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Tampa panel talks criminal justice reform ahead of Session

While red-leaning states like Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana have made significant criminal justice reforms over the past decade, Florida’s GOP-led Legislature has stood still.

Thirty-three states have implemented such reforms since 2007, while Florida’s prison population continues to grow, with the state now spending more than $2.4 billion a year to incarcerate nearly 100,000 people — the third-largest prison population in the U.S.

Hoping to reverse that trend by pushing for various measures addressing juvenile justice, adult citation programs and mandatory minimums is the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform, a coalition of nonpartisan groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU, which is intent on seeing some changes made in 2018. Members of the coalition met before approximately 50 citizens at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Complex in Tampa Monday night.

“We’re trying to really bring Florida in line with the rest of the country, and all the reforms you’re going to hear me talk about tonight we believe will reduce the racial disparity, reduce the incarcerated population, and ultimately make our community safer,” said Raymer Maguire, the ACLU of Florida’s criminal justice manager.

Maguire said the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform’s plan is focused on encouraging rehabilitation over punishment, and preparing incarcerated individuals for a life post-release that allows them to have housing, jobs and to ultimately become productive members of society.

Florida sends more children to adult court prison than any other state. From 2005-20015, the national average prison population increase was 3 percent. In Florida it’s 18 percent, the highest in the country.

“The system is broken, and it’s been broken for a long time,” said St. Petersburg Democratic state Sen. Darryl Rouson.

Among the bills he’s sponsoring in the upcoming session include reducing raising the monetary value for felony theft offenses from the current $300 threshold to $1,000. The $300 figure has not been adjusted since 1986. The national average is $1,100, and in southern states, it’s over $1,400.

The Florida Retail Federation is opposing the proposal.

Rouson has also proposed bills to reduce driver’s license suspensions for nondriving offenses (a proposal that didn’t get passed in the 2017 Session) and allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum prison sentences under certain circumstances.

Bethany McNeil is the founder of XO Factor, which provides ex-offender services. She said housing and employment are enormous barriers for ex-felons to reintegrate themselves into their communities successfully. “Criminal justice is not a one size fits all type deal,” she said. “Once you’ve served your sentence, you should be allowed to move on.”

Crime has decreased in America for quite some time, with some notable exceptions (like Chicago).

The daily population in Hillsborough County jails peaked with an average of 4,626 people a day back in 2006, according to David Parrish, retired colonel of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Now it averages around 3,000 a day.

Similarly, there was approximately 75,000 booked in Hillsborough jails in 2006, while last year there was less than half of that amount — 38,000.

“This is a phenomenon that’s taken place in most major urban population centers,” said Parrish. “In the jail system, the average length of stay of all those people who are booked every day is 22 days.”

The issue of privatization of prisons in Florida was debated. There are seven currently in Florida.

Rouson recently visited the South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach, which is operated by the GEO Group under contract with the Florida Department of Corrections.

“It’s a very well run system,” he said. “If they can save the state money and provide the same level of protective custody, then I think it’s OK.”

Parrish said many years ago he was offered an extremely well-paying job with Corrections Corporation of America, perhaps the most notorious private prison company in the country. He declined.

“I don’t believe in privatizing the operations of jails and prisons,” he said, attributing their cheaper costs to the fact that they don’t pay “decent retirement” and have a much higher level of turnover of staff so they’re always paying entry-level people.

There were great expectations that there would be a number of criminal justice reforms passed in the 2017 Session. It didn’t happen then, but Rouson says he remains “very optimistic about certain criminal justice reforms this year.”

“It could be as shallow as the fact that ’18 is an election year, and sometimes appropriations get through in an election year get though in an election year that wouldn’t get through in a regular year,” he said. “Sometimes bills pass because legislators are human, and they want to be able to go back home and brag that they got something through the Legislature.”

Rouson noted that conservative groups like the James Madison Institute and Right on Crime have joined the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center to get some of these reforms passed this year, “and I think these portend good for our Session coming up.”

