meetings and negotiations with city officials.

“We’ve looked for middle ground, a resolution, which is passed in a similar manner as an ordinance, to supplement the policy,” said Deputy City Attorney Jody Litchford.

“But frankly, unfortunately, we are not in agreement,” she added.

Litchford and others, including Dyer’s Senior Advisor Lori Pampilo Harris, argue that Orlando already is doing everything in practice that the advocates want. The city neither questions people about their status, nor detains them — even at requests from the U.S. Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But too many of the undocumented immigrants living in Orlando still remain fearful of coming out of the shadows, even as a witness to crime, the activists argue.

If Orlando wants to make undocumented residents comfortable enough to work with city officials, to not fear encounters, it needs something more than a policy. It needs a law, argued Curtis Hierro, organizing director of the Central Florida AFL-CIO and one of the leaders of the Trust Ordinance Coalition that has been pushing Orlando for an ordinance.

Hierro insisted they coalition is far from done with its effort.

“The reason we’re pushing for an ordinance is it is the strongest act a city can take to codify policy, something with real teeth,” Hierro said.

Without it, Hierro said, there have been at least isolated incidents of police officers or others asking people about immigration status, Hierro said. Word spreads. Trust erodes. People stay in the shadows. That’s why the ordinance they have drafted and offered the city that’s called the “Trust Ordinance.”

But an ordinance, besides being an inappropriate way to deal with city policies, Litchford said, also opens up liability issues for the city. That may start with threats from President Donald Trump‘s administration that it intends to reduce federal grants to cities that are formally sanctuary cities.

The city is offering not just the resolution, but a communication effort, an outreach program that would explicitly try to spread the word that city police and other officials would not do anything to “out” people who came here without visas, or overstayed their visas.

Puerto Rican coalition calls for full recovery funding and debt relief

A national coalition of Puerto Rican groups with heavy representation in Central Florida urged in Orlando Monday for Congress to offer full relief funding for the hurricane-ravaged island and for Florida and federal relief for evacuee housing in the Sunshine State.

Joined at Acacia’s El Centro Borinqueño by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, and Orlando Democrat, and state Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat, Power4PuertoRico criticized federal relief efforts as inadequate and worse, given that still more than half the island is without electricity, water remains a critical shortage, many hospitals are operating on generators, and schools remain closed.

The group also turned its attention to the needs of Puerto Rican evacuees in Florida and elsewhere stateside, particularly making an urgent call for housing assistance, especially in the Central Florida area.

For the group, whose members include Orlando-based Hispanic Federation, Chicago-based Puerto Rican Cultural Center and various non-profit and labor groups, the coalition also called for major federal relief efforts that go beyond addressing Hurricane Maria’s landfall two months ago, on Sept. 20. Saying that broader economic reforms are necessary for Puerto Rico to fully recover, the group called for debt relief for the island’s government, something that is tied up in bankruptcy proceedings under the Promesa Act approved in 2016, and for repeal of the Jones Act, which restricts maritime commerce in and out of the island.

“We have come together to focus on economic recovery through significant investments in infrastructure, workforce development, and health care,” said Zoe Colon, a local organizer of Power4PuertoRico. “We are asking for longterm solutions to the crisis in Puerto Rico.”

Colon and others in the coalition’s press conference decried that two full months after the hurricane, “more than half of the island is still without power, disease is spreading, and people don’t have the resources they ned to build their homes.”

Soto said he supports reform of the Jones Act but not full repeal, and supports Congressional actions that could address the island government’s debts beyond what is the domain of the bankruptcy proceedings. “We’ve had assurances that every debt that can be challenged, will be challenged … and that Congress needs to do everything we can so that Puerto Rico isn’t drowned in a sea of debt during this crisis.

He said the $4.9 million loan, an initial federal Hurricane Maria relief package, “must be forgiven” and that any future FEMA funds must be exempt from creditors. “This is essential for the recovery. It would a twisted, cruel fate to have this money go down and only be taken by opportunistic creditors.”

Soto also said the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, on which he sits, will push for the island’s power generation and distribution grid to not just be restored, but replaced with 21st century, renewable technologies.

He turned attention toward Thanksgiving, saying, “Here in Florida we have much to be thankful for, but we have much to do,” he said. “Puerto Rico, in short, is still in crisis.”

Cortes offered praise for efforts of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, for offering Florida help on the island, and for doing much to welcome Puerto Ricans coming to Florida, saying efforts must be bipartisan.

He said the next step must be to get state money to address the housing shortages, particularly in Central Florida where most of the 160,000 evacuees appear to be settling. He decried Scott’s budget proposal for taking $132 million from the Sadowski Fund for affordable housing, and redirecting it to other spending. That has to be stopped, and the money has to be used to develop more affordable housing, Cortes said.

“In my area in Osceola County, forget about getting an apartment, because either they’re too much, or FEMA doesn’t give you enough voucher for them. And your voucher is going to end, and after that you’re going to be homeless.”

 

Ruth’s List Florida backs Anna Eskamani in HD 47 contest

Florida House District 47 Democratic candidate Anna Eskamani has received the endorsement of Ruth’s List Florida, a backing that usually comes with fundraising assistance.

