The Bay and the 'Burg Archives - SaintPetersBlog

Fire officials: Tampa, Florida, mosque fire was arson

An intentionally set fire damaged a prayer hall at a Tampa-area mosque early Friday, investigators said.

The arson occurred at the Islamic Society of New Tampa, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue said in a news release.

Fire investigators responded at around 2 a.m. After gathering evidence, they determined the fire was intentionally set. No one was at the mosque when the fire started.

“It is worrisome that our community has fallen victim of what appears to be another hate crime,” said Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida.

An alarm company notified a mosque board member early Friday, and he found first responders there when he arrived, CAIR said.

Investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives also responded, the group said. The ATF didn’t immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

CAIR said the fire started at a door to the prayer hall. There was damage to the door and carpet inside from sprinkler water and smoke.

Authorities said there were holes found in the door, but determined they were not made by bullets, as some had initially feared.

Morning prayers were moved to another building. Afternoon prayers may be cancelled due to the damage to the hall, local news media reported.

Worshippers were directed to other mosques in the area until the building is repaired.

The blaze was at least the second intentionally set fire at a Florida mosque in the past year. Joseph Schreiber was sentenced to 30 years in prison earlier this month for setting fire to the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce on Sept. 11. It was the same mosque that the Orlando nightclub shooter attended occasionally.

Mustafa Ameen, the Islamic Society of New Tampa’s lawyer and spokesman, said this is the first time a fire has been intentionally set at the mosque. He said they’re awaiting the outcome of the investigation to better understand the motive, but have been boosted by community support.

“We appreciate the entire community standing in solidarity with us,” he said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Jeff Brandes goes mobile; to hold mobile office hours Monday

State Sen. Jeff Brandes is going mobile.

The St. Petersburg Republican announced Friday he will be holding mobile office hours Monday in St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg.

In a statement, Brandes says his mobile office hours will allow constituents an extra opportunity to meet with him and discuss issues in the community.

Brandes’ mobile office hours are open to the public; no appointment is necessary.

Monday, Feb. 27
TIME: 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Regatta Room, University Student Center
University of South Florida St. Petersburg
200 6th Ave. South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Monday, Feb. 27
TIME: 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce
6990 Gulf Blvd.
St. Pete Beach, FL 33706

Brandes serves as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development.

 

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Charlie Crist filing for divorce after less than 9 years

Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is getting divorced less than nine years after becoming the first Florida governor in 42 years to get married while in office.

Crist spokesman Kevin Cate said the congressman filed papers Friday seeking to divorce his wife Carole, who he proposed to in 2008 after a 10-month romance. He was a Republican governor at the time.

Their St. Petersburg wedding was a grand event with an exclusive guest list of political elite and celebrities.

The couple stayed together through his switch from Republican to independent to Democrat and his unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate and 2014 gubernatorial campaigns.

The former Carole Rome was a New York businesswoman and socialite when the couple met. She is Crist’s second wife. He married his college sweetheart in 1980 and divorced less than a year later.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Tripadvisor: St. Pete Beach third best beach in U.S., Florida has 7 of top 10

Seven of the top 10 beaches ranked as the best in the nation by a travel-ratings website are in Florida.

TripAdvisor said Wednesday in a news release that the sand at Siesta Key outside Sarasota was the best-rated beach in the nation.

Other Gulf Coast beaches weren’t far behind.

St. Pete Beach was number 3, followed by Clearwater Beach and Panama City Beach. Hollywood’s beach in South Florida was ranked sixth, followed by Pensacola Beach and St. Augustine Beach near Jacksonville.

TripAdvisor says the rankings were based on the number and quality of the traveler reviews written on its website.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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David Jolly says the state of GOP will determine his electoral future

Though he’s out of public office, David Jolly has never been more ubiquitous in appearing on television.

The former Pinellas County congressman was scheduled to make another appearance on MSNBC Wednesday night, this time on “All In with Chris Hayes” talking about the buzzsaw that his former GOP brethren are confronting when hosting townhall meetings across the country.

Jolly is a rare Republican, speaking out critical against many of the moves of the Donald Trump administration, bumping up his status on many cable news producers rolodexes. However, that opposition could come at a price.

