Phil Ammann - SaintPetersBlog

Phil Ammann

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

Tampa developer sues city over public records for ‘Encore’ renewal project

A Tampa developer is suing the city of Tampa, claiming officials are holding back documents related to a sprawling urban renewal in the neighborhood between downtown and Ybor City.

Pinnacle Holdings Group is accusing the Tampa Housing Authority of withholding key documents from public records for the “controversial handling” of Encore, the ambitious mixed-use project to replace Central Park Village. Frank Donald DeBose is president of Pinnacle Group, located at 4830 W. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 600 in Tampa.

Encore is the name of the plan that combines public housing, retail and commercial buildings with market-value condominiums.

In March 2016, the Tampa Tribune reported that Pinnacle Group was interested in purchasing to downtown parcels for $7.4-million as part of the Encore project.

Among Pinnacle’s tentative plans were a 20-story hotel and a 28-story residential tower. Other community features include an urban farm, museum, middle school, solar park and a renovated Perry Harvey Park, with an amphitheater and displays to honor Central Avenue’s history.

In November 2016, Pinnacle Group submitted a public records request to the THA, asking for “all documents pertaining or relating to the planning and development of Encore since November 2, 2010.”

The request specified documents and correspondence concerning developer Related Group – the private Miami-based developer also involved with the Encore project – as well as those involving Pinnacle Group itself.

Pinnacle claims documents received in December from the Authority were “insufficient,” and a subsequent request for “missing” items made January 10 provided not much more.

In a lawsuit filed February 17 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, Pinnacle is suing under Chapter 119 of Florida Statutes (otherwise known as the “Public Records Act”). The company asks the court to set an immediate hearing and order the THA to “allow the inspection and copying of the requested public records.”

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Donald Trump, Month Two: Talks on health care and on tax overhaul

As President Donald Trump begins his second month in office, his team is trying to move past the crush of controversies that overtook his first month and make progress on health care and tax overhauls long sought by Republicans.

Both issues thrust Trump, a real estate executive who has never held elected office, into the unfamiliar world of legislating. The president has thus far relied exclusively on executive powers to muscle through policy priorities and has offered few details about what he’ll require in any final legislative packages, like how the proposals should be paid for. The White House also sent conflicting signals about whether the president will send Congress his own legislative blueprints or let lawmakers drive the process.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told The Associated Press that he expects a health care plan to emerge in “the first few days of March.” Pressed on whether the plan would be coming from the White House, Priebus said, “We don’t work in a vacuum.”

On Sunday, White House advisers held a three-hour meeting on health care at Trump’s South Florida club, their third lengthy discussion on the topic in four days. Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs banker now serving as Trump’s top economic adviser, and newly sworn in Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have been leading talks with Republican lawmakers and business leaders on taxes. Neither man has prior government experience.

Republicans long blamed Democrats for blocking efforts to overhaul the nation’s complicated tax code and make changes to the sweeping 2010 health care law signed by President Barack Obama. But with the GOP now in control of both the White House and Congress, making good on those promises rests almost entirely with the president and his party.

To some Republicans’ chagrin, both issues were overshadowed during Trump’s first month. The president spent more time publicly fighting the media than selling Americans on his vision for a new health care law. Fresh questions emerged about Trump’s ties to Russia, particularly after national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired for misleading the White House about his conversations with a Russian envoy. The White House botched the rollout of a refugee and immigration executive order, Trump’s most substantive policy initiative to date, and the directive was quickly blocked by the courts.

Priebus said the distractions did not slow down work happening behind the scenes on the president’s legislative priorities.

“Obviously with the White House staff, you’re able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Priebus said. “The economic team isn’t screwing around with the legal case and the lawyers aren’t screwing around with tax reform.”

One of the biggest questions on Capitol Hill is how involved Trump plans to be in legislative minutia. One GOP leadership aide whose office has been working with the White House described the president as a “big picture guy” and said he expected Trump to defer to Capitol Hill on health care in particular. The aide was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted on anonymity.

Priebus said he expects Congress to pass both a tax package and legislation repealing and replacing Obama’s health care law by the end of the year. But the White House’s outward confidence belies major roadblocks on both matters.

