Jacksonville Bold for 2.3.21 — Session notes

hand writing notes journalist
Political reporting in Northeast Florida is getting a little more sparse.

Session notes

In this week’s edition, you may notice a significant focus on Northeast Florida’s legislative delegation, a discussion of bills they are carrying, and where they are in the process.

Unfortunately, you may not get this information anywhere else.

The Florida Times-Union continues to shed veteran talent, with ace reporter Chris Hong pursuing other opportunities this month. This comes just weeks after another strong scribe, Andrew Pantazi, bailed on Gannett to start his own website. 

Pantazi, you may recall, was key to the unionization effort of the staff. He left after doing all he could to remedy a broken model.

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The exit of Andrew Pantazi and Christopher Hong will leave a gap in Northeast Florida political reporting. Image via AndrewPantazi.com/Jacksonville.com.

Great reporters are still around … too many to boldface here. But coverage of Tallahassee issues has been on the back burner since Tia Mitchell left town. 

The Legislative Session moves quick, and Gannett has a guy out there … one man, a few filings a week, for properties around the state. And what you read may be old news by the time you get it. It’s not like they print papers in town anymore, so those deadlines come earlier than they used to.

And local television? You may see legislators on Sunday shows or making comments in a 70-second sound bite. But you don’t know much about them. 

And a reporter new to the market will not have much of an idea who they are even talking to.

So throughout this Session, we (again) are focusing on Session: where players are in The Process, from committee weeks through the hankie drop of Sine Die.

Florida Politics would be thrilled to have company. But we aren’t holding our breath. 

Lawson leaps?

We broke the story: Rep. Al Lawson is looking at a run for Governor, based on talk of “high-level discussions” from a political adviser. Then he gave a quote to the Tallahassee Democrat shooting it down, saying it was “not on [his] radar.”

Time will tell whether he would make the leap. But Lawson has a path, his inner circle thinks.

He has been a significant player in the state for a long time, with a historic tenure in the Florida Senate and three terms in Congress. And his team is betting he can play to rural and North Florida voters, as Gwen Graham and Andrew Gillum did in 2018.

This field will be thick: Rep. Charlie Crist, Rep. Val Demings and state Rep. Anna Eskamani are all looking. And, oh yes, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried … who has been “looking” at a run for six months now.

Al Lawson for Florida Governor? How would the dominoes fall?

Lawson leaving Congress would open Florida’s 5th Congressional District. As a safe Democratic seat, there are many interesting names in the mix, from Rev. Kim Daniels and former Mayor Alvin Brown in Jacksonville to (why not?) Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee.

The larger economy may be struggling. But as for ballot action, has there ever been a better time to be a political consultant in Northeast Florida? 

Money moves

One of the three Republican legislators running to replace Sen. Aaron Bean next year is trumpeting his early fundraising.

Rep. Jason Fischer, who represents HD 16, will go into Session with a healthy nest egg for the SD 4 race. He says he will have over $705,000 between his campaign account and his political committee, with $108,000 coming in the two weeks since the filing. 

Fischer has two political committees: “Conservative Solutions for Jacksonville” and “Friends of Jason Fischer.”

If that’s the case, Fischer’s opponents could be on the defensive. 

Three Republicans are making money moves for Aaron Bean’s Senate seat.

HD 12 Rep. Clay Yarborough said his campaign hadn’t calculated final totals when Bold asked. Yarborough’s “Floridians for Conservative Values” political committee had over $180,000 at the end of December.

HD 11 Rep. Cord Byrd had nearly $35,000 in his “1845” political committee.

At this writing, no one had anything in their still-new campaign accounts. 

Police story

Legislation filed by Jacksonville Democrats in recent days in the House and the Senate would add new layers of accountability for law enforcement as it relates to the policed.

HB 647/SB 942, filed in the House by Rep. Tracie Davis and the Senate by Sen. Audrey Gibson, would compel the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to establish model procedures and minimum requirements for county and local police forces.

Sen. Audrey Gibson seeks minimum safeguards for local police. Image via Florida Senate.

The minimum requirements stipulated in the legislation would include safeguards against unauthorized use of force, imposing a duty to intervene for officers who may see a colleague crossing the line, and requirements for departments to discipline scofflaws in the ranks.

Model procedures would include bans on chokeholds, exemplified vividly last summer by George Floyd’s strangulation by a Minneapolis police officer, which set off protests and tumult across the nation. No-knock warrants would be banned in case of misdemeanors and the like as well. 

Gibson said the matter was urgent and needed attention.

 “It is an issue that should be addressed when people are dying because of the methods. There was no law enforcement meeting about the language. Training Standards will reveal other methods. Change is never easy but sometimes necessary. I look forward to working on solutions with law enforcement.”

