The Bay and the 'Burg Archives - SaintPetersBlog

Clearwater teacher arrested on 10 counts child pornography

A sixth-grade math and science teacher at a Clearwater school was arrested Tuesday on 10 counts of possession of child pornography, according to police.

Largo police arrested Robert James Plotkin, 57, after his roommate filed a complaint with law enforcement March 15.

For the last five years, Plotkin taught at Clearwater Intermediate School.

Plotkin’s roommate found the material on his personal computer, said Lt. Joe Coyle, public information officer with the Largo Police Department.

“After an argument over a vehicle, the roommate called the Largo Police Department to report the child pornography and advised Plotkin of this,” Coyle said in a statement. “While Largo police were in route to this call, Plotkin threw his laptop into a lake behind the apartment complex. Once on scene, Plotkin advised the Largo officers to the fact that the computer was in the lake. Plotkin retrieved the laptop for the officers on his own accord.”

Officers took the computer, but Plotkin was not arrested at the time.

Detectives with the Cyber Crime Unit later retrieved data from the device. An investigator discovered specific images from the hard drive, confirming their nature and ages of the children, which were three to 17.

Detectives then interviewed Plotkin Tuesday at Clearwater Intermediate School, bringing him to the Largo police station, where he was arrested.

He was also charged with one count of tampering with evidence.

Coyle said the investigation is ongoing.

St. Petersburg officials to take another look at noise ordinance

St. Petersburg’s Planning and Economic Development Department set another date in its re-evaluation of a 2016 amendment to a city noise ordinance.

It will be the second public meeting on the noise ordinance and will be 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, at Sunshine Center in St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce advocacy manager Travis Norton said Tuesday.

In 2016, the city officials amended the noise ordinance to accommodate residents and businesses. It requires bars and restaurants with outdoor speakers to point them toward customers, not away from the establishment.

The meeting Wednesday is designed to gain more input from the community on potential changes to how the city measures noise decibels and review a framework for its amendment.

“Right now, if someone makes a complaint, they have to go out and actually measure the decibels,” Norton said by phone.

Part of the problem is the ordinance calls for “audible” levels, not decibels. The meeting will partially be used to iron out those issues and bring a common-sense approach to the matter.


Police and firefighter organizations give nod to Darden Rice

Two key first responders’ groups are giving support to St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice in her bid for re-election to the city body, according to a press release Tuesday.

The Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association and the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters issued a joint statement praising Rice’s commitment to the city.

“I’m deeply honored to have the support of our police officers and firefighters,” Rice, who represents St. Petersburg’s 4th District, said in the statement. “The work these public servants do every day to keep our city safe is extraordinary and deeply appreciated. I look forward to continuing the progress we’ve made.”

She was elected to office in November 2013, representing 10 precincts.

Rice announced her bid for re-election in February, raising more than $23,000 in the following two weeks, Tuesday’s statement said.

“Darden is a strong leader we can count on,” Richard Pauley, president of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, also said in the press release. “We know she will continue to honorably serve the citizens of St. Petersburg and the interests of the men and women in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services.”

Rice defeated neurosurgeon and Tea Party activist David McKalip in 2013.

She is a strong favorite to be re-elected, no candidates opposing her yet for the August primary.

“We are proud to endorse Darden,” George Lofton, president of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, said in the statement. “She’s a trusted ally of our officers and a vocal supporter of safer streets and stronger neighborhoods on council. Darden understands the crucial role our police officers play in making our city safer and we look forward to continuing to work with her.”

In January, Rice, 46, announced she has begun treatment for breast cancer.

‘Policy wonk’ John Johnson plans listening tour for St. Pete City Council bid

John Johnson, a research administrator at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is the latest candidate to file in the crowded St. Petersburg City Council District 6 contest.

The 46-year-old native Ohio resident calls himself a policy wonk, not a politician. 

“My background is education, so I’m a strong believer in education, and what it can do at all levels,” he said in an interview on Monday. “If we can improve primary education, if we can partner with some of the colleges and universities that are here, which we do some now, if we can do more of that, more mentoring, more stuff like that, I think that’s really the way to change people’s lives.”

Johnson has worked his entire professional career in higher education, having served in the New York University system for more than 22 years. A regular visitor to St. Petersburg for over a decade, he and his husband decided five years ago to leave Brooklyn and come to the ‘Berg, even though he didn’t have a firm job offer in hand (they had been regularly visiting the area to take care of an ill parent). He found work relatively quickly at Eckerd College and then moved to USFSP when his current position became available.

Johnson’s Master’s Degree is in public policy, and says he’s always had an interest in politics but “as a gay man, I never really thought that I would be able to get into it, but times have changed.”

