Mitch Perry - 5/293 - SaintPetersBlog

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame to speak about money in politics at Stetson law school

Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport will host a daylong symposium on March 24, on how corporate law, litigation, lobbying and money in politics intersect with the political system and our democracy.

The theme of the event is,  “Can Corporations Be Good Citizens? How Corporate Law, Litigation, Lobbying and Money in Politics Intersect,” and the keynote address will be given by Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

Other presenters include Lee Fang of the Intercept, who will moderate a panel on potential reforms; Keesha Gaskins-Nathan of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, who will moderate a panel on empirical studies on corporation and the political system and former USA Today political reporter Kathy Kiely, who will moderate a discussion about the legal and constitutional role of corporations in democracy at 9:15 a.m.;

“The role of corporations in our democratic form of government has become a hot topic of debate since the Supreme Court granted corporations more power to spend money in our elections in Citizens United v. FEC. This topic is particularly salient given the potential conflicts of interest presented by the new administration. Speakers at the symposium will tackle this topic from interdisciplinary vantage points,” said Professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an expert in election law at Stetson University.

The event will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 24 in the Great Hall at Stetson law school, 1401 61st St. S. in Gulfport. To RSVP to attend the event, sign up here.

 

 

 

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St. Pete City Council candidate Brandi Gabbard wants more economic prosperity to Gateway District

Brandi Gabbard calls herself an everyday person representing everyday people.

Her bid for St. Petersburg City Council District 2 this year may be her first run for public office, but when it comes to working on public policy and serving the community, Gabbard’s no rookie.

The Indiana native moved to St. Petersburg in 2003 and began selling real estate in 2005 (she’s been with Smith & Associates since 2011).

Nearly a decade ago, Gabbard joined the Pinellas Realtor Organization as a volunteer and immediately began serving on their public policy committee. She started their young professional network in 2010, and ultimately became chair of the Realtors board in 2014, the youngest ever for the group.

The Pinellas Realtors Organization had led the effort to pass the Greenlight Pinellas transit tax initiative, which lost badly at the polls in 2014.

“The ballot amendment could have been written better,” Gabbard says in retrospect. “If people can’t understand it, then the automatic response is typically no. That certainly did not play in our favor.”

Representing the Gateway area, Gabbard embraces the renaissance in downtown St. Pete, but says she wants to bring some of that economic prosperity to her neck of the woods.

“We need more opportunities here. More restaurants, more boutique shops,” Gabbard says, believing that the Carillon and Gateway business districts can support more small businesses.

At the Starbucks on 4th Street North at 88th Avenue, Gabbard muses that perhaps in another year or two, a follow-up interview could be instead at a Kahwa coffeehouse.

“That’s my vision for the district,” she says. “I want to see that vibrancy that goes on down there spread to all parts of the city.”

Gabbard has advocated on many issues over the years, and is most proud of her work on flood insurance. This year, she’s vice chair of the National Association of Realtors Insurance Committee, and locally serves on the St. Petersburg Program for Public Information (PPI), a task force to track outreach projects and create a message to educate the public about flood hazards, flood insurance, proper building and floodplain functions.

Gabbard speaks enthusiastically about St. Pete recently being given a 25 percent reduction in floor insurance policies from what is known as the Community Rating System.

Regarding some of the bread and butter issues that are always front and center in St. Pete elections of late, Gabbard says as a fiscally conservative person, she has “concerns” about the cost of a proposed new Pier.

“A decision has been made, a plan has been set in place, a budget is there. Let’s get it done,” G says.

Gabbard also says she’d love to see the Tampa Bay Rays decide to relocate in District 2. Derby Lane on Gandy has been mentioned as a possible new site. Mayor Rick Kriseman said he hopes the team will choose to return to a revamped and improved Tropicana Field site.

“You don’t sell someone a house that they don’t want to be in,” Gabbard says to that idea.

Usually voluble and gregarious, Gabbard suddenly becomes quiet when asked her impression of the Kriseman era.

“I have no comment on the mayor,” she said firmly.