Pasco Commissioner Mike Wells snags Danny Burgess endorsement

Mike Wells announced Tuesday that Republican Rep. Danny Burgess has endorsed him for re-election to the Pasco County Commission.

“I am pleased to offer my endorsement for Mike Wells as he seeks to continue serving on the Pasco County Board of County Commissioners. Mike is a dedicated community servant, who spends not only his professional time advocating for the betterment of Pasco County, but also his personal time volunteering with numerous community organizations,” Burgess said.

“He brings experience and is passionate about serving Pasco County’s residents and I am proud to stand with him [in] this election. Mike Wells has my support and my vote on Election Day and I hope he can count on your support too.”

Wells, a longtime Pasco resident, was elected to the commission in 2014 and currently serves as its vice chairman and is the commission’s representative on a number of area boards, including the Area Agency on Aging, the Department of Juvenile Justice Circuit Advisory Board and the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties.

In addition to the elected office, Wells is a member of several area realtor groups, the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce and sits on the board of the YMCA of the Suncoast.

“I am grateful to have the support and endorsement of State Representative Danny Burgess. Danny has served as Mayor of Zephyrhills and now represents Pasco County residents as State Representative in our state capitol,” Wells said. “Even more important to me, Danny continues to serve in our nation’s armed forces, protecting and preserving our freedom. I am thankful for State Representative Burgess’ service to our nation and to Pasco County and am humbled to have his endorsement and support this election.”

Wells and fellow Republican Commissioner Mike Moore are up for re-election next year.

Wells has earned endorsements for his re-election bid from several Pasco Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Sheriff Chris Nocco, and former House Speaker Will Weatherford. He holds the District 4 seat on the commission and is currently running against Democrat Brandi Geoit.


Dana Young has now raised more than $1M for re-election bid

A broad range of supporters helped Dana Young raise over $1 million between her state Senate campaign and committee accounts — with more than $100,000 in just the last month — according to new reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections.

The Tampa Republican has now amassed a million-dollar war chest — of which $800,000 remains in on hand cash — for her 2018 re-election bid, a robust fundraising prowess that is helping Young remain unopposed. She has served Florida Senate District 18 since 2016. 

Through her committee, Friends of Dana Young, Young added $75,500 in November, with another $21,000 going to her campaign.

Among last month’s top donors to the committee include $12,500 from the GOPAC Election Fund — a nationwide group that seeks to support a “healthy roster of prepared and tested Republican leaders.”

Also giving $10,000 each were the Florida-based cigarette, cigar and e-cigarette manufacturer Dosal Tobacco Corporation and Virginia-based Altria Client Services.

Fantasy-sports website Draft Kings gave $5,000, as did the public-employee trade union AFSCME.

Donations to the campaign account came in through a diverse group of 22 contributions, 20 of which were at $1,000, the maximum allowable: Walmart Stores, Pacific Life, the Palm Beach Kennel Club, Dosal, RAI Services and Swisher International.

The report shows Young spent $10,591 for her campaign and $8,895 for her committee; Gainesville-based Data Targeting Inc. received the most with $5,071.

Florida Finance Strategies received $3,500 for consulting, $3,000 to Webelect.net for a data services subscription, and $2,750 for advertising through the influential Bascom Communications.

Heading into December, Young enjoys a significant cash advantage, with $658,579 on-hand for the committee and another $145,183 for her campaign account — $803,762 between the two.

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

Unlike their neighbors in Indian Shores and St. Pete Beach, Indian Rocks Beach residents will have a few choices to make during the Pinellas County municipal elections set for March 13.

On the ballot for mayor are Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, the current vice mayor, and Donald House, Jr. The winner will replace exiting mayor RB Johnson.

Also on the ballot are a pair of commission seats. Current commissioner Edward Hoofnagle is running alongside Jude Bond and Nick Palomba in a three-way race for two open seats.

Residents will also vote on a pair of city charter amendments.