After spending years criticizing “Obamacare,” Republicans are grappling with how to replace it and pay for a new law. While some lawmakers worry about getting blamed for taking health insurance away from millions of people, others worry the party won’t go far enough in upending the current system.

“My worry now is that many people are talking about a partial repeal of Obamacare,” Rep. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said. “If you only repeal part of it and you leave it some sort of Obamacare light, which some are talking about, my fear is the situation actually gets worse.”

Trump has said he wants to keep popular provisions like guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions and allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26. He’s also raised the prospect of allowing people to buy insurance across states lines, which is not part of the law.

On taxes, Republicans have a potentially more vexing impasse. House Republicans want to scrap the 35 percent tax on corporate profits, which is riddled with exemptions, deductions and credits, and replace it with a “border adjustment tax.” The system would tax all imports coming into the U.S., but exclude exports from taxation.

House Speaker Paul Ryan‘s office has been vigorously promoting the idea to Trump, who has called the system “too complicated.” Some House aides have privately voiced optimism that the White House is coming around, though Priebus would only say that border adjustment was “an option we’re all discussing and debating.”

The president has said he plans to release a “phenomenal” tax plan in the coming weeks.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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WTSP exposé examines Florida’s ‘weakest in nation’ texting, driving laws

Florida lawmakers will probably not make texting while driving a primary traffic offense in 2017, although it is the law in 41 other states.

Right now, Florida doesn’t allow officers to pull over drivers for texting and driving unless they notice another potentially dangerous or deadly offense at the same time.

In an interview with Noah Pransky of WTSP, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran suggested that legislators may need more information before they decide to change the law, perhaps by seeing what such a change had accomplished in other states.

“You need to have evidence,” Corcoran said in a brief clip posted on Facebook. “Let’s look at what those other 41 states are doing … the number of incidents they have related to texting and driving and what it has done [for] their safety … comparisons based on population, based on demographics, based on cities.”

Corcoran added that by studying the data, the Legislature could come to an “objective decision” whether to make texting while driving a primary offense.

In another Facebook video, Pransky says gives three reasons legislators are in no rush to change “some of the country’s weakest distracted driving laws.” They claim texting isn’t dropping in the states where texting while driving laws are in place; banning such activities could represent a potential threat to civil liberties and police could abuse those rules to pull anyone over, for practically any reason.

Pransky calls those ideas simply “excuses” for lawmakers dragging their feet.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway tells WTSP that his department needs a driving while texting law to crack down on this dangerous behavior effectively.

“We need that tool in our toolbox so we can educate our people,” Holloway said.

Pransky will have a two-part report on Florida’s texting while driving and distracted driving laws Monday and Tuesday night at 11 p.m. on WTSP.

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Donald Trump embraces legacy of Andrew Jackson

It was an ugly, highly personal presidential election.

An unvarnished celebrity outsider who pledged to represent the forgotten laborer took on an intellectual member of the Washington establishment looking to extend a political dynasty in the White House.

Andrew Jackson‘s triumph in 1828 over President John Quincy Adams bears striking similarities to Donald Trump‘s victory over Hillary Clinton last year, and some of those most eager to point that out are in the Trump White House.

Trump’s team has seized upon the parallels between the current president and the long-dead Tennessee war hero. Trump has hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office and Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who has pushed the comparison, told reporters after Trump’s inaugural address that “I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House.”

Trump himself mused during his first days in Washington that “there hasn’t been anything like this since Andrew Jackson.”

It’s a remarkable moment of rehabilitation for a figure whose populist credentials and anti-establishment streak has been tempered by harsher elements of his legacy, chiefly his forced removal of Native Americans that caused disease and the death of thousands.

“Both were elected presidents as a national celebrity; Jackson due to prowess on battlefield and Trump from making billions in his business empire,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University. “And it’s a conscious move for Trump to embrace Jackson. In American political lore, Jackson represents the forgotten rural America while Trump won by bringing out that rural vote and the blue collar vote.”