Segueing to the problems ensuring from the sewage problems of 2015 and 2016, she does offer that “the time for finger pointing is done” and says it’s time to move forward.

“I believe that (public works administrator) Claude Tankersley has all good intentions of having a very quick plan to meet the rainy season, and it is my full hope that that happens,” she says, adding that regardless of who made previous decisions, “when you are in a seat of leadership, it’s your responsibility to take the brunt of that.”

Gabbard is married with a 5-year-old son. She says being a “T-ball mom” will add a different perspective to the council.

Gabbard joins Barclay Harless as a candidate for District 2. Incumbent Jim Kennedy is term-limited out this fall.

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Politics, food and fun: Florida State Fair kicks off

With a mix of old and new, the annual Florida State Fair kicks off Thursday.

In addition to obligatory references to artery-clogging fair fare by local reporters (Deep-fried butter! Spaghetti Ice Cream!), Opening Day of the Fair is the setting for the yearly Governors Day Luncheon, where every man and women in Hillsborough County who is even thinking of running for office in 2018 already have their ticket.

All Cabinet members are expected to appear, with Gov. Rick Scott scheduled to give the keynote speech, as will Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, already considered to be looking ahead to succeeding Scott in the governor’s mansion in 2018.

For the second consecutive year, there will be no formal Cabinet meeting, formerly part and parcel of activities of the Fair’s first day.

Last year, the meeting was canceled outright because of a lack of urgent business with state agencies.

The last time the Cabinet did meet at the Fair was in February 2015, with plenty of drama as it was the first time that Scott had to answer to Putnam, Pam Bondi and Jeff Atwater over the ousting of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

After a one-year absence, what has returned this year is a new super slide; in the past, both Putnam and Bondi have slid down in a post-luncheon tradition/photo-op.

Originally called “The Super Bowl Toboggan,” the mega slide was first unveiled in Times Square in the lead up to the 2014 Super Bowl. The Italian-made slide is 60 feet tall and 180 feet long and contains an LED package that gives off a light show at night.

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WUSF-TV to go off the air after selling its license

After more than 50 years of broadcasting in the Tampa Bay area, WUSF-TV will soon be leaving the airwaves.

USF officials announced on Wednesday that they have sold the public broadcast license for WUSF-TV for $18.7 million as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadcast Incentive Auction.

As a result of USF’s decision to sell its license, WUSF-TV will go off the air later this year after proceeds from the auction are received, though officials did not say when that will occur.

The station first broadcast on September 12, 1966.

In October of 2015, USF voted to explore placing the television station into the FCC’s spectrum auction in 2016. The possibility of that happening led to the possibility that it could share a channel with another local station, move its signal to a VHF channel, or cease operations altogether, which is exactly what will now happen.

The decision does not affect WUSF 89.7 radio, the NPR affiliate in the Tampa Bay region, nor WEDU, the Public Broadcasting System affiliate.

 

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Charlie Crist wants Trump administration to look into voter suppression, disenfranchisement

Democrats skeptical about President Trump‘s repeated claims of voter fraud in last November’s election are now challenging him to add voter suppression and disenfranchisement into his administration’s upcoming investigation.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that Vice President Mike Pence will be in charge of a commission to probe what he believes was voter fraud in the election, despite a consensus among state officials, election experts — and both Democrats and Republicans — that voter fraud is extremely rare in the U.S.

“I’m going to set up a commission to be headed by Vice President Pence and we’re going to look at it very, very carefully,” Trump told O’Reilly in an interview taped Friday.

Seizing on that, Congressman Charlie Crist and 75 other Democrats are signing on to a letter originally penned by Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, Alabama’s Terri Sewell and Washington’s Derek Kilmer calling for an evaluation of state voter restrictions in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida. Those states bar individuals with past felony convictions from voting unless they are able to meet a burdensome clemency requirement. This law has led to the disenfranchisement of an estimated 1.5 million Floridians. 