The first asks whether the city should strike the provision requiring it to maintain an emergency sewer fund in light of the sewer system’s sale to the county in 2014.

The second amendment poses transferring $100,000 from the sewer fund to the city’s general fund, also due to the sale of the sewer system.

The Indian Rocks Beach City Commission has five members, including the mayor, and is responsible for drafting the city budget and hiring of and providing direction for the city manager, who handles the day-to-day operation of the city.

The commission also hires the city attorney and city clerk, is responsible for appointing citizens to serve on various county and city boards and commissions, and the members represent the city on local, regional and state boards.

Commissioners serve two-year terms. More information on the city’s elections can be found on the Indian Rocks Beach website.

St. Pete Beach commissioners re-elected without opposition

St. Pete Beach Commissioners Terri Finnerty and Ward Friszolowski have won re-election after no candidates put their names in to run against them before the qualifying deadline Friday.

Finnerty holds the District 1 and Friszolowski holds the District 3 seat. Those seats were the only two St. Pete Beach offices up for grabs in the 2018 municipal elections, set for March 13.

City commissioners serve two-year terms, and the Pinellas County town of 10,000 pays commissioners $5,400 a year to meet twice a month.

Finnerty and Friszolowski both faced opposition when they ran in 2016, with Finnerty winning re-election over former Councilmember Lorraine Huhn with 60 percent of the vote and Friszolowski beating out Deborah Schechner 54-46 to return to the commission.

Finnerty is married to former mayor Mike Finnerty and has held her seat on the commission since 2014. Friszolowski spent well over a decade in office as a St. Pete Beach commissioner and as mayor, but stepped aside for a bit before returning to office in 2016.

The qualifying period for the two St. Pete Beach City Commission seats opened Nov. 30 and candidates had until Dec. 8 to put their name down for the March election.

Patrick Soranno goes uncontested for Indian Shores mayor

Patrick Soranno secured a three-year term as Indian Shores mayor after no candidates qualified to run against him by the close of the qualifying period Friday.

Soranno has been the interim mayor since the death of Mayor Jim Lawrence in January. Before taking over, Soranno was the vice mayor of the small Pinellas County town.

The lack of a challenger for Soranno means there will be no offices in Indian Shores up for election during the Pinellas County municipal elections set for March 13.

Back in 2014, Soranno received the most votes in a three-way race for the Indian Shores Council. He received 333 votes while fellow Councilmember Mike Petruccelli received 315, with both earning a seat.

According to his Town Council bio, Soranno served six years in the U.S. Air Force, and post-military started a career in business working as a senior vice president at The Travelers Insurance Company and founding business consulting company Paradigm Alliance Group.

Soranno, now retired, has also held board positions with the March of Dimes, U.S. Behavioral Health and the Center for Corporate Health. He also served as a citizen member of the Indian Shores Planning, Zoning and Building Committee for 5 years.

Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters endorses Nick DiCeglie for HD 66

Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters is backing Nick DiCeglie in his bid for House District 66.

DiCiglie, who has been Pinellas County Republican Party Executive Committee chair since 2014, is seeking the seat of state Rep. Larry Ahern, a Seminole Republican term-limited in 2018. He is facing Berny Jacques in the GOP primary.

“Nick will bring to the Florida House of Representatives, great business and leadership skills,” said Waters, a former Speaker Pro-Tempore of the Florida House. “I know he will be a serious and conscientious legislator, who will represent the interests of business, education and families of House District 66.”

Waters is a Gulfport native who has lived in Seminole since 1979; she served in the House between 1998 to 2006, with her last term as Speaker Pro-Tempore. A graduate of Boca Ciega High School, Waters received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida State University. She is also founder of Leslie Waters Government Relations consulting firm, and works as an adjunct professor of political science.

“I’m honored to have the support of a leader like Mayor Leslie Waters,” said DiCeglie. “She’s had success in business and been a dedicated public servant to our community at both the state and local level for many years. Mayor Waters and I share the same conservative values and vision for the future of Pinellas county — I’m glad to have her on our team.”

