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Takeaways from Tallahassee — Three more years

It takes a special person to advocate for children; here are two well-regarded members of Florida’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office.

Three more years

After 10 years of highly praised service as executive director of Florida’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, Alan Abramowitz has been reappointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to a fourth three-year term.

The Guardian ad Litem Program uses volunteers to represent the best interests of children navigating through Florida’s dependency system.

“Your appointment is evidence of my utmost confidence in your ability to serve with excellence and distinction,” DeSantis wrote to Abramowitz.

“I am inspired by the children we serve, the volunteers who give those children a voice, and the hardworking staff who change their lives for the better,” Abramowitz said. “I want to thank the Governor and Legislature for their unwavering support, which has given our volunteers the tools to advocate more effectively for children’s safety, permanency and well-being.”

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Child advocates applaud the decision.

“Alan not only has a real passion to help improve the lives of children in our state, he actually puts that passion to work. He talks the talk AND walks the walk,” said Sen. Ben Albritton, a longtime supporter of the Guardian ad Litem program.

Jack Levine, founder of 4Generations Institute and a child advocate for 40 years, noted the breadth of Abramowitz’s experience.

“Alan’s ‘inner circle’ is wide, spanning all 20 judicial circuits, each of Florida’s 67 counties and within the hundreds of service programs whose mission is preventing, intervening and treating child abuse, neglect and abandonment experienced by our most vulnerable children,” Levine said. “Everyone who meets Alan understands why he has been so well-regarded by governors, legislators, judges, child welfare executives, and a diverse range of fellow advocates who rely on (his) encyclopedic knowledge of the relevant state statutes and the rules of procedure in our judicial system.”

Rep. Spencer Roach from North Fort Myers has volunteered and advocated for children for 20 years and worked with Abramowitz even before being elected to represent a portion of Lee County. “He’s just an absolutely wonderful human being with a big heart,” Roach said. “And not just that, but he’s also damn effective at what he does, and he understands politics, he understands the budget of these issues, and he’s a pragmatist.”

Alan Abramowitz and Spencer Roach are among the highly regarded members of Florida’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem program.

Roach knows firsthand the need for guardian ad litems in Florida. He has served as a guardian ad litem for five years and currently is appointed to represent five children in the court system. In his 20th Judicial Circuit, which incorporates six counties in southwest Florida, “we have 2,300 children in state care and we have about 1,200 guardian ad litems, so we’re about 1,000 short,” he said.

Statewide, GAL volunteers now number more than 12,000, but Levine said there are still children who are part of a dependency court proceeding that do not have a GAL advocate.

Abramowitz, who served in the Florida National Guard and the U.S. Army, is Board Certified in Juvenile Law. He was a volunteer with the Peace Corps. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Kansas State University, his master’s degree from the University of Central Florida, and his law degree from Florida State University.

To learn more about the Guardian ad Litem Program, visit GuardianadLitem.org or call 1-866-341-1GAL.

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Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Peter Schorsch, Drew Wilson, Renzo Downey, Jason Delgado and the staff of Florida Politics.

Take 5

The “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Ron DeSantis extends eviction moratorium — The Governor signed an executive order putting a sunset for the ban on mortgage foreclosures and evictions off until Sept. 1. The moratorium provides relief for thousands of Floridians who remain out-of-work or are otherwise economically-impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Put in place April 2, this marks the fourth extension in a row. While providing relief to renters and mortgage holders, landlords and lenders. Notably, thousands of evictions and foreclosures have been filed in courts in the meantime, all of which could take place when the Governor’s order ultimately expires.

Hurricane eyes eastern coast — Hurricane Isaias former in the Atlantic and moved into the Caribbean on Friday as tropical storm watches went into place in South Florida and around Lake Okeechobee. The projected storm path as of Friday morning showed the Category 1 storm hugging the state’s coast and potentially making landfall on Saturday. That would mark the first hurricane hitting the state since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting emergency management officials on alert statewide as counties prepare to open shelters with social distancing in place. Gov. DeSantis urged resolve and preparation. National forecasts do predict the storm weakening in force before reaching the U.S.

Cases flatten but death toll rises — Weeks of spiking daily cases of COVID-19 may be starting to wane. But the week brought three consecutive days of record-breaking deaths of those with the disease. A total of 257 deaths were announced on Friday alone. The same day Florida reported another 9,007 positive tests for COVID-19, but that’s down more than a third from a high mark set earlier this month. That was the fifth consecutive day with less than 10,000 new cases reported. After leading the nation in new daily cases and surpassing New York in total infections, Florida this week was one of a dozen states now reporting a decline in transmissions of the coronavirus.