In fact, the current Council has three members from the LGBT community: Chair Darden Rice, Steve Kornell and Amy Foster.

In a statement, Johnson says he was angry after last year’s president election but was revitalized after attending the women’s march in St. Petersburg on January 21. “Up to that point I was feeling angry and powerless given what was going on in the country and in my life,” he says. “Seeing the diverse group of people coming together in a positive progressive manner really inspired me to think about what I can do to make a change.”

Johnson calls himself a “political novice,” never having run for office before. He says he’s just reaching out to people who work in politics to get a sense of what he’s in for.

On the issues, Johnson says he doesn’t believe there’s enough historical preservation happening in the city, joking that he doesn’t want to end up looking like Fort Lauderdale.

He’s heard some people question the need for a Pier given how much Beach Drive is thriving downtown. “I would like to see a new Pier there, and I am progressive in almost all of my policies, but there’s a bit of fiscal restraint in me where I want to understand how we’re doing this,” he says of the project’s escalating price tag.

Regarding the Tampa Bay Rays quest for a new ballpark, which could very well end up back in St. Petersburg, Johnson says he “has a problem with dumping a lot of city taxes to owners,” but is optimistic that any deal will be a positive one for city taxpayers.

Johnson is the fifth candidate to enter the race. Other announced candidates include Corey Givens Jr., Sharon Russ, Maria Scruggs and Akile Cainion.

Johnson lives in the Old Northeast, the most northern part of District 6. He says that his plan is to go to other areas of the district on a “listening tour” of sorts, to understand the needs of other communities in the district.

“If f I want to represent I need to represent the entire district, and that’s gong to take a lot of listening, and not coming in with some set ideas, about A, B, and C,” he says.

District 6 is considered one of the most diverse areas in St. Petersburg, running from the Old Northeast through downtown west to Midtown, then south to Bahama Shores. Karl Nurse has held the seat for the past nine years, after initially appointed by the City Council in 2008 and then winning an election on his own in 2009, becoming the first white man to win the district in 30 years. He easily won re-election in 2013.

February trial date set for John Jonchuck, accused of throwing daughter off St. Pete bridge

A Pinellas County court set a trial date for John Jonchuck, arrested in 2015 for throwing his 5-year-old daughter off a St. Petersburg bridge.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Monday that the trial will begin early February.

In a pretrial hearing Monday, Jonchuck’s three public defenders listened as Pinellas County Circuit Judge Chris Helinger announced the proceedings would begin Feb. 5, 2018, roughly three years after Jonchuck inexplicably threw Phoebe Jonchuck off the Dick Misener Bridge, according to the Times.

The case had been anticipated to begin in fall, and the attorneys from the state attorney’s office requested such, but the judge took into account treatment regimen at a state mental health hospital located in Gainesville, where he is given medicinal injections for bipolar disorder every 28 days, agencies reported.

Jonchuck was not present at Monday’s hearing, said a public information officer working for the courts. He is charged with first-degree murder.

Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele said her team needed more time for pretrial preparations, like depositions, the Times reported, and to speak with their client, with whom they have not had any contact in roughly two years.

The defendant was found competent to stand trial in early March.

The narrative has been that on the night of Jan. 8, 2015, Jonchuck’s white PT Cruiser was spotted speeding in traffic by an off-duty St. Petersburg police officer. Jonchuck raced to the bridge, stopping his car in traffic at a point on the bridge, taking his daughter from the car.

He reportedly held her tightly, the officer — who tried to rush and assist the girl, Phoebe — before Jonchuck held her over the railing and let go.

The crime shook area residents, prompting the Department of Children and Families to review their emergency call procedures.

Survey finds Pinellas County residents trust their local government

Pinellas County residents are far more likely to have trust and confidence in their local government than the average American according to a new poll put out by the county.

The 2017 Citizen Values Survey asked residents whether they trust their local government and a combined 93 percent said they trusted Pinellas County either a
“great deal” or “fair amount,” compared to just 7 percent who said “not very much” or “not at all.”

The numbers rack up favorably to a national poll from Gallup that found 71 percent of Americans had positive feelings about local government, compared to 29 percent who were distrustful.

The poll also asked residents they would recommend Pinellas County “as a place to live, work, raise children and retire,” and more than nine out of 10 respondents in each category said they would recommend Pinellas County to others.

Ninety-six percent of respondents said they would recommend the county as a place to live, followed by 95 percent who would recommend it as a retirement destination, and 92 percent a piece for working and raising a family.

Quality of life also earned high marks in the poll, with 71 percent saying the county is better now than it was 5 years ago and 85 percent saying they think things will continue to improve over the next 5 years.