Since announcing his HD 66 campaign, DiCelgie — who has owned Solar Sanitation, a Clearwater-based trash removal and recycling company, since 2001 — raised more than $60,500 through Oct. 31, according to the Division of Elections website. He has nearly $58,000 in cash-on-hand. Jacques, his opponent, has been raising funds since March, and has collected just under $87,000 through Oct. 31, with $70,000 on hand.

In addition, Jacques — by way of “Protect Pinellas,” his associated committee — raised $42,000 through Nov. 30, with a little more than $35,000 on hand. For the month of November, Jacques’ campaign announced raising a total of $24,025, with $10,000 coming from Protect Pinellas and $14,025 raised in his campaign account.

DiCelgie moved to Florida in 1996, and is now living in Indian Rocks Beach with his wife Erica and their two children, Livia and Carlo. He is active in the community, serving two terms as chair of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. He also served as a gubernatorial appointee on the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and as a member of the Indian Rocks Beach Planning and Zoning Board for six years. DeCelgie, named an Up & Comer by the Tampa Bay Business Journal in 2011, is also a member of the Pinellas County Economic Development Council.

Pasco GOP elite gather for Mike Wells fundraiser Tuesday

Several of Pasco County’s Republican élite will be gathering for a fundraiser this week to support Mike Wells in his bid for a second term on the Board of Commissioners.

Set for Tuesday, Dec. 12, the event begins 5:30 p.m. at the home of First National Bank of Pasco President Steve Hickman and his wife Lynn, 37402 Church Ave. in Dade City.

Listed among the host committee are many of the county’s top GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, former House Speaker Will Weatherford, state Rep. Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills, Pasco School Board Chair Allen Allman, superintendent Kurt Browning and Wells’ father — former Pasco County Property Appraiser Mike Wells Sr.

In his first term representing Pasco County District 4, Wells — a 39-year county resident — was appointed to the Area Agency on Aging, the Department of Juvenile Justice Circuit Advisory Board, the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties, the Engineering and Architectural Selection Committee, the Pasco Economic Development Council, the Pasco County Fair Authority and the Value Adjustment Board.

Wells, a 2006 alum of Leadership Pasco, is a member of the National Association of Realtors, West Pasco Board of Realtors, Florida Realtors and the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce. He also held roles at the YMCA of the Suncoast — James P. Gills Family YMCA Advisory Board, United Way, Volunteer Way, The Angelus, Sunrise of Pasco, Feeding Pasco’s Elderly, the Coastal Conservation Association. Wells is also a National Rifle Association member.

To RSVP, visit rsvp@votemikewells.com.

Four candidates qualify for South Pasadena City Commission election

Four candidates — two incumbents and two former commissioners — will square off for a pair of seats on the South Pasadena City Commission in March.

The qualifying period for the election is over and current members Lari Johnson and Gail Neidinger will be joined on the ballot by Dan Calabria, a former mayor and commission member of the Pinellas County town, as well as Arthur Penny, a former commissioner.

South Pasadena has a population of about 25,000 and is governed by a commission with five members including the mayor. Each of the four commissioners are put in charge of one of the city’s departments with the mayor, currently Max Elson, overseeing administrative services for the city.

Johnson, currently vice mayor on the commission, oversees the Community Improvement Department, while Neidinger oversees the Public Safety Department. Both were elected to the commission for three year terms in March 2015.

The city’s footprint is less than a square mile and commission seats aren’t broken up into districts and are instead at large, so the two candidates with the best showing on Election Day will take the two commission seats up for grabs.

The South Pasadena City Commission gathers twice a month and commissioners receive $7,600 a year. The election will be held March 13.

The mayoral seat will be on the ballot in 2019, while the other two seats on the commission, held by David Magenheimer and Gigi Esposito, will be on the 2020 ballot.

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