Governor’s office sees turnover — Fred Piccolo has officially taken over as communications director for DeSantis, replacing Helen Aguirre Ferré, just named executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. Piccolo has promised to improve the social media presence for the office. Meanwhile, Deputy Chief of Staff David Clark, who worked closely with First Lady Casey DeSantis on health care initiatives, has left to spend time with family. Deputy General Counsel Nick Primrose will exit for JaxPort shortly and Deputy Director of Communications Meredith Beatrice is taking on the role of director of strategic initiatives.

Lawmaker challenges Supreme Court appointment — Rep. Geraldine Thompson filed a lawsuit alleging the appointment of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renetha Francis to the Supreme Court should be invalidated because she doesn’t hold the qualifications for the job. Thompson alleges the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission “exceeded the limits of its authority” including Francis as a nominee for the opening because the judge has not served 10 years as a member of the Florida Bar. While Francis will pass that milestone in September, Thompson said the appointment is indicative of a corrupted process where the JNC is told names to put on the list of nominees.

Coronavirus numbers

Positive cases:

— 465,030 FL residents (+67,560 since July 24)

— 5,356 Non-FL residents (+514 since July 24)

Origin:

— 3,645 Travel related

— 126,690 Contact with a confirmed case

— 3,648 Both

— 331,047 Under investigation

Hospitalizations:

— 26,533 in FL

Deaths:

— 6,966 in FL

Unemployment numbers

As of Thursday:

Claims submitted: 3,406,743

— Confirmed unique claims: 3,210,932 (+124,146 since July 23)

— Claims processed: 3,139,608 (+373,624 since July 23)

— Claims paid: 1,815,348 (+20,879 since July 23)

Total paid out: $12.40 billion (+$950 million since July 23)

— State money: $2,678,692,651

— Federal money: $9,718,277,328

Lines are open

Attorney General Ashley Moody expanded Florida’s Price Gouging Hotline this week to receive reports of potential price gouging during Hurricane Isaias.

“It’s important that Floridians take steps now to prepare for a potential strike by Hurricane Isaias and I’m expanding my Price Gouging Hotline to receive reports of extreme price increases on important items needed to be prepared,” Moody said. “It’s important for consumers to know that there are now multiple emergency declarations in Florida — including one for Isaias and one statewide for COVID-19.”

As Hurricane Isaias approaches Florida, Ashely Moody activates the state’s Price Gouging Hotline. Image via News4Jax.

Moody noted that price gouging laws for COVID-19 supplies are in effect statewide. Price gouging laws for Hurricane Isais, however, are only in effect for counties included under the DeSantis’s state of emergency order.

Additionally, there are 14 panhandle counties that remain in a state of emergency in wake of Hurricane Michael.

“Essential commodities for each event may differ, but it is against the law for sellers to use an emergency to rip off Floridians, and we will work in real-time to ensure consumers can obtain these items at a fair price to protect their property and families,” Moody said.

Moody encourages Floridians to report potential price gouging to her office by phone or online.

Leading on liability

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis thanked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week for his efforts to protect businesses against unreasonable COVID-19-related lawsuits.

In a letter sent Tuesday to McConnell, Patronis described the liability protections as an essential part of the nation’s economic recovery.

Jimmy Patronis is grateful to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for protecting businesses from frivolous COVID-19 litigation.

“I want to thank you for working to strike the right balance of providing help where needed while avoiding a federal bailout of states that have suffered from years of poor fiscal management,” Patronis wrote. “It’s clear from the boots on the ground that if we hope to fully recover from this pandemic, we’ll need to provide legal protections to a whole host of organizations who continue to work to protect their employees and customers so our communities can get back to normal.

He also asked McConnell to consider extending the COVID-19 related liability protections to nonprofit organizations.

“From raising money for cancer research, to helping families with medical bills, to spaying and neutering pets, and everything in between, we can’t allow our nonprofits to fail under the weight of a monsoon of lawsuits,” Patronis said. “In short, the public good provided by private, nonprofit entities is too significant to be placed in jeopardy by the threat of unreasonable COVID-19 lawsuits.”

The liability protections are one of several stalling points between Republicans and Democrats over the next piece of coronavirus response legislation.

Rescue teams ready

Patronis said the state’s dedicated Urban Search and Rescue teams are ready to roll if Tropical Storm Isaias hits Florida.

“As we closely monitor Tropical Storm Isaias, I held a call today with fire chiefs from across Florida to ensure our first responders are prepared for the potential impacts of heavy rain, flooding, and strong winds to our state this weekend,” Patronis said.

