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Pinellas County moves to ban fracking

Pinellas County Commissioners are poised not only to prohibit fracking in the county but also to penalize drilling companies that violate the ban.

If commissioners give the proposal tentative approval at Tuesday’s meeting, the ban would likely come before them at a June 7 public hearing.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said the issue of fracking — a method of drilling into the ground to get oil and gas from the rocky substrate — has been talked about by commissioners for the past couple of years. The concerns included the possible pollution by toxic chemicals used in the process should they get into the groundwater or the air.

Originally, Long said, the thought that fracking needed to be banned seemed “laughable” because “we’re not going to have fracking in Florida.”

That proved to be wrong as drilling companies moved into the state and in the recently ended Legislative session, a bill was introduced that not only would have allowed fracking but also would have prevented cities and counties from banning it.

“It didn’t turn out to be so laughable,” Long said. The commission wants to “try to ensure the welfare of our beautiful little paradise here.”

Fellow Commissioner Ken Welch agreed that fracking has no place in Pinellas: “It’s absolutely wrong that we would have fracking in Pinellas County.”

Under the proposed anti-fracking ordinance, the practice would be banned in Pinellas although cities could opt out of the prohibition if they wanted