“Unsubstantiated voter fraud claims are being used as cover to enact policies aimed at disenfranchising certain voters — something Floridians are all too familiar with,” said Crist, the first-term St. Petersburg Democrat. “Voter suppression efforts are an attack on our democracy. I will fight to protect access to the voting booth, including for nonviolent former felons. It’s a matter of civil rights and fundamental fairness.”

“Voter suppression efforts are an attack on our democracy,” Crist added. “I will fight to protect access to the voting booth, including for nonviolent former felons. It’s a matter of civil rights and fundamental fairness.”

Clearly upset about the fact that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million votes, Trump has steadfastly maintained that if it weren’t for voter fraud, he would have won the popular vote on November 8.

Despite that refrain, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday show that while election fraud does occur, “there is no evidence that it occurred in such a significant number that would have changed the presidential election.”

Trump’s focus seems intent only on looking at what happened in November, so the Democrats call for a look into other voting issues will unlikely find a sympathetic audience. Nevertheless, it gives them the opportunity to get out their beliefs that there are sustained, legalized measures in place currently that intentionally suppress the vote.

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Bill Nelson says any attempt to intimidate scientists ‘must be stopped’

In its first week in office, the Trump administration froze new scientific grants at the Environmental Protection Agency. That fueled concerns amongst some in the scientific community that it will be a rough four years in Washington.

Since the presidential election, more than 5,000 scientists, including many Nobel Prize winners, have signed an open letter urging President Trump and Congress to preserve scientific integrity. and there may be a major “March for Science” taking place on Earth Day in Washington later this spring.

Now, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and a number of his Democratic colleagues are weighing in, with a bill aimed at protecting government scientists from political interference.

“Few things are more un-American than censorship, especially when it would keep the public in the dark on vital public health and safety information, such as climate change and sea level rise,” said Nelson, who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  “Any attempt to intimidate or muzzle scientists must be stopped.”

Some of the provisions of the bill include:

  • Reaffirm the principle of open communication of scientific findings and prevent the suppression of scientific findings;
  • Ensure that scientists are allowed to communicate their findings with the public, press, and Congress;
  • Direct federal agencies to develop scientific integrity policies that include whistleblower protections; and,
  • Require scientific integrity policies to be posted online and given to all new hires

At least 27 other Democratic senators have signed on to the proposal.

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House advances bill for statewide ride-sharing regulations

A Florida House committee advanced a bill Wednesday to implement statewide regulations on ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

Sponsored by Republicans Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor and Jamie Grant of Tampa, HB 221 addresses issues that have been vexing state lawmakers for the last three Sessions.

If passed, drivers would need to carry insurance coverage worth $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage when picking up passengers.

Coverage would jump to a minimum of $1 million in coverage in the case of death, bodily injury and property damage while a passenger is in the vehicle.

The issue regarding the level of background checks of ride-sharing drivers has also become a huge matter for various Florida municipalities in the past few years, with representatives for Uber and Lyft adamant that their drivers do not need the same Level II background checks as cabdrivers.

Instead, drivers must have multistate/multijurisdictional criminal background checks, as well as one for the national sex offender database and a complete driving history.

Now that ride-sharing companies have begun working with local transit agencies on paratransit and first mile/last mile rides, the issue of parity remains critical, said Dwight Mattingly, a bus operator from Palm Beach County.

“I’m hoping that it will be recognized that anybody that handles, whether they’re Uber drivers, Lyft drivers or taxi drivers, will be subject to the same training and same knowledge to handle these people that I have,” he said.

The main objections to Uber and Lyft since they began operating in Florida has come from the taxi industry.

“We’re just looking for a level playing field,” said Louie Minardi with the Florida Taxicab Association. His group still has concerns about the bill, both regarding insurance and working with the requirements of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

Although the bill passed 14-1 in the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee (Miami Gardens Democrat Barbara Watson was the lone dissenter), several members said the bill needed to be strengthened moving forward before getting final approval.

Coconut Creek Democrat Kristen Diane Jacobs said that because there are now so many Uber and Lyft drivers picking up fares at Fort Lauderdale’s airport and seaport, Broward County has contemplated building staging lots to handle the excess, and seeking reimbursement. Those local negotiations “will disappear under the current structure,” she said.