Code of honor

On Tuesday, Sen. Jennifer Bradley’s bill (SB 60) requiring code complainants to put their names on their claims cleared the Community Affairs Committee, which she chairs.

However, after a committee amendment, there were exceptions to the rule.

If there is a threat of imminent destruction of natural resources or threat to health, welfare, and safety, the complaint could be anonymous.

Jennifer Bradley takes a stab at ending anonymous code complaints.

Some Democrats balked. Tampa Sen. Janet Cruz said that municipalities in her district weren’t sure what the legislation was “trying to address.”

Bradley said that it was about ensuring the government’s “resources are used wisely” on “legitimate” claims. 

Trafficking targeted

A Jacksonville Republican filed legislation late last week to add some darker subjects to older students’ health curriculum.

Rep. Clay Yarborough of Southside-centric HD 12 filed HB 519, a bill that would augment current statutory requirements to include instruction about child sexual abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking.

Going dark: Clay Yarborough is proposing to add some sensitive issues to student curricula. Image via Florida House.

Yarborough said: “In listening to constituents and community groups, the need for additional prevention efforts and greater awareness related to signs of child sexual abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking has consistently arisen.”

“HB 519 codifies the language into the health curriculum and is already being taught in a number of schools. The Monique Burr Foundation is a strong partner in this effort, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with them on it.”

More MMJ?

A bill from first-term Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon sees inequities in the current medical marijuana treatment-center dispensary system. She is seeking a remedy by establishing “retail” shops in underserved areas.

Medical marijuana is legal in Florida, but the rollout has been abysmal. This bill would create greater access to those who need it but are currently blocked from gaining access because of a system that’s historically been stacked against them,” Nixon said of her HB 59

“This bill isn’t only about bringing health care to more Floridians, but also about creating the opportunity for jobs across the state,” Nixon noted.

Nixon told Florida Politics: “Retail centers would be similar to dispensaries similar to what we currently see in other legalized states.”

Competition for MMTCs? Or a supplement?

“The centers would purchase product from license holders/wholesalers for their shelves. Specifically, the centers can address the needs of medically underserved populated areas throughout Florida where there is an access issue to current MMTC locations within the state of Florida.”

The current license holders could contract with up to 10 of these new shops, which would function in a separate and supplementary role to the vertical integration system as the bill currently reads. The MMTCs could not own or operate the shops; they would be independent of the current structure.

As with the Yarborough bill above, expect Thurston to carry the Senate measure. However, absent yet-to-be-demonstrated enthusiasm for this from the industry itself, it will be a heavy lift. 

Moving forward

Legislation that could help people on the autism spectrum get jobs training and ultimately jobs took a step forward this week, garnering its first committee reference.

The Florida House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee will mull the case for $300,000 to go to the Jacksonville School for Autism. 

Rep. Jason Fischer is carrying HB 2209, allocates funds to the school’s Supportive Transition and Employment Placement program.

That’s $50,000 more than the current year.

Jason Fischer floats a bigger ask for children on the autism spectrum.

The pandemic brings some changes this year: “Due to COVID-19 and health risks for students with [compromised] immune systems, the goal is to bring the community to the students while building employment and community-related skills.”

More good news

A group of appropriations bills from HD 11 Rep. Cord Byrd moved forward to committees this week for eventual hearings.

HB 2271, which would allocate $500,000 in state money for the Atlantic Beach Aquatic Gardens, has been referred to the Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

HB 2273, meanwhile, seeks $500,000 for repairs of the Peck Center in Fernandina Beach. The appropriations request notes that the 93-year-old structure “is located in an urban area and provides cultural, educational, and indoor recreational opportunities to an underserved, largely minority population. The funds will help preserve a building that stands today as a visible celebration of Peck High School’s history located within the African American community which it has always served.” 

That bill moved to the Infrastructure and Tourism Subcommittee.

A third Byrd bill (HB 2275) would route $2,725,000 to Operation New Hope’s Ready to Work. That would be the same appropriation as last year for the well-known reentry program’s efforts. Justice Appropriations will take that up down the road, along with a Byrd ask for money for the Nassau County Youth Alternative to Secured Detention program.

Duggan doings

The only Republican in the Duval House delegation running for reelection, Rep. Wyman Duggan, will see a quartet of bills up for a hearing in the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee in the coming weeks.

Wyman Duggan hits the 2021 Session with a wave of bills. Image via Florida House.

