The Bay and the 'Burg Archives - SaintPetersBlog

Robocalls target Hillsborough School Board’s April Griffin — more than a year before elections

On Memorial Day, April Griffin awoke to a barrage of calls and texts from friends.

The Hillsborough County School Board member learned she was the subject of a negative robocall from a group calling itself “Citizens for Fairness and Equity.”

Griffin initially described the call on her Facebook page as comparing her to “being like President Trump, supporting charter schools, and had racial undertones because it talked about me winning (taking away) an election for the chairmanship over the only black board member.”

“This stuff does not bother me,” Griffin said Monday. “I find humor in it,” comparing it to attacks she received when she last ran for office when she was being compared to President Barack Obama.

She says she has no idea who “Citizens for Fairness and Equity” is, and isn’t spending much time thinking about it.

Griffin has served on the school board since 2006, and re-elected twice since, including in 2014, after initially announcing that she was stepping down from the board and would run for a Hillsborough County Commission seat. In a crowded field of candidates, she easily defeated her opponent to win a third term in office.

She was a leader in speaking out about former superintendent MaryEllen Elia, voting along with three other board members to fire her in January 2015. It was a move that, at the time, alienated those board members from the Hillsborough County political and business establishment.

Yet, despite intense criticism, the only two board members who voted against Elia who were up for re-election last year, Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes, won their respective elections (though Valdes margin of victory was only 67 votes).

Griffin’s description of the robocall referring to her election as chair was about her victory over former school board member Doretha Edgecomb in November 2015. As described by the Tampa Bay Times’ Marlene Sokol at the time, Edgecomb was next in line for chair, as “rotating the chair has been a tradition for decades.”

However, the board chose Griffin on a 4-3 vote.

Edgecomb no longer serves on the board, after not seeking re-election last year.

Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Chair Ione Townsend is vacationing in New York, but was contacted by party members who said that the phone number listed on those who received the robocall was the official phone number of the DEC.

“We had nothing to do with it,” Townsend said. “We just found out about it because somebody reported it to us.”

Townsend reported the alleged cloning of the number to AT&T, and she said they are investigating the matter.

Griffin, who is running for re-election next year, believes Townsend and says it’s just another sad example of how politics in recent decades has changed for the worst.

“I learned a long time ago that if I was going to make any kind of impact, that I was going to make some people very happy and some people very unhappy,” she says. “I can compartmentalize it.”


Pinellas GOP heavyweights raising money for Rick Baker on Wednesday in Clearwater Beach

Former Mayor Rick Baker continues building momentum in his quest to return for a third term as St. Petersburg Mayor.

Coming off a successful campaign kickoff event last week, Baker, who served two terms from 2001-2010, is following with another high-profile reception Wednesday in Clearwater Beach.

Co-chairs of the event – with the tagline “Proven Leadership” – include renowned attorney Brian Aungst Jr., former Pinellas GOP Chair Jay Beyrouti and restaurateur (and one-time “Mr. Clearwater”) Frank Chivas.

According to the invite, the blockbuster bipartisan host committee includes more than four dozen prominent Pinellas County state and municipal leaders such as State Sens. Jeff Brandes and Jack Latvala, state Reps. Kathleen Peters, Wengay Newton, Chris Latvala and Chris Sprowls, former state Rep. (and Senate candidate) Ed Hooper, Pinellas County Clerk Ken Burke, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty, Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters, North Redington Beach Mayor Bill Queen, Treasure Island Mayor Robert Minning, Oldsmar Vice Mayor Dan Saracki and more.

In last week’s kickoff at the Morean Arts Center, Baker pushed his vision of “A Seamless City,” and the slogan “I’m ready to serve.” Wednesday’s event – attended by much of the Pinellas County political elite – will sure to continue that theme. Baker is facing incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The reception begins 5:30 p.m. at the Island Way Grill, 20 Island Way in Clearwater. Those interested in attending can RSVP with Rick Porter at (407) 849-1112 or

Yolie Capin noncommittal about possible 2019 mayoral bid

With more than 21 months before Tampa voters will choose a successor to Mayor Bob Buckhorn, there’s no real reason for anyone seriously considering such a run to announce their intentions.