Jimmy Patronis says Florida’s Urban Search and Rescue teams are ready if Hurricane Isaias makes landfall.

“Our dedicated Urban Search and Rescue Teams stand ready at a moment’s notice to deploy lifesaving resources to impacted communities immediately following landfall. Although the path of this storm remains uncertain, it is imperative that you take this threat seriously as tropical storms can change course and intensify quickly. I encourage all Floridians to prepare now by visiting PrepareFL.com for important storm resources and tips.”

Patronis, who doubles as the State Fire Marshal, said there are seven US&R teams that are status level “green,” meaning they are ready to deploy should the need arise. Additionally, Patronis said the State Emergency Operations Center is already running at full speed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an effort to avoid the coronavirus and respond to this emergency, the said it is putting a greater emphasis on technology and teleworking.

Suspicious seeds

If you get a bag of seeds in the mail, don’t plant them. Don’t throw them away either.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a warning this week about unsolicited packages of seeds received through the mail, often bearing the name China Post or with Chinese characters on the surface.

Agriculture officials from several states are urging people who received unsolicited packages of seeds from China not to plant them. Image via Washington State Agriculture Department.

The packages may even purport to be something valuable, such as jewelry. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried warned Floridians not to fall for it.

“Plant seeds from unknown sources may introduce dangerous pathogens, diseases, or invasive species into Florida, putting agriculture and our state’s plant, animal, and human health at risk,” Fried said. “Anyone receiving these suspicious seed packets should not plant them, but should report it to our department immediately so that our inspectors can safely collect them for analysis.”

FDACS said the United States Department of Agriculture investigators believe the seeds are part of a “brushing” scam, where unsolicited items are sent in order to post false customer reviews and boost online sales.

FDACS said Floridians who receive seed packages should place them — including all mailing materials — into a plastic bag and report them to the FDACS Division of Plant Industry at 1-888-397-1517 or DPIhelpline@FDACS.gov.

Instagram of the week

The week in appointments

2nd District Court of Appeal — DeSantis appointed John Stargel and Suzanne Labrit to the 2nd District Court of Appeal. Stargel, of Lakeland, has been a Judge of the Tenth Circuit since 2006. He is a former state Representative and graduate of Florida State University College of Law. He fills the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Samuel Salario, Jr. Labrit, of Tampa, is a partner at Shutts & Bowen and received her law degree from Nova Southeastern University. She fills the vacancy created by the confirmation of Judge John Badalamenti to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Feeding families

Sen. Randolph Bracy and Eatonville Mayor Eddie Cole partnered Friday for a free Farm Share event to distribute food to families in need amid the pandemic.

Every two weeks, the Senator meets with community leaders and volunteers to help distribute produce. The event was supposed to start at 10 a.m., but volunteers began early after cars started lining up for the first-come, first-served distribution at 7 a.m.

“These events, the word gets out,” he told Florida Politics.

Eatonville Mayor Eddie Cole joined Sen. Randolph Bracy for a local Farm Share food distribution.

In total, he guessed volunteers from Feed the Need Florida, Careplus, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and ChenMed served 1,000 families.

Many Floridians are still without work as they run out of state unemployment benefits and the federal supplement lapses. People are left without a safety net, and Hurricane Isaias is creating more anxiety for those along the Atlantic coast.

More unemployment benefits and for a long period would reduce the spread of COVID-19 by allowing people to stay home instead of risking infection for work, Bracy said. And by reducing the spread, the economy could reopen quicker.

“We have the ability to help people in a crisis like this,” he added. “It’s just a matter of making it a priority.”

Election 2000 Memory Project

With the 20th anniversary of Bush v. Gore months away, the Florida Supreme Court Library and Archives is searching for memories and stories from the historic presidential election dispute that played out steps from the State Capitol.

The Library and Archives are seeking stories for the Election 2000 Memory Project from judges, court employees, election workers, journalists, lawyers, campaign workers or people involved in some way.

Remember this? The Florida Supreme Court Library and Archives want to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 2000 election.

Bush v. Gore drew out the 2000 presidential election a month past Election Day with the race coming down to a U.S. Supreme Court vote.

Curators are looking for written recollections of events, work-life and assignments, anecdotes from behind the scenes, and other memories. Memories of recounts, increased workloads, teamwork, late nights, chaos and disrupted routines, and recount distractions on the television are fair game for the collection.

“What was the atmosphere like in your life or at your office? Did you walk around and take pictures? Did you meet a news reporter? Did you see something interesting, funny or unusual?” the Library and Archives probed in a news release.

People have until the end of the month to submit their written recollections.