The seventh president, known as “Old Hickory” for his toughness on the battlefield, gained fame when he led American forces to a victory in the Battle of New Orleans in the final throes of the War of 1812. He did serve a term representing Tennessee in the Senate, but he has long been imagined as a rough and tumble American folk hero, an anti-intellectual who believed in settling scores against political opponents and even killed a man in a duel for insulting the honor of Jackson’s wife.

Jackson also raged against what he deemed “a corrupt bargain” that prevented him from winning the 1824 election against Adams when the race was thrown to the House of Representatives after no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College. Even before the vote in November, Trump railed against a “rigged” election and has repeatedly asserted, without evidence, widespread voter fraud prevented his own popular vote triumph.

Jackson’s ascension came at a time when the right to vote was expanded to all white men — and not just property-owners — and he fashioned himself into a populist, bringing new groups of voters into the electoral system. Remarkably, the popular vote tripled between Jackson’s loss in 1824 and his victory four years later, and he used the nation’s growing newspaper industry — like Trump on social media — to spread his message.

Many of those new voters descended on Washington for Jackson’s 1829 inauguration and the crowd of thousands that mobbed the Capitol and the White House forced Jackson to spend his first night as president in a hotel.

Once in office, he continued his crusade as a champion for the common man by opposing the Second Bank of the United States, which he declared to be a symptom of a political system that favored the rich and ignored “the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics, and laborers — who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves.”

Jackson, as Trump hopes to do, expanded the powers of the presidency, and a new political party, the new Democratic party, coalesced around him in the 1820s. He was the first non-Virginia wealthy farmer or member of the Adams dynasty in Massachusetts to be elected president.

“The American public wanted a different kind of president. And there’s no question Donald Trump is a different kind of president,” Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this past week. “He’s now comparing himself to Andrew Jackson. I think it’s a pretty good, a pretty good comparison. That’s how big a change Jackson was from the Virginia and Massachusetts gentlemen who had been president of the United States for the first 40 years.”

But there are also limits to the comparison, historians say.

Unlike Jackson, who won in 1828 in a landslide, Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. Jon Meacham, who wrote a 2008 biography of Jackson, “American Lion,” said Jackson was “an outsider in style but not in substance” and his outlandish public pronouncements would often be followed by hours of deep conversations and letter-writing hashing out political calculations.

“He was a wild man during the day but a careful diplomat at night,” said Meacham, who said it was too early to know whether Trump, like Jackson, “had a strategy behind his theatrics,” and whether Trump had the ability to harness the wave of populism that has swept the globe as it did in the 1820s.

“The moment is Jacksoninan but do we have a Jackson in the Oval Office?” Meacham asked.

Trump’s appropriation of Jackson came after his victory. Trump never mentioned Jackson during the campaign or discussed Jackson during a series of conversations with Meacham last spring

But it is hardly unique for a president to adopt a previous one as a historical role model.

Barack Obama frequently invoked Abraham Lincoln. Dwight Eisenhower venerated George Washington. Jackson himself had been claimed by Franklin Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, both of whom — unlike Trump — interpreted Jackson’s populism as a call for expanded government, in part to help the working class.

There could be other comparisons for Trump. A favorable one would be Eisenhower, also a nonpolitician who governed like a hands-off CEO. A less favorable one would be Andrew Johnson, a tool of his party whose erratic behavior helped bring about his impeachment.

Trump’s embrace could signal an about-face for Jackson’s legacy. Historians have recently soured on the slave-owning president whose Indian Removal Act of 1830 commissioned the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States. More than 4,000 died along their journey west, a brutal march that became known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Jackson’s standing had fallen so much that in 2015, when the U.S. Treasury announced plans to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with Harriet S. Tubman, the outcry in defense of the Founding Father — in part due to the success of the Broadway musical that tells his story — was so loud that the government changed course and opted to remove Jackson from the $20 instead.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Neighbor sues Derek Jeter over ‘excessive’ fence height at massive Davis Island home

Good fences make not make good neighbors, as New York Yankees superstar Derek Jeter faces off with a neighbor over the fence height around his massive Davis Islands property.

Deborah Ann “Debbie” Zomermaand is the 59-year-old treasurer of the Davis Islands Civic Association and vice president of Zomermaand Management Services. In 2006, Zomermaand and husband Randy purchased a $1.35-million, 4,608-square-foot Davis Islands home at 192 Corsica St. Four years later, the couple bought the home next door at 190 Corsica St.