That’s why presumptive candidates 2019 mayoral Mike Suarez and Jane Castor said they don’t intend to launch their campaigns anytime soon. It’s also probably why Tampa City Council Chair Yolie Capin declined the opportunity to show her cards when asked about her plans during an appearance Friday morning at the Oxford Exchange.

“I was asked ‘tell me what you’re not running for,’ ” she told the crowd at the Cafe Con Tampa “I said I’m not running for governor.”

The longest-serving member of Council (she was selected by Councilmembers to replace John Dingfelder in July 2010 after 17 ballots), Capin will be term-limited in two years. Progressive Democrats are talking her up for a possible run in 2019, with enthusiasm that comes from her liberal stance on several issues, including advocating for stronger relations between Tampa and Cuba.

While that stance propelled some of that progressive enthusiasm, it put her at odds with Buckhorn.

During her speech, she spoke extensively about her five trips to the communist island.

One of the pet projects she’s most proud of is a cultural assets commission. A cultural assets advisory committee created by Capin has been working for the past six years on looking how to leverage the city’s assets, and now that idea is set to become a reality.

Capin met with Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan on creating a Cultural Assets Commission, fashioned after the Tampa Sports Commission; the County has now allocated $2.1 million for a public-private partnership that should be up and running by late summer.

Among those private partners with the project is developer/hockey owner Jeff Vinik.

“If the art museum gets a blockbuster exhibit and they need a little help, we’re looking for grants,” she said in explaining how the commission would work. “So a corporation comes in and says, ‘I need $100,000 to do this, and this is the benefit, and we match it with $100,000. You have a matching partner and you have a program. That is going to benefit the community. That’s what we’re hoping to see with this.”

Capin decried the recently passed bill in the Florida Legislature that will put a ballot measure up in 2018 to increase the homestead tax exemption. If passed, the measure would take a chunk out of the ad valorem revenues of every local government in Florida. Tampa could take a $6-9 million hit, she said.

Capin championed Buckhorn’s op-ed just published in the Tampa Bay Times about the measure.

There are more than 600 jobs in the city that gone unfilled since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Audience member Jen McDonald asked if the council had plans in the future for more staffing moving forward. Capin said that the City Council had created an apprenticeship program to replace staffers with the Water Department who are aging out.

“I know we can do more with less, but I just wonder how long we can go on with that lower, leaner staff in the next three to four to five years,” McDonald said later.

Regarding the vexing issue of transit in Tampa, Capin said the issue would “take some leadership,” and said that part of the problem with the 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward transit tax was that the public was too confused about it, and “no one that was looked at a real, honest straightforward leader took the reigns. … Everybody passed the buck, they brought somebody in try to try to pass it.”

If Capin is to run for higher office, however, she’ll need to make sure she’s on top on of all the issues of the day.

When asked if there were any partnerships between USF’s CAMLS medical school and the Cuban government, Capin referred to a 2006 state law that made it impossible for colleges and universities to use public or private money to travel to Cuba (or to any other country on the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism). However, that hasn’t been the case for nearly two years, after the U.S. officially restored diplomatic ties with the Cuba, ending the last travel restrictions keeping Florida professors from visiting the island.

And while discussing local transit, she said that ridership on buses has risen “quite a bit, and that’s because of the recession.”

While ridership was up for several years, those ridership numbers have come down over the past year, both locally and nationally

At campaign appearance, Rick Kriseman says the election is all about moving St. Pete forward

To a cheering crowd of supporters Friday night, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman expressed what will be undoubtedly the predominant theme of his re-election campaign this summer.

Kriseman said the election between himself and former Mayor Rick Baker is a simple choice: whether citizens want to keep moving forward or go back in time.

“It’s about us deciding as a community who we want to be,” the mayor told more than a hundred people who crammed into a house on North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and 16th Ave. that will serve as his campaign headquarters. “What kind of city do we want to be?”