Those local negotiations “will disappear under the current structure,” she said.

Jacobs also wants ride-sharing companies to place a logo on their cars as an added layer of safety.

After the successful vote, officials with both Uber and Lyft immediately issued news releases hailing the development.

“We applaud Reps. Sprowls and Grant and the subcommittee for moving forward with this important legislation,” said Chelsea Harrison, senior policy communications manager for Lyft. “This is the first step in implementing a uniform statewide approach to ride-sharing that fosters innovation and stimulates Florida’s economy. We look forward to working with the Legislature as it continues to advance rules that prioritize public safety and expand consumer choice for all Floridians.”

“The bipartisan vote today on HB 221 by the Florida House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee is the first step toward ensuring ride-sharing has a permanent place in Florida,” said Javi Correoso, public affairs manager for Uber Florida. “Uber has become an integral part of local transportation systems, and this legislation will help expand opportunities to better connect communities.

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America also applauded Wednesday’s vote.

“Many rideshare drivers operate under their personal auto insurance policy, which will not cover them if they are in an accident while using their vehicle for hire,” said Logan McFaddin, PCI’s regional manager for State Government Relations. “HB 221 brings much-needed clarity and consistency to insurance coverage requirements for TNC drivers in Florida and strikes the right balance between protecting consumers and supporting innovation.”

The bill now needs only to go through the Government Accountability Committee before heading to the House floor.

St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes is sponsoring the Senate version (SB 340), where similar legislation died in 2016.

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At medical marijuana hearing in Tampa, citizens blast proposed rules

Patients, caregivers and activists offered emotional – and often searing – testimony Wednesday in a Tampa workshop held by the state office that regulates medical marijuana.

In a standing-room-only meeting for the Office of Compassionate Use, they discussed proposed rules on medical marijuana that could go into effect later this year.

The agency’s rule-making workshop is making the rounds across the state this week, gathering public comment on the implementation of Amendment 2, overwhelmingly approved by Florida voters in November.

Although the maximum capacity of the Dept. of Health Tampa Branch Laboratory meeting room was set at 142 – far more than that lined two walls and the back of the chamber.

Amendment 2 allows doctors to order medical marijuana as a treatment for patients with cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. It gives doctors the power to order marijuana for “other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class as or comparable to those enumerated, and for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient.”

Proposed rules offered last month brought intense criticism from United for Care, the advocacy group that fought to get the measure on the ballot in 2014 and 2016. Those criticisms were repeated throughout the discussion held near the USF campus in north Tampa.

Among the biggest concerns: Current Florida law allows for only seven dispensaries statewide to provide medical marijuana, and patients must have a 90-day relationship with a doctor who completed specific medical training before they can provide a recommendation for medical cannabis.

“The will of the people is being ignored,” said Renee Petro. “Nobody should have to wait 90 days.”

The market needed to be opened to drive down prices, Petro added.

“We should have the right to medicate our children and loved ones in public,” she said. “The amendment passed and it’s up to Dept. of Health to execute this in timely matter.”

“Monopolies drive up prices and limit access,” added Dr. Matthew Knisley, a psychiatrist with Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Clearwater resident Dani Hall is with the group Mothers Advocating for Medical Marijuana for Autism, and the mother of two autistic sons. She said it was “abhorrent and disgusting that we are even having this conversation,” after more than 71 percent of the public voted in support of Amendment Two, eliciting a huge cheer.

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, representing the Florida Police Chiefs Association, expressed serious reservations about the implementation of the amendment. His group is asking for a state photo ID card and access to a 24-hour registry, so police know who can legally consume medical pot.

“We do not need to know the nature of the illness, but just be able to confirm whether or not a person is able to lawfully possess medical marijuana, especially at a traffic stop.”

The Police Chiefs also want those who work at medical marijuana dispensaries to also have a photo ID card and a Level II background check, along with no drug offense misdemeanors in the past decade.