“Anna is a lifelong advocate for reproductive health and women’s rights. She is a dynamic leader who has already proven herself to be a passionate and effective advocate,” Ruth’s List Florida Executive Director Marley Wilkes stated in a press release issued by Eskamani’s campaign. “The Ruth’s List community – now tens of thousands members strong – is excited to support her candidacy.”

The endorsement is a natural fit. Ruth’s List promotes Democratic women for office. Eskamani, of Orlando, faces Republican Stockton Reeves in a quest to replace Republican state Rep. Mike Miller, who is running for Congress rather than re-election.

“I am grateful to the grassroots aid Ruth’s List Florida provides Democratic women in Florida,” Eskamani stated in the release. “My commitment to women and families is unmatched and driven by my own personal story as an Orlando native and daughter of immigrants who lost her mom to cancer at age thirteen. Women face deep disparities compared to our male counterparts, and as more allegations of sexual harassment and assault are made across the country and right here in Florida, the need for more women’s voices in Tallahassee has become even more apparent and important.”

Val Demings calls reported Stephen Bittel conduct ‘extremely inappropriate’

U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando denounced reported conduct by Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel Friday though stopped short of describing it as sexual harassment.

The former Orlando chief of police said she told Bittel that this morning.

“As a former law enforcement officer and a member of Congress, sexual harassment is an issue I take very seriously,” Demings said in a written statement. “While I do not believe the behavior (as described) rises to that level, I do believe the behavior was extremely inappropriate and a result of poor judgment. I shared my concerns with Chairman Bittel.”

Demings is the first member of Florida’s Congressional delegation to weigh in.

UPDATE: On Friday morning, Bittel announced he is resigning following reports that he created a hostile work environment for women by “belittling” them in front of male staffers and making suggestive remarks.

Mike Pence, Rick Scott find support for tax cuts

Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Rick Scott found widespread support among a dozen or so business owners gathered in an Orlando factory Thursday for the kinds of tax cuts President Donald Trump is pushing in Washington.

Members of the business roundtable assembled to meet with Pence at the Correct Craft factory that makes Nautique and other recreational boats, Pence asked: “How important would reducing taxes be to your business?”

Plenty important, they all agreed.

The roundtable group, which included a variety of business owners such as Orlando consultant and lobbyist Bertica Cabrera Morris and former Orange County Clerk of Courts Eddie Fernandez, who now has a private law practice, lauded the prospects of tax reform for their businesses. Many charged that overtaxation has put some of their friends out of business. And assured that they would share any tax savings benefits they received with their employees.

Pence was in town Thursday to give the keynote speech to the Republican Party of Florida’s state conference Statesman Dinner. But he also was on tour to solicit and demonstrate support for the tax reform package that the Trump administration is finally unveiling, backed by a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday, and another expected to drop in the U.S. Senate on Monday.

Pence pushed the plan several times as one that will help “working families, small businesses, and family farms,” an assessment that will be central to whether Congress and the American people buy it. The plan would reduce the tax code to four brackets of 12, 25, 35 and 39.6 percent, eliminate the estate tax by 2024, increase child care tax credits, but eliminate deductions for state and local taxes.

Yet Pence and Scott also made it clear that the intentions were focused on corporations and business owners, the “jobs creators,’ a point driven home by the plan’s marquee reductions, of the maximum corporate tax to 20 percent, and the maximum “pass through” tax paid by many small business owners to 25 percent.

“It’s the jobs creators that are here today that we feel the greatest debt to, men and women that put their resources and time on the line to create opportunities,” Pence said.

Victor Torres seeking FEMA help for housing for Puerto Rico evacuees

State Sen. Victor Torres is urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide more housing relief programs in Florida for Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island Hurricane Maria refugees to afford housing in Florida.

Torres’s request follows a similar call earlier this week from the Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way, seeking federal assistance to help tens of thousands of people fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico to come to Florida, when many arrive finding dire options on where to live.

Torres said he’s pushing for FEMA to provide Temporary Stabilization Assistance grants, which would allow Puerto Rico evacuees to use FEMA money immediately to rent hotel or motel rooms for up to 14 days while they find a longer-term place to stay. FEMA also has programs that could provide vouchers for longer term rentals, and set up temporary housing in mobile homes — provided the local governments assist in identifying places to put them.

As of a week ago, more than 60,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived in Florida. Some estimates suggest the number will climb over 100,000. The two primary places they are arriving, Miami and Orlando, already have housing shortages, especially for affordable housing.

“The impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are placing huge demands on our public services,” Torres said in a news release. “We need to focus on building and expanding more housing options for Floridians and evacuees from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico who are seeking refuge in our great state.”

Torres gave impassioned testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday when he called on members to increase funds for state education, healthcare and housing needs to accommodate the refugee migration.

Earlier this week, Central Florida Heart of Florida United Way Executive Director Jeff Hayward called on the federal government, through FEMA, to engage in providing support for additional housing options in central Florida.

Torres’ district includes parts of both Orange and Osceola counties which contain the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans living in Florida.

FEMA has designated Florida as a go-to state for evacuees from the islands and approved costs could be eligible for 100 percent reimbursement by the federal government. Torres said he is working with local and state officials for FEMA approval of both the deployment of mobile housing units and authorization of TSA for evacuees to receive rental housing funds.

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