“You hear me talk about our vision of being a city of opportunity, where the sun shines on all who live, work and play (here),” he continued. “That’s the kind of community we want to be, and that’s what we’re going to be deciding in this election.”

This was perhaps Kriseman’s biggest engagement with the public since he formally declared his candidacy for re-election at Three Birds Tavern four months ago.

Even back then, rumors were getting serious that the popular, twice-elected Baker was thinking of returning to city politics, after several years in the private sector working for entrepreneur Bill Edwards.

Since he stepped down from office at the beginning of 2010, Baker flirted with running for several political offices, but never ultimately pulled the trigger on any. It led to some skepticism about whether he would even come back to challenge Kriseman.

Since entering the race May 9, he’s made an impression, starting with a fiery public takedown of Kriseman at his lengthy campaign kickoff.

After that, there have been a few fundraisers, but none bigger than Tuesday night at the Morean Arts Center for Clay, where Baker premiered a new television ad and offered supporters a copy of his 2011 opus, “The Seamless City” (apparently there were plenty of copies still sitting in boxes somewhere).

In a brief five-minute address, Kriseman touched on one of the most vulnerable parts of his record — the issues with sewage spills in 2015 and 2016 and his administration’s ability to level with the public about them. In his address, he touched upon the incident, but segued to referring to the storm’s intensity and who can best contend with acknowledging the realities of climate change.

“We experienced over an 18-month time rains that we hadn’t ever seen before, and I’m not afraid to talk about climate change and sea level rising,” he said, before getting in a dig at Baker for inheriting a sewage system that wasn’t fully funded.

“For too long though we’ve invested in our system, we haven’t invested enough because if we had, we wouldn’t be dealing with those issues today. but we’re going to fix it,” Kriseman declared. “We are committed to investing $305 million over the next five years and then beyond.”

Opening up for Kriseman at the event were members of St. Petersburg’s Democratic all-star team: City Council Chair Darden Rice, County Commissioner Ken Welch and Congressman Charlie Crist, who twice Kriseman referred to as “Governor Crist” (because it’s something that people call Crist).

Segueing from sewage to his credentials as an environmentalist, Kriseman became nostalgic over a bonding moment with Crist in 2010.

The mayor reminisced about the time when he, along with two other state Democrats, called for a special session to propose a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot to prohibit drilling for oil or natural gas within state waters.

Crist was all for it, but the Legislature didn’t agree.

The themes pounded into the crowd’s head: Moving forward as a city with a leader who is inclusive.

Welch began by saying about the current environment in Tallahassee and Washington D.C.: “Two words come to mind — regression and progress.”

You can guess who represents who in Team Kriseman’s eyes.

Welch said that in all his time in office (since 2000), city-county relations have never been better; Kriseman deserved a big share of the credit for helping to establish that level of cooperation.

Rice talked up some of the policies that have been achieved under the Kriseman administration: increased minimum wage for city workers, establishing a parental leave policy, “banning the box” on job applications,

There was no mention of Baker during the event, except for one passing comment by Rice, while praising Kriseman as an inclusive mayor: “That wasn’t the message from the other guy who announced his re-election campaign a few weeks ago.”

Although one poll shows Kriseman down by double-digits to Baker, attendees are convinced Kriseman will come out on top this year.

“The city of St Petersburg has changed a lot since Mayor Baker was in office. so the DNA in our city has become much more forward thinking and much more progressive, and that bodes well for a Kriseman re-election,” said Mark Ferrulo, the executive director of Progress Florida, a liberal activist organization.

He acknowledges, though, that the race will be extremely competitive.

Some 2013 Kriseman voters who say they’ll vote for Baker this time around say they’ve been “disappointed” by the Democrat incumbent. That includes some of the same progressive base that Kriseman believes is the key to his re-election strategy.

City Councilman Charlie Gerdes doesn’t understand that sentiment against Baker, a Republican who chides Kriseman for making the race partisan.

“If they voted for Rick they should have understood that Rick was a progressive and that the vision and values were going to change,” Gerdes said, “and to the extent that people are disappointed that things haven’t happened fast enough, I get that.”