Except for one occasion, Christian Bax, the director of the state’s Office of Compassionate Use, sat quietly and listen to each speaker.

A bill from St. Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes (SB 614) has the potential to open the market beyond the seven dispensing organizations under law.

It was the third public hearing held by the Office of Compassionate Use this week; meetings in Orlando and Tallahassee are set for later this week.

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Bill to kill red-light cameras doesn’t get the votes in Senate

Florida lawmakers are once again debating this year whether the state should stop using red light cameras — but the conversation may not be long.

On a 2-2 tie, state Sen. Frank Artiles’ bill (SB 178), to repeal the use of such cameras statewide, died Tuesday in the Senate Transportation Committee.

A House companion (HB 6007), however, cleared that chamber’s Appropriations committee on a 20-7 vote.

Artiles, a Miami Republican, called the cameras a “backdoor tax” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” as he introduced it before the committee.

He cited a report by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that said since the installation of the technology in 2010, there’s been an increase in total crashes in five of the six categories the state analyzed.

Nearly half, or 49 percent, of the $158 fines for motorists busted for going through a red light goes to the vendors. Of the other 51 percent, about three-quarters goes into General Revenue.

Another 14 percent funds public safety; just five percent pays for road repair and maintenance.

“The purpose of [the] red-light camera is not safety,” Artiles said. It’s always about money.”

While cities like St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Tallahassee and Brooksville have eliminated their red light camera programs in recent years, many more still use the cameras, including Tampa.

“We advocate for home rule,” said Megan Sirjane-Samples with the Florida League of Cities, who pointed out that Florida is ranked third in the nation in running red lights.

Signed into law in 2010, the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Actbecame better known as the Red Light Camera law.

A driver running a red light killed Wandall. His widow came to Tallahassee to remind lawmakers why it was initially approved.

“It was never supposed to be all about a red light safety camera. It’s red light safety cameras, it’s education, it’s enforcement,” said Melissa Wandall, Mark Wandall’s wife, about the creation of the original legislation. “These crashes and fatalities are down at our intersections. So to me, lives are being saved.”

But lawmakers sounded pessimistic about the cameras.

“I have buyer’s remorse. This did not turn out the way I intended it,” said state Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican. “We need to change direction.”

“If it does save lives, and if it saves one life, it’s worth it,” added Sen. Kevin Rader, a Boca Raton Democrat.

Saying he agreed with both sides, Committee Chair George Gainer said he believes it should be up to individual counties to decide to either keep or jettison red-light cameras.

In his closing, Artiles blasted American Traffic Solutions, the leading vendor of the cameras in Florida, for having 24 lobbyists working to kill his bill in Tallahassee.

The House bill was slated to be considered later Tuesday.

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Darryl Rouson, Jeff Brandes driver’s license suspension bill advances in Senate

On Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously passed legislation to reduce the number of driver’s licenses suspended annually in Florida.

The bipartisan bill (SB 302), sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes and Democrat Darryl Rouson, would end the suspension of licenses for non-driving-related offenses.

If passed, it could dramatically reduce a large number of suspensions taking place statewide each year.

Right now, one can lose driving privileges in Florida over a number of nondriving offenses: truancy, writing graffiti, theft, vandalism, writing worthless checks and a minor’s possession of tobacco.

“It has a huge impact on public safety,” Rouson told his colleagues on the committee. “It’s costly and we know that three-fourths of the suspended, revoked drivers still drive. So it’s a public safety matter.”

“We don’t want to continue the self-perpetuating cycles of financial hardship that lead to revocations and other things,” he added.

The bill also modifies current law relating to debt collection for unpaid fees or fines, and clearly establishes the right of a defendant in financial hardship to use community service as an alternative method of payment. It also eliminates the felony criminal charge for a third or subsequent offense for driving on a license suspended because of a defendant’s financial hardship.

Brandes sponsored a similar bill in the Senate last year, as did Rouson in the House, along with Tampa’s Dana Young and Sarasota’s Greg Steube.

Like Rouson, Young and Steube each advanced to the Senate after last November’s election.

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