Deborah sued Randy for divorce in October 2016; the case is currently in Hillsborough County court.

Jeter is the 42-year-old former All-Star player who played his entire professional career with the Yankees. In 2009, he built a 21,796-square-foot home at 58 Bahama Cir., which spans three lots on the Davis Islands waterfront. Jeter’s 7-bedroom, 9-bath house was recently appraised by the county at $11.9-million.

Jeter lives at the home with his wife, Hannah; the couple recently announced they are expecting a baby.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Tampa Variance Review Board approved Jeter’s request Jan. 10, allowing him to increase the height of the fence around his home to 8 feet and making the fencing opaque.

The variance is to help preserve the Jeter’s privacy and security. Attorney Brad Culpepper, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player who lives next door to Jeter, has supported the request.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Richard Danielson wrote about the height variance, citing intrusiveness and an increasing security risk, with “uninvited visitors get out of their cars to take photos, shoot video, lie down on the sidewalk, damage landscaping, antagonize neighborhood dogs and even fly drones.”

Debbie Zomermaand was the only person opposing the petition.

In a 156-page petition for Writ of Certiorari filed Feb. 6 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, Debbie Zomermaand asks to overturn Jeter’s fence variance. She claims the Variance Review Board mistakenly concluded that she has no standing as an “aggrieved party” since she does not live within 250 feet of Jeter’s home.

Zomermaand also argues the Board exceeded its authority and Jeter’s situation does not actually meet the definition of “hardship.” Testimony by Jeter’s representatives, she adds, exaggerated the danger and inconvenience the Jeter family allegedly faces in the Davis Islands home.

This is not the first time Debbie Zomermaand has taken issue with what she considers an unusually tall fence. In 2013, Zomermaand sued over a property at 100 W. Davis Boulevard, claiming the Tampa City Council was wrong to allow the owner to build a 6-foot fence.

 

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In 1st House speech, Charlie Crist vows ‘Commitment to Civility’

Charlie Crist wants to see more of the Golden Rule in Congress, with a call for civil discourse on Capitol Hill.

In his first speech on the floor of the U.S. House, the St. Petersburg Democrat joined a bipartisan class of 46 freshman lawmakers who signed a “Commitment to Civility” pledge.

This pledge seeks to “restore collegiality, trust and civility to Congress, encourage productive dialogue, and work to build consensus and the public’s trust in America’s institutions.”

In the letter, the group promised to remain: “dedicated to showing proper respect to one another and all others, encouraging productive dialogue, and modeling civility in our public and private actions.”

“While we may vehemently disagree on matters of law and policy, we will strive at all times to maintain collegiality and the honor of our office,” they write.

Crist represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District.

“I am honored to represent Pinellas County in Congress, and I promise to fight for the needs of my home county. But I pledge to do so in keeping with the ‘Golden Rule,’ to do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Crist said in his speech. “I am proud that our freshman class has put forward this ‘Commitment to Civility’ pledge. It states that despite our political differences, at the end of the day we must work together to move our country forward, putting people over politics and treating each other with respect — even when we disagree.”

Other first-year members of the Florida delegation signing the Commitment include Matt Gaetz of CD 1, Neal Dunn of CD 2, John Rutherford of CD 4, Al Lawson of CD 5, , Val Demings of CD 10, Brian Mast of CD 18 and Francis Rooney of CD 19.

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Airbnb becomes target after Clearwater man slips in private short-term rental

As home sharing grows in popularity worldwide, Airbnb is also becoming an increasingly larger target for people who view the network as having deep pockets.

Such as the case in Pinellas County Civil Court, where a Clearwater man who rented a private home in Miami for two nights slipped on a bathroom rug and fell after exiting the shower.

Sophorn Ly, 39, rented the home with seven other guests through Airbnb, the San Francisco-based company leading the peer-to-peer home sharing phenomenon.

After exiting the shower, Ly claims to have tripped on a rug lacking “proper non-slip backing,” leaving him with what he calls “severe and personal permanent injuries.”