“But if you’re going to vote for a progressive and you’re disappointed, and you go to Rick Baker, that’s inexplicable to me,” Gerdes added, shaking his head.

“I just don’t get that.”

Photo courtesy of Kim DeFalco.


City Council candidate Barclay Harless talks ‘big ticket’ plans

Rick Baker‘s entrance into the mayoral race may have sucked up a lot of the public attention in St. Petersburg’s political atmosphere this spring. However, there an interesting race is emerging between two capable candidates in St. Petersburg City Council District 2.

Realtor Brandi Gabbard and banker Barclay Harless are vying to succeed a term-limited Jim Kennedy later this year.

Although Harless holds a fundraising lead, Gabbard actually raised more campaign cash in April.

At Central Avenue’s Oyster Bar Thursday night, friends of Harless hosted a downtown meet-and-greet event.

Harless says that the voters he’s been speaking to are focused on “big-ticket” items, which he characterized as the Pier, the Rays stadium issue, the soon-to-be-constructed police station, and the city budget. He also says he’s heard a lot about the need for more affordable housing, referring to a recent conversation with a St. Petersburg police officer.

“I’m obviously interested in community policing and being part of the community,” he says, “And they tell me that they’re not living in St. Pete, that a lot of them have families, and they can’t afford it. That’s an affordable homes issue.”

Councilman Karl Nurse recently called for the city to take more than $20 million slated for Penny for Pinellas projects and put them into the Downtown Tax Increment Finance district to spend money on affordable housing and mass transit.

Another issue that Harless says he hears about is infrastructure spending. In the wake of the well-publicized sewage spills in 2015 and 2016, the city announced plans to spend more than $300 million to improve the sewer system, but Harless says that it’s important for the next council and future ones to remain vigilant on the issue.

“Everybody wants to put money toward it now, but in four to five years, we’re going to have to keep following through, so twenty years from now we’re not scratching our heads wondering why folks didn’t stand up and get it done,” he says.

Nick Janovsky, Harless’ campaign manager, says he feels “phenomenal” about how the campaign is going to date, referring to in part to the endorsements received from Republican Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni and Democratic St. Pete Councilwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.

The Kennedy endorsement was another big development — and a surprising one at that.

“He normally stayed away from endorsements, but he’s seen Barclay work on the Charter Review and St. Pete Chamber of Commerce,” Janovsky says of that development.

Janovsky says that the Harless campaign has much respect for Gabbard, saying, “I think she’s a credible opponent.”

At the Oyster Bar, Kenwood resident Mark Lombardi sung Harless’ praises, calling him a “mentor and leader in the community.”

Lombardi has known Harless since they both attended USFSP; he says he immediately called Harless when he learned about the run for office this year.

“We need people who are data driven, we need people to take logic and apply it directly,” Lombardi said enthusiastically. “Barclay is taking a model of productivity, ingenuity and innovation and applying it to city government. I love that.”

The primary election takes place on August 29. As of now, Gabbard and Harless are the only two candidates in the race.

Tampa Bay region marked for $33M in Florida TaxWatch ‘turkeys’

Florida TaxWatch, the nonpartisan government watchdog organization, served up its annual list of “Budget Turkeys,” naming almost $178 million in line-item projects part of the $82.4 billion budget passed May 8 by the Florida House and Senate.

For the Tampa Bay region, Florida TaxWatch targeted more than $33 million in local projects as individual line items added to the spending plans—usually last minute or in committee — without a thoughtful and thorough budget process.

The largest project in the region was Pasco County’s Interstate 75 and Overpass Road Interchange, priced at $15 million.

Hillsborough County had the lowest number of turkeys with three projects totaling $1,825,000; Pasco is the highest at $16,960,000 spread out over five projects.

For the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1, TaxWatch listed 111 budgetary turkeys, suggesting around $177.8 million in savings. In total, the final budget contains more than 700 member projects, worth more than $600 million.

A “Turkey” label does not pass judgment on the project’s overall worthiness, does comment on the process. The purpose of the label is to make sure all projects using public funds are properly vetted.