Because of his comments regarding the pressures of fundraising that he says the GOP establishment imposed upon him and other freshmen legislators, the National Republican Congressional Committee opted not to aid him in his uphill battle to retain his seat against Democrat Charlie Crist last year. If he were to challenge him again next year, he surely will need those funds to compete in a seat that Democrats will fight hard to maintain. Yet Jolly says he can’t think that calculatingly.

“We would have won if the NRCC had come in,” Jolly told this reporter on WMNF’s MidPoint program Thursday. “If there had been a half million or a million dollars, the reality is of modern electoral science is we would have won … we would have closed that three precent gap.”

Jolly lost by 3.8 percentage points to Crist, a closer race than many polls had predicted, based on the redistricting of the CD 13 seat that added the much more liberal parts of downtown and South St. Petersburg to the district. However, Jolly says he won’t fall in line and stay silent when he sees some of the actions that the new Republican president is doing in office.

“I’m not going to sell my soul simply for electoral office,” he said. “I’m not interested in being part of a Congress that’s broken.”

And Jolly includes some Democrats of being timid in speaking out against Trump when the occasion calls for it.

“The reality is that a lot of Democrats are afraid to speak out against Donald Trump as well. And Charlie’s one of those.”

Jolly also took note that while there’s been criticism about some Republicans (such as Marco Rubio) avoiding hosting town hall meetings this week, so has Crist.

“The Congressman is meeting with constituents and hearing their concerns at community events across the district,” responds Crist spokesperson Erin Moffet. “We are looking at options for future public events to make sure the people’s voices continue to be heard, and I’ll be sure to let you know when they are scheduled.”

Regarding a potential congressional rematch against Crist next year, Jolly says he won’t make that decision until sometime early next year.

“If this is the state of the Republican Party next year, what we’re seeing today, then there’s probably not a place for me on the ballot, but I just keep doing what I believe is right,” he says.”There will be a point at which that aligns with where the party is and the community is, and then perhaps there might be an opportunity to seek election again. It simply is not my singular focus, though.”

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St. Pete Yacht Club ready to resume historic Havana Regatta

An historic race resumes Tuesday after a 58-year hiatus.

Once again, boats are daydreaming about Havana. For most of the existence of the 107-year-old St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the Regatta was an annual event. It was suspended after the 1959 competition, however, due to the political strife in Cuba.

The race has drawn a tremendous response. All 80 available entries were filled within the first week of its announcement on August 1, 2016. Over 550 sailors will descend upon St. Petersburg this weekend to enjoy preliminary events that include a race history dinner on Sunday, safety seminars and a bon voyage party on Monday evening for the race contestants.

The race launches in Tampa Bay near downtown St. Petersburg off the downtown St. Pete waterfront at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28. The waterfront will be quite a sight, as the dozens of sailboats make preparations in the early morning, then gather in the basin for the official start. They will head toward the Skyway Bridge and out into the open seas.

Boats will sail one to two days and arrive in Havana on Thursday.

Once there, the sailors will enjoy the country’s hospitality at the Hemingway Marina through Sunday, March 5. The activities include a separate, 16 mile regatta with the locals that runs from Hemingway Marina to the Morro Castle.

“All of us at this Yacht Club are looking forward to seeing the historic race re-launch next week, and solidifying the exchange of fellowship between the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, Pinellas County and the City of St. Petersburg, along with the Cuban government and the yachting world,” said the St. Petersburg Yacht Club’s former Commodore, Richard Winning, whose father was Commodore when the race last sailed in 1959.

The St. Petersburg-Habana race was first conceived in the late 1920s by George S. “Gidge” Gandy as a promotional event sorely needed with St. Petersburg mired in a housing bust brought on by the Great Depression. Eleven boats competed in the inaugural regatta, which started on March 30, 1930 at the St. Petersburg Municipal Pier. The winner finished in 41 hours, 42 minutes.

The race, which became one of St. Petersburg’s signature events, was suspended in 1942 due to WWII, and resumed in 1946. Military and political unrest in Cuba threatened the event in the latter 1950s, and it was last run in 1959, as gun-wielding revolutionaries patrolled the streets of Havana. Recent breakthroughs in U.S.-Cuba relations prompted club officials to re-institute one of its most historically significant events.