But instead of suing the host, 41-year-old Juliana Terra Leite, Ly is turning his sights on Airbnb, claiming the company was negligent

Ly claims that it was Airbnb – not the homeowner – that had a responsibility to “ascertain the property … be in a reasonably safe condition.” Interestingly, he continues by declaring Airbnb “allowed” the rug to be placed at the home at 7712 SW 94th Terrace in Miami.

If Ly is successful in the suit, filed February 2 in Pinellas County, it could result in a significant change in the operation of Airbnb – which already requires individuals hosting through the network to submit any guest injuries to their own insurance companies first. The lawsuit does not indicate if either Ly or the homeowner took this initial step.

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St. Pete City Council candidate Barclay Harless hosting young professional fundraiser Feb. 21

A trio of local young professionals are holding a fundraiser next week to support Barclay Harless in his bid for St. Petersburg City Council.

The event is Tuesday, Feb. 21 at the Brewer’s Tasting Room, 11270 4th St. N in St. Petersburg. Suggested contribution is $50.

Harless is running for the District 2 seat, which covers most of Northeast St. Petersburg and is now held by term-limited Jim Kennedy.

Hosting the event are attorney Gill Lazenby, banker Mark Stroud Jr., and wealth manager Brooks Wallington. Both Harless and Stroud serve as vice presidents at the Bank of the Ozarks in St. Petersburg.

So far, Harless will face Brandi Gabbard, a former president of the Pinellas Realtor Organization.

Information and donations to Harless’ campaign can be made through voteharless.com.

Primaries for the City of St. Petersburg mayoral race are Aug. 29; general election at-large voting is Nov. 7.

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1010 Central condo owners claim ‘defective’ construction, sue builder

Condominium owners in downtown St. Petersburg are hopping mad over alleged “defective” construction of their complex, as well as a variety of building code violations.

The 1010 Central Condominium Association, a nonprofit corporation representing owners in the complex at 1010 Central Ave., are suing the project’s owners and general contractor for what they claim was failure to “employ good design engineering and construction practices.”

Defendants in the case, filed Feb. 3 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, are Georgia-based Batson-Cook of Tampa Inc. and MPI 1010 Central LLC.

In 2004, Miles Properties of Atlanta announced plans for a five-story mixed use condominium complex, featuring 112 one- and two-bedroom apartments and retail stores on the ground floor.

To develop the project, Miles created MPI 1010 Central. In 2010, Miles declared bankruptcy.

Batson-Cook was the general contractor on 1010 Central. Residents began occupying the units in 2007, and Batson-Cook went on to develop other projects in the Tampa Bay region. 

As the owners’ representative, the Association claims many Central units have “defects and deficiencies,” first hidden from owners, who later found it would take large sums of money to fix.

While the Association is blaming both Mills Properties and Batson-Cook for alleged violations of building codes, court documents do not specify the problems at the now-decade-old building. They do say the issues were “hidden and/or concealed and were not discoverable by reasonable and customary inspection.”

Per the suit, Baston-Cook “breached implied warranties by failing in designing or constructing the buildings and the improvements, to comply with the requirements of applicable building codes, failing to design or construct in accordance with proper and approved construction plans and specifications, and failing to employ good design, engineering and construction practices.”

The Association is demanding a jury trial.

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Rick Scott salutes Jeff Atwater’s work as CFO

Gov. Rick Scott praised the work of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who announced Friday he will be joining Florida Atlantic University after the 2017 Legislative Session.

“I got to know CFO Jeff Atwater well in 2010 on the campaign trail, and like me, he has been laser-focused on keeping the cost of living low for all Floridians,” Scott said in a statement. “I am proud that the state has paid down over $7.6 billion in debt since 2011,” adding that Atwater “aggressively helped us achieve that goal.”

Scott noted Atwater’s fight “to reduce burdensome regulations that hinder job growth, protect families from financial fraud” and as well as his efforts to return $1 billion in unclaimed property to the rightful owners.

Calling Atwater “a proud Floridian, father, husband and friend,” the governor said he will “truly miss” working with him.

“The role of the CFO is incredibly important to our state,” Scott said, “and I will begin the process to appoint someone to serve Florida families.”

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