“The result was that only a handful of projects made into the budget during conference. While falling short of the goal of no conference additions, this is still a very positive improvement, as projects being added in conference have become an epidemic,” the report says.

Even so, “with a few exceptions, committee hearings on member projects were pro forma, with very little discussion or debate,” the report continues.

Among the TaxWatch 111 ‘turkeys’ worth $117.8 million: An engineering building for Florida International University worth $10 million. A $500,000 rodeo facility in Arcadia. Local transportation projects valued at $81.5 million.

Individual Tampa Bay-area projects on the list include:

Pasco ($16,960,000)

– Pasco County Fair Association: $860,000

– Interstate 75 & Overpass Road Interchange: $15,000,000

– Parkland Roadway Stabilization: $250,000

– PD&E Study of Clinton Avenue Intersection Realignment at U.S. 98 and U.S. 301: $500,000

– U.S. 301/ReImagine Gall Boulevard, Zephyrhills: $350,000

Pinellas ($4,300,000)

– Great Explorations Children’s Museum: $400,000

– Education and Access to Performing Arts Program: $500,000

– Pinellas Suncoast Transit Auth – Memorial Causeway Busway Project: $1,000,000

– State Road 687 (3rd & 4th Streets) and 8th/MLK Streets downtown St. Petersburg-Preliminary Engineering Study to Convert One Way to Two-Way Street: $200,000

– Forward Pinellas Waterborne Transportation: $1,000,000

– Treasure Island Causeway Multimodal Improvements: $1,200,000

Hillsborough ($1,825,000)

– Big Brothers Big Sisters – Bigs Inspiring Student Success: $500,000

– Self Reliance Inc. – West FL Health & Safety for Seniors Pilot Project: $575,000

– Plant City Collins Street Improvements: $750,000

Polk ($10,000,000)

– Polk SC – Renovate Campus Chiller Plant System Phase I: $2,500,000

– Bartow Northern Connector, Phase II: $7,500,000

The group is calling for Scott to veto the items when he signs the budget, expected within the next week.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests making the new project vetting process permanent. It also suggests extra scrutiny for categories given to abuse, including economic development, housing and community development, workforce, and water projects.


In letter, Gus Bilirakis demands justice for American attacked by Turkish security detail

Like most Americans, Gus Bilirakis was repulsed after seeing footage last week of bodyguards for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan beating up peaceful protesters in Washington D.C.

State Department officials expressed “concern to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms” and summoned the Turkish Ambassador for a visit.

That was pretty much it.

Now, Bilirakis is joining 39 other members of Congress in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanding that those Turkish officials based in the U.S. or Turkey involved in the attacks be expelled immediately. The latter also calls for them to be barred from entering the U.S. in the future.

“I was outraged to see remorseless acts of violence carried out by the Erdogan government against individuals exercising their First Amendment rights on American soil. This is unacceptable in any situation, but even more so when Turkish leaders visit our nation and claim to be faithful allies. We must uphold the law and demand accountability from all who are responsible,” said Bilirakis, who serves as Co-Chair of the Congressional Hellenic Caucus and the Congressional Hellenic-Israel Alliance.

Overall, 11 people were injured in the melee, including a police officer and two Secret Service agents.

Washington police said they arrested two people who in the D.C. Area. However, Erdogan’s security forces enjoy diplomatic immunity, which means none can be held accountable for their actions.

The House of Representatives passed a resolution Thursday condemning the violence that took place at the Turkish Ambassador’s residence on May 16. It was backed by Speaker Paul Ryan, who said: “[T]he violent crackdown on peaceful protesters by Turkish security forces was completely indefensible, and the Erdogan government’s response was wholly inadequate.”

Charlie Crist cheers Army Corps’ $30M for Pinellas beach restoration

Pinellas Democratic Representative Charlie Crist proudly announced Thursday that the Army Corps of Engineers will fully fund the Pinellas County Shore Protection Project, to restore and protect Pinellas County’s beaches.

The announcement comes after Crist worked with Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long for the past few months to secure the Corps’ approval.