The Mission of St. Petersburg Yacht Club is to encourage and support yachting, and provide a comfortable social environment for our members and guests, while preserving and enhancing the Club’s traditions and prestige.  The St. Petersburg Yacht Club is located at 11 Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg.

 

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Charlie Crist joins blasts Trump administration’s rollback of protection for transgender students

Charlie Crist is blasting the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity.

“This action sends a frightening message that the administration does not care about the safety of transgender children in our nation’s schools,” Crist said Thursday. “While repealing this guidance does not change the fact that Title IX protects transgender students, it subjects our public schools to more lawsuits and puts trans youth at risk. I stand with America’s trans students who, like all children, deserve a safe place to learn.”

Two GOP members of Florida’s congressional delegation have also criticized the decision.

“This is a disappointing choice for the Administration to make,” Congressional District 26 Representative Carlos Curbelo said in a statement. “We should be working toward ensuring all American children feel safe and accepted in their schools, regardless of where they live, their race, creed, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision by the Trump administration, “lamentable.”

Along with Rep. Jared Polis (D – CO), Ros-Lehtinen introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) in 2015 that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. She’s also supportive of the Safe Schools Improvement Act which would require schools to create a code of conduct against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other important factors.

Last May, the departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidance directing schools to let transgender students use facilities that correspond with their gender identity. The “Dear Colleague” letter, addressed to school districts and colleges that receive federal funding, was based on the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools, to include gender identity.

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Jessica Vaughn files to run for Hillsborough County School Board

Jessica Vaughn, a Tampa Palms resident who grew up attending Hillsborough County schools and now teaches in them,  filed to run for the District 6 seat on the Hillsborough County School Board currently held by April Griffin.

The 39-year-old Tampa native says she thought about entering the  District 7 countywide primary last summer, but realized it was too late in the process to make an impact. Her declaration for ’18 comes a full year and a half before Hillsborough voters will go the polls.

“I’m a certified teacher, and I’ve actually been subbing for the last couple of years because my son is in pre-school, so I’ve experienced what it’s like to being in the classroom as a certified teacher,” she says. “And as a substitute teacher I’ve seen all the types of special classes, and I hear a lot of conversations from the break room from frustrated teachers.”

Vaughn does have electoral experience, having won a spot on the Tampa Palms Community Development District last November, where she says she’s learned to work with others while managing a million dollar budget.

A graduate of Gaither High School in Tampa, she earned her degree in Elementary Education from USF in 2010 and began teaching in Hillsborough County schools immediately afterwards, mostly in Title 1 and Renaissance schools. After taking time off in 2013 for her pregnancy, she’s returned to teaching as a substitute.

Vaughn says that having attended a lot of school board meetings, she feels there’s a “disconnect” between the public concerns and the board’s agenda.

Regarding the board’s budget crisis, she says from afar it’s difficult to understand where that began, noting the criticisms of a lack of transparency on the part of former superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

“This is not an attack on anyone, but when there are classrooms that don’t have air conditioning, and there are school bus routes being cut and parents are being inconvenienced by having to take their kids to school, it just seems to me that an almost half a million dollar renovation on the school board offices might have been something that may be looked at again to see if that’s a priority, ” she says, also questioning the hiring of of Gibson Consulting Group, which is being paid $818,000 to help get the board’s finances under control.

“It just seems to me, that money could have been managed a little bit better,” she says.

Vaughn is politically active, having attended last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as a delegate for Bernie Sanders. Like the Vermont independent senator, she she says she wants to run a grassroots campaign and get in touch with as many people as possible.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to meet and talk witih people, and really listen to what their concerns are, not only just listen but hopefully be able to elicit some solutions as well,” she says.”I feel like a lot of people are really disconnected and they really don’t understand what a school board does and how it affects their children’s education.”

Vaughn is the third candidate to file for the District 6 seat, following William Person and Randy Toler, who have both been unsuccessful in previous bids for the board.

And then there is Griffin, perhaps the best known member of the board, now in her third term in office.

Griffin was one of the four members of the board who voted to oust Elia in 2015, a move that offended much of the Tampa/Hillsborough political and business establishment. Yet despite the warnings that the Elia affair would hurt those board members, two of the four board members who voted to oust Elia – Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes – won reelection in 2016

“I told Jessica it was my intention to run,” Griffin told SPB on Wednesday night. “She had decided to run against an incumbent.”