Every snake counts

State conservation groups have removed 5,000 invasive Burmese pythons from the Everglades.

Under the direction of DeSantis, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District partnered together for the removal effort.

FWC Commissioner Rodney Barreto called upon the support of experienced python hunters in South Florida.

In the hunt for invasive species, more than 5,000 Burmese pythons were captured.

“We’ve learned through the Python Challenge that experience counts when finding and removing Burmese pythons,” he said. “We can’t win the battle alone. It’s one team, one mission.”

South Florida Water Management District Governing Board Member “Alligator RonBergeron called it another win for the Everglades.

“Every snake counts,” he said. “Each invasive python eliminated represents hundreds of native Florida wildlife saved. With Gov. DeSantis’ continued leadership, Florida is doing more than it ever has to remove pythons from the Everglades and protect this ecosystem for generations to come.”

The invasive snakes gained a foothold in the Everglades after escaping or being released into the wild as pets. Releasing nonnative species like the Burmese python is illegal and can hurt native wildlife and their habitats. Instead, FWC has a surrender program to allow owners to hand over exotic pets without penalty.

FWC is encouraging people to report python sightings through their Exotic Species Hotline, online or through their phone app.

Grant funding available

Volunteer Florida has nearly $500,000 in grant funding available for nonprofit groups to retain volunteers through the Volunteer Generation Fund.

Organizations that are partnering for the first or second year can receive $20,000 in funding while third-year recipients can receive $4,000 more.

The Volunteer Generation Fund is open to public and private nonprofits, including faith-based organizations and others. Government entities, schools, labor organizations and more can also participate.

Volunteer Florida is offering nearly $500,000 in grant funding to nonprofit groups through the Volunteer Generation Fund. Image via Volunteer Florida.

The funds will help nonprofits recruit and retain skilled volunteers, Volunteer Florida says.

“The FY 2020-2021 VGF program is intended to build capacity that will result in sustainable skills-based volunteer programs,” according to the program website.

Organizations supporting rural communities or increasing economic opportunities through workforce development will get special funding consideration.

Current grantees include Junior Achievement groups, food banks, elder care and children’s organizations, and more. In total, 22 programs are grantees.

Normal local match requirements have been waived for the 2020-2021 program year.

Proposals are due Thursday, Aug. 13, at 5 p.m.

In the zone

Veterans Florida is partnering with Tampa-based Action Zone Inc. for a third year to bring the upcoming Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program.

Since 2016, the groups estimate program participants have generated $24 million in revenue, opened 154 businesses and hired 209 employees. Some have received numerous industry awards and national recognition for their success.

“Action Zone has a tremendous track record of providing veteran entrepreneurs with the tools to be successful at all stages of their business ventures,” said Veterans Florida Executive Director Joe Marino. “Veterans Florida looks forward to continuing our partnership and in a year when all businesses must do what veteran entrepreneurs know best: adapting and overcoming in chaotic environments.”

Action Zone will provide mentorships for veterans hoping to build as entrepreneurs and will offer Facilitated Startup and Facilitated Growth cohorts.

“The success of our Veteran business owners is a testament to the dedication and collaborative nature of both organizations, and the individuals within them, who work tirelessly to ensure our military community members experience success in their business endeavors,” said Action Zone Executive Director Rosie Lee.

Veterans Florida is a nonprofit created to help military veterans transition into civilian life.

Veteran entrepreneurs can apply for the program through Veterans Florida’s website.

‘Principals’ of success

Florida TaxWatch this week released its list of key strategies for success compiled by award-winning principals ahead of the 2020-21 school year.

Those best practices emerged from The latest FTW Education Leadership Roundtable, attended by the nine most recent winners of the TaxWatch Principal Leadership Awards, which the watchdog groups president and CEO, Dominic Calabro, called the state’s only data-driven principal recognition initiative.

“This year’s virtual roundtable discussion proved once again the incredible value of hearing directly from Florida’s innovative leaders on what works and what can be improved to maximize the success and educational value for our students,” he said.

TaxWatch Chair and former Sen. Pat Neal says the right principles can transform education.

Their findings found similarities among the award-winning principals, including that they were the first staff students saw in the morning and caring for students in ways typically expected of a “favorite teacher.”

“I have seen firsthand how critically important these transformational public school principals have impacted local students, parents, and taxpayers, which are all contributing factors to the health, vitality and prosperity of their communities,” said TaxWatch Chairman and former Sen. Pat Neal.

The roundtable also revealed that the principals created a collaborative environment for teachers to share ideas and took a data-driven approach to the curriculum. Additionally, they stressed parental involvement and had open-door policies.