HB 2285 would provide nearly $410,000 for substance abuse treatment for veterans via River Region Human Services. HB 2287 would provide $250,000 for Holocaust Survivor Support Services to Jewish Family and Community Services. HB 2289 would allocate the same amount for aneurysm screening services at Baptist Health. And Duggan also seeks $200,000 in state support for the daily feeding program at the Clara White Mission via HB 2291.

Stay with Bold for the future of these priorities for the region …

Teacher of the Year

The Investing In Kids! program named Alicia “Ali” Pressel as Teacher of the Year in St. Johns County.

INK! finalized the 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year program on Jan. 27 with a recognition celebration where St. Johns County Schools Superintendent Tim Forson presented multiple awards to educators. Topping the event was the top teacher award bestowed to Pressel, a teacher at Creekside High School.

St. Johns Teacher of the Year Alicia “Ali” Pessel and Creekside High Principal Steve McCormick. Image via INK!

Pressel has been a teacher at the school since 2008. She instructs four levels within the county’s career advancement program in environmental sciences disciplines. In addition to her teaching duties, Pressel sponsors the Geospatial Mapping Club and Environmental Club at Creekside High School.

Pressel is a regular public speaker on environmental issues and named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2020 for advancing mapping software.

“I am honored and humbled to receive such an amazing distinction. We have an exceptional group of educators in St. Johns County, and it is a privilege to collaborate with them each day,” said Pressel.

As part of the honor of Teacher of the Year, Pressel was given a new vehicle from Beaver Toyota car sales and a new laptop computer from Staples. Both businesses have locations in St. Augustine. 

I-10 Workshop

The Florida Department of Transportation will host an open house Thursday in Jacksonville to discuss a major project gearing up for Interstate 10 in Duval County.

Projected costs are about $176 million before completion in early 2025. The road construction will involve most of the major portions of I-10 just west of the downtown Jacksonville area.

The open house will be available for in-person visits from the public Thursday, though it requires social distancing and masking. The event will take place at the FDOT Urban Office Training Center, 2198 Edison Ave., in Jacksonville, from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday.

I-10 in Jacksonville can only get better. Image via FDOT.

FDOT officials will be on hand to field questions about the massive project that will run from Interstate 95 interchange west to the Interstate 295 interchange. The project will add two general-purpose lanes in both east and westbound lanes of I-10 to ease up constant traffic backups in the area.

In addition to the two new lanes themselves, FDOT plans to add noise barriers, widen bridges at 19 locations, and reconfigure exits along the roadway into residential and business areas.

Those who can’t attend the open house in person can join the meeting virtually. FDOT staff will be available online for those who visit http://nflroads.com/virtualmeetings. Residents can also call (415) 655-0052 using access code 864-370-935. 

Bean team

Congratulations to fast-rising Davis Bean, promoted to Fiorentino Group principal this week, another accomplishment in a short but eventful tenure with one of Northeast Florida’s leading lobbying firms.

Davis Bean is moving up. Image via The Fiorentino Group.

“I am so pleased that Davis is taking the next step in his career as a leader within our firm,” said TFG President and Founder Marty Fiorentino. “He is a smart and talented advocate who has delivered outstanding results for our clients. I look forward to watching him continue to grow as one of Florida’s leading public affairs professionals.” 

Bean got started in politics in Polk County as campaign manager for Sen. Kelli Stargel. He has also been an aide to Rep. Byrd

Recently, Bean was named an INFLUENCE Magazine “Rising Star.” 

Supply drop

AT&T this week sent a cache of face coverings and hand sanitizer to help the nearly 12,000 front-line workers VITAS Healthcare remain COVID-free.

“AT&T’s generosity during the pandemic will provide ongoing protection for our dedicated hospice teams and ensure the safety of our vulnerable patients and their families,” said Nick Westfall, president and CEO of VITAS. “We are grateful for our collaborative relationship with AT&T on leading-edge technology initiatives and for their concern for the health and safety of our employees and the communities we serve.”

VITAS said the supply drop is valued at more than $100,000 and will be used to care for 19,000 patients a day across its facilities in Florida, California, Connecticut and Texas.

AT&T comes to the rescue with PPE for front-line workers.

The PPE support comes after VITAS became the first hospice provider to join FirstNet, a nationwide wireless broadband network, so care teams to communicate without interruption, even in the wake of a natural disaster or other outage events.

“We are committed to supporting businesses whose dedicated employees continue to work tirelessly around the clock during the pandemic,” AT&T Business CEO Anne Chow said. “Our engagement with VITAS has been an enlightening look at the benefits, value and impact of compassionate end-of-life care.

“Whether through leading-edge technology or basic equipment and supplies, we want to ensure that our front-line professionals can continue to carry out their mission while protecting the nation’s health care patients and keeping entire communities safe.”

Staff Reports



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