Vaughn acknowledges that running countywide won’t be easy.

“I have full confidence that we would run a really good campaign, but  even if we just help shape the narrative and the discussion of what should be imporrant when we’re talking about eduction and somehow shift it away from the drama that seems to follow political campaigns, and stay focused on what people want…I’ll feel successful,” she says.

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PSTA to purchase pair of electric buses

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority voted 9-5 Wednesday to buy two electric buses.

The cost of the new vehicles comes in at about $2.2 million, with each bus costing $840,000 and the charging equipment and infrastructure making up the rest of the outlay, though the contract allows the PSTA to order up to 20 more buses if funds become available.

Los Angeles-based manufacturer BYD, which bills itself as the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, won out against bids from fellow manufacturers New Flyer and Proterra.

The battery-powered, zero-emission buses measure in at 35 feet long and have a range of 160 miles on a full charge. The buses would also be the first fully electric buses in Pinellas County.

The decision to purchase the buses dates back to June, when PSTA voted to approve a pilot program if Pinellas County would chip in $589,000 for charging station infrastructure from its BP settlement funds. The county agreed to the deal in December.

The new buses are expected to be delivered in early 2018.

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Jeff Brandes bills keep Enterprise Florida, but with tight leash

State Sen. Jeff Brandes‘s new economic development proposal would continue operations of the embattled Enterprise Florida and state Department of Economic Opportunity, but on tight leashes.

Senate Bills 1110 and 1112 spell out a new way of doing business for two of Florida’s major economic development programs that have been under fire for accountability, particularly through their spending and penchants for luring out-of-state business with incentives in cases that go awry.

Brandes’s bills focus more on fostering small businesses and startups already in Florida, with tighter controls on EFI’s spending and salaries. That includes creating a grant program for new business incubators and accelerators.

The plan behind the bills calls for full funding for Gov. Rick Scott‘s budget recommendations for Enterprise Florida and protection for current incentive programs. After that, though the rules will change.

Brandes’s bills could become the counter offer to what may come out of the House of Representatives, where Speaker Richard Corcoran is targeting Enterprise Florida for elimination due to concerns over its lack of accountability. House Bill 7005, introduced Tuesday, would abolish Enterprise Florida and strip to bare-bones another state-chartered economic development corporation, VISIT Florida.

Brandes is calling for redirection for Enterprise Florida. It does not address VISIT Florida.

“The focus of economic development should be on Florida’s small businesses,” Brandes stated in a news release. “Fostering a startup culture in our state and encouraging small business development will create a better ecosystem where opportunity can thrive. This legislation provides greater oversight and safeguards over our current economic development programs. This bill recasts our focus on new businesses that breathe the entrepreneurial spirit and diversify Florida’s economy.”

Among the proposals, Brandes’s bills would:

— Require the return of $117 million currently held in escrow for the Quick Action Closing (QAC) Fund to the State Economic Enhancement and Development (SEED) to increase the rate of return on those funds.

— Sanction businesses that relocate from the state within three years of receiving final incentive payments, and prohibit the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) from making material amendments to incentive contracts.

— Restructure Enterprise Florida Inc.’s board to be broader based, including reserving seats for the president of CareerSource Florida and someone from the Small Business Development Network, and requiring it to include at least one member with expertise in rural economic development.

— Prohibit any employees at Enterprise Florida from being paid more than the governor, and restricting bonuses, while requiring Senate confirmation for the president of Enterprise Florida.

— Establish a “Startup Florida Grant Program” within DEO, providing $50 million per year for the development and operation of small business incubators and accelerators throughout the state. The grants would be limited to $5 million a year.

— Establish the Small Business Information Center (SBIC) within the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Network Lead Center of the University of West Florida. It would serve as a clearinghouse for small businesses seeking help from DEO.

— Require the DOE to provide, to the governor and the Florida Legislature, annual reports on the estimated contractual obligations of the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund.

— Require two-thirds board votes for any contracts involving any board members who might have conflicts of interest with the companies involved.

— Limiting new incentive contracts to ten years.

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