“Pinellas County is a peninsula on a peninsula, surrounded almost entirely by coastline. With rising sea levels, increasing storm surges, and erosion caused by hurricanes like Hermine, the importance of nourishment projects is urgent to protect our economy, infrastructure, and coastal properties,” Crist said in a statement. “I thank Commissioner Long and the entire Commission for their commitment to our beaches, and the Army Corps for listening to our concerns. I look forward to continuing our work together, to push forward with this major project benefiting Pinellas.”

“The Army Corps of Engineers allocation of $30 million to complete the Pinellas County Beaches projects, including Sand Key, Treasure Island, and Upham Beach, is great news for our entire region,” said Long. “Thank you to Congressman Crist for his work on this issue as well as the Army Corps of Engineers for recognizing the importance of these projects to our local economy.”

According to Crist’s office, the Corps’ work plan also includes the full federal cost share of $9 million for the Port Tampa Bay Big Bend Channel navigation project, as well as a “New Start” designation for this deepening and widening project.


Popularity is part of the problem for Straz Center, with a serious lack of parking

As the Straz Performing Arts Center celebrates its 30-year anniversary, it has never been more popular.

That’s part of the problem.

With three new museums, a busier-than-ever Curtis Hixon Park, and area construction continuing, the Straz — in the heart of downtown Tampa — is suffering from a serious lack of parking, a problem that’s only getting worse.

It’s become so bad, longtime patrons are telling the Straz they will no longer attend events there.

“We are truly and deeply concerned that we, along with our city, we’ll suffer significant economic reputational harm if this trend continues,” Straz Center President Judith Lisi told the Tampa City Council Thursday.

It’s not hard to figure out why the area is being so stressed. The Poe Garage — sitting across the street from the Straz — was able to handle the 30,000 people who attended events at the facility when it was built in 1987.

Now more than 600,000 people visit the Straz annually, while the Poe remains the only nearby parking garage.

Perhaps the worst night for parking was Valentine’s Day 2017, when a 20-minute delay for a performance of “Wicked” still wasn’t long enough for 547 ticket buyers to make it by showtime.

Recently, the Straz convened a task force of board members, community advisers, venue leaders and an engineer to work with Tampa officials (including the Tampa Police Department) to come up with solutions.

The long term solution, task force chairman Doug Dieck said, is ultimately more parking spaces and a new parking garage somewhere in the vicinity of the Straz.

Straz officials said that on a short-term basis, “optimizing” the Poe and the nearby Royal Street Regional parking lot “functionality” was a top priority, as well enhancing ways to provide signage for cars and those walking to the center.

Although there are no plans to build a parking garage anytime soon, Councilman Charlie Miranda said that garages always ended up paying for themselves.

Other council members discussed the notion of having Straz customers have greater accessibility to the Downtowner, the free on-demand ride service available exclusively in downtown Tampa.

Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen mentioned the possibility of Straz patrons parking in the Channelside area and taking a water taxi over to the Straz.

Cohen said he recently attended a performance of the Florida Orchestra at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, where he said he saw a significant number of Tampa residents who preferred traveling across the Howard Frankland Bridge to dealing with traffic at the Straz.

Bob McDonaugh, the city’s administrator for economic opportunity, said a lot of potential remedies were “on the immediate horizon” to relieve the parking issues at the Straz, but admitted that “doesn’t cure things today.”

The Council will pick up the conversation on solutions at their June 22 meeting, where heads of the city’s parking, transportation, stormwater and economic development agencies will be asked to discuss possible short-term remedies.

Clearwater cop fired for using excessive force on teenager

A Florida police officer was fired after an internal review found he used excessive force on a 13-year-old boy who had been involved in a fight at a youth shelter.

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter told reporters that 33-year-old Michael Leonardo made mistakes that “cannot be overlooked” when he responded to the call on April 2.

Surveillance video shows Leonardo grab the teen across the chest and slam him face-first onto a sidewalk outside the shelter. The boy chipped a tooth and had scratches on his face.

Leonardo told investigators he thought the boy was trying to escape. The boy said he tripped on his shoe, which could have come across as resisting the officer.

Two backup officers were given training and counseling for conduct after the takedown.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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