LEO of the year

The Florida Sheriff’s Association named Miami — Dade Police Lieutenant Benny Solis this week as the 2020 Law Enforcement Officer of the year.

The award is presented every year at the FSA Summer Conference to commend a Florida law enforcement officer who has shown bravery, service and honor while in the line of duty.

Dade Police Lieutenant Benny Solis is the 2020 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.

“Law enforcement officers often have to enter stressful and dangerous situations and rely on their instincts and training to save lives,” said United Badges Insurance Services President and CEO Allen Durham. “We are grateful to Lieutenant Solis for his bravery and selflessness in serving the citizens of Dade County.”

Solis was recognized for the actions he took in May 2019 when a murder suspect armed with a rifle opened fire on investigators.

Solis, who responded to the scene shortly after the gunmen opened fire, jumped a residential fence and attempted to flank and distract the gunmen. His actions freed the investigators and enabled them to subdue the gunmen.

“Lieutenant Solis exhibited exceptional courage, extraordinary decisiveness, presence of mind, and swiftness of action while working with fellow officers to save and protect human life,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez III. “His heroic and quick response resulted in the resolution of a highly dangerous situation.”

New leadership

The Florida Sheriffs Association announced this week a new batch of leadership taking the ranks for the 2020 — 2021 year.

The association named Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Shultz as their newly elected president. He will oversee the FSA and its 67 Sheriffs.

“I am honored to step into the role of President for this next year,” Schultz said. “Our community and our country are facing a difficult time, but I feel confident in our ability to serve the state of Florida while prioritizing the safety of our citizens and our officers.”

Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Shultz is the new head of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Shultz was elected as the Gilchrist County Sheriff in 2012. He launched his law enforcement career in 1992 as a correctional officer in Gilchrist County and soon after earned his law enforcement credentials.

His career experience includes service worked at Lancaster Correctional Institution, the Chiefland Police Department and the Levy County Sheriff’s Office.

“The Florida Sheriffs Association is thankful to have Sheriff Schultz stepping in to lead us in these trying times,” said Pinellas County Sheriff and Immediate Past President Bob Gualtieri. “Sheriff Schultz has shown great leadership that will represent the association well.”

Other FSA board appointments include Levy County Sheriff Bobby McCallum to vice president, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis to secretary, Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper to treasurer, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to immediate past president, Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell to chair and Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma to vice-chair.

Change agents

The Florida Police Chiefs Association announced the names of 11 community leaders who will sit on the association’s Subcommittee on Accountability and Societal Change.

The 11 members include leaders from across the state with backgrounds ranging from academia, local elected officials, nonprofit organizations, and the law and religious community.

“The Florida Police Chiefs Association is honored by and appreciates the service of these community leaders who answered our call to join the subcommittee, and ensure that we have the full and unvarnished input of a wide spectrum of voices and expertise as we work to rebuild trust and accountability between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” said FPCA president and Temple Terrace Police Department Chief Kenneth Albano.

Temple Terrace Police Department Chief Kenneth Albano is considered an ‘agent of change.’

The subcommittee drafted a mission statement as its first order of business. The mission statement encourages the subcommittee to “enhance trust, ensure transparency and accountability, and strengthen the relationships between the police and the communities they serve.”

The subcommittee also has a dozen members from Florida’s law enforcement community in its ranks.

“We are serious about our work,” said Chair and St. Petersburg Police Department Chief Anthony Holloway. “We intend to thoroughly review and issue new recommendations on policies including those on the use of chokeholds, deadly force, comprehensive reporting, and training and transparency, among others.”

Graduation celebration

The Pace Center for Girls in Leon County is holding an outdoor ceremony Wednesday to celebrate the achievements of three Pace graduates with an outdoor ceremony.

Leon County Tax Collector Doris Maloy will serve as the keynote speaker at the event, which will be held at the Pace Center for Girls Leon Campus at 311 E. Jennings Street in Tallahassee. It starts at 6 p.m.

Leon County Tax Collector Doris Maloy will be the keynote speaker at a Pace Center for Girls graduation event.

Also on tap to speak are Pace Center for Girls-Leon Development Director Kathleen Hampton and Board Chair Nyla Davis.

Founded in 1985, Pace Center for Girls provides academic support, counseling, and life-skills training to more than 3,000 vulnerable girls at campuses in Florida and Georgia.

Pace centers girls have overcome risk factors such as mental health struggles, poverty and domestic violence to find pathways to success through support from Pace counselors and program staff.

Pace has been operating in Leon County since 1994, offering a nationally recognized program to combine academics, mental health counseling and social services.

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