Additionally, 88 percent of respondents said the Pinellas County government met their expectations, which represents a 3-point bump from 2016 and a 5-point bump from 2 years ago.

“We are delivering services that increasingly meet our customers’ expectations,” the county said in a release on the poll results. “This is a reflection of our commitment to providing superior public service and courteous public contact, as well as maximizing public engagement.”

Parks, public spaces, sense of community and cleanliness of public spaces were the top contributors to the increase, while the county found it could further improve by focusing on traffic flow, pedestrian travel and support services for the homeless.

Charlie Crist to host health care telephone town hall meeting Tuesday

Charlie Crist wants to hear from constituents about ways to improve health care in America

The St. Petersburg Democrat is hosting a telephone town hall meeting on the subject Tuesday night.

On Friday afternoon, Crist cheered the news that House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the vote on the American Health Care Act because there wasn’t enough support among Republicans.

Crist called the decision a “win for the American people.”

“It was a bad bill, plain and simple,” Crist said in a statement Friday. “It would have harmed our seniors, and particularly those who often don’t have a voice in the debate – ‘the least among us’ if you will, the poor and the disabled.”

Crist, a former Republican, has been consistent in his rhetoric since going to Washington in January that, when possible, he is willing to work with the Trump administration to improve the lives of Americans. “We have the opportunity now to drop the rhetoric, roll up our sleeves, and work together to fix what needs fixing to bring down costs, expand access, and protect the most vulnerable in our society,” he says.

At this point, nobody is sure if Republicans will attempt to take another crack at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, which remains the law of the land. Crist is a supporter of the ACA, but says it needs improvements.

Speaking in the Oval Office Friday, Donald Trump blamed Democrats for unanimously opposing the bill, saying Obamacare would soon “explode.”

“Now the Democrats own Obamacare 100 percent,” he said. They own it. It’s exploding now, and it’s going to be a very bad year. There are going to be explosive premium increases.”

If you want to participate in Crist’s telephone town hall, you need to register by 5 p.m. on Monday, which you can do so by going here.

Crist held a four-hour town hall meeting in St. Petersburg earlier this month.

Joe Henderson: Proposed new transportation agency a good start toward solving an old problem

Short of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, the surest way to get a headache is to wade deep into Tampa Bay area transportation problems. You encounter a mishmash of competing agencies and agendas that has resulted in legislative and automotive gridlock for frustrated commuters for years.

Given that, I’m encouraged by what is coming out of Tallahassee. A pair of Republican legislators — state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and state Rep. Dan Raulerson of Plant City — have introduced bills that would create a five-county regional transit agency.

Hernando County is a late addition to a group including Manatee, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas.

But wait, you say. Didn’t the Legislature already try something like that?


A decade ago, Tallahassee gave us the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority — known in wonk terms as TBARTA. Its scope was as large as its acronym, an attempt to bring seven counties together under a single transportation tent.

Nice sentiment, but poor execution. Trying to meet the needs of seven counties proved unwieldy.

“What Jack and I are trying to do is tweak this thing,” Raulerson said. “We want to get everybody moving in the same direction so we can put together a plan and get federal money for this. We have been woefully short there.”

The revamped board would have 13 members — seven elected officials, and six from the private sector. The elected officials likely will include the mayors from Tampa and St. Petersburg along with a commissioner from each county affected.

“That part is a work in progress right now,” Raulerson said. “But it is important to have more elected officials on the board because that provides for transparency and accountability.”

Both bills have sailed through their respective committees and appear to be gaining local acceptance. Tampa Bay Partnership President Rick Homans gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the plan, telling Mitch Perry of, “ … we realized that in order to get this started, we needed to have the right kind of planning and the right operational structure in place that will give us a greater chance of success.”

During committee hearings on the proposed bills, some lawmakers were skeptical that a new regional transportation agency would just be more of the same. Given the history on this issue, I certainly understand that point of view.

But I do like that this new authority would be smaller and focused on the counties of greatest need. Having Latvala and Raulerson behind this doesn’t hurt, either. Not only are they capable of guiding this from proposal to reality, they also represent both sides of Tampa Bay.

How soon can this happen?

“Once this becomes law, we probably need to have a good plan in place to take to the feds within 12 months,” Raulerson said. “The good news on that is that there already are a lot of plans out there, so we wouldn’t be starting from scratch. We just need to get moving.”

Tampa Bay Partnership on board with Jack Latvala-Dan Raulerson bill creating regional transit agency

Legislation that would create a regional transit agency connecting four Tampa Bay-area counties breezed through committees in both the House and Senate last week.

The proposed agency would be created in advance of a much anticipated Florida Dept. of Transportation transit study scheduled to be completed next year.

“It’s a real project. It’s not just talk. And so we realized that in order to get this started, we needed to have the right kind of planning and the right operational structure in place that will give us a greater chance of success,” says Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the local economic development group. The creation of the agency was the number one “ask” of the Partnership going into the legislative session.

Although some observers have said the bill seems like a rehashed version of TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority that was created a decade ago but without any funding to fulfill its goals, the newly proposed agency’s scope has been reduced from seven Bay area counties to four, and was originally just three – Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.

Manatee County was added after Senator Bill Galvano advocated for its inclusion, Homans said.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson did hear some concerns from lawmakers when he introduced the bill in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee last week, mostly about the composition of the 13-member board. As of now, there would be seven members selected from the private sector and six lawmakers.

“The most important thing is we try to create a governance structure that encourages participation by people who think regionally,” says Homans, adding that he’s not so concerned with the exact balance, as “long as they support the mission.”

There has been increasing talk over the last year or so of creating a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Homans says that there will be a meeting on May 12 in St. Petersburg with MPO officials, elected officials and business leaders to kickoff discussions about a potential regional MPO.

The Tampa Bay Times reported on Friday about the relative lack of requests for transportation projects by Tampa Bay area lawmakers this session.

“First, you have to have a plan,” Homans says about why that’s the case. “We don’t have a plan. Then you need an organization to implement it and build it, and then you need an organization to operate it, and we don’t have those things in place. We’re moving towards putting those structures into place to make the ‘big ask.'”

The bill is being pushed in the Senate by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who has a keen interest in seeing the local transit agencies work closer together.

“We’ve got a lot of folks in my party that just bury their head in the sand when it comes to transportation,” the venerable lawmaker said last summer when talking about the handling of the critical Tampa Bay area issue.

Politicos celebrate at Tampa Pride

Ybor City was the site of Tampa’s Pride celebration Saturday, the biggest event since organizers revived it in 2015.

“When Carrie (West) said we want to bring the Pride Parade to Tampa, I said let’s roll!” yelled an exuberant Bob Buckhorn in kicking off the festivities.

West and longtime partner Mark Bias are founding members of Tampa Pride and helped create the GaYBOR District Coalition in the aughts. He was inspired to bring the event back to Tampa after the Hillsborough County Commission repealed their infamous ban on gay pride events back in June of 2013.

Over the past decade, the St. Petersburg LGBT Pride parade has become one of the biggest celebrations in the entire Southeast, generating crowds of over 150,000. While Tampa’s event is nowhere near that scale, this year’s event featured 80 percent more booths than in 2016, with additional stages added as well.

The day featured a tribute to the survivors first responders and bar staff from last year’s shooting tragedy at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, which killed 49 people, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11.

“Pulse was our home. It was our safe place, but in mere moments, the place that we knew as our sanctuary had been taken from us,” Neema Bahrami, the entertainment manager of Pulse, told the crowd. “It was easy to feel defeated, empty, exhausted and hopeless, but through our tragedy comes strength, a strength as a community to come together in time of crisis, a strength to be resilient in the face of adversity, a strength to love one another in spite of our differences.”

A few local politicians were in attendance.

While Senator Bill Nelson was not there, Digna Alvarez, his Tampa aide, read a statement from her boss. “Although I’m unable to attend, I thank you for your leadership and support in the aftermath of last year’s Pulse shooting tragedy,” Alvarez read. “I hope that the festivities serve not only as a celebration of past triumph but also as an inspiration for future ones.”

Luis Viera, the newest member of the Tampa City Council, said he looks at the issue of LGBT rights as a father.

“I’ve got a ten-year-old son, and you know what? If I ever had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, I wouldn’t want anybody to tell that they’re a second-class citizen, because of how God made them as. That’s how I see this issue,” he said.

Councilman Guido Maniscalco was also there; he had recently introduced an ordinance banning conversion therapy in Tampa. That’s the controversial practice used to try to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

As voted on by the Council earlier this month, state-licensed therapists and counselors would be fined $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for repeat offenses.

“In 2012, the previous Council moved forward to make a domestic partner registry, and this just builds along the lines of that community support, the support for human rights,” said Maniscalco. He told the crowd he decided to bring the issue to the forefront after speaking with his friends in the gay community about how similar ordinances has been passed in Miami Beach and West Palm Beach.

“Tampa has been so forward thinking and progressive, we should do it here. Hopefully, we can continue inspiring other cities or if they take it to the state level, then great,” he says. “I just want to maintain that reputation where people are welcome, we want you here. Tampa is stronger together.”

A second hearing on the ban on conversion therapy is set for the council’s April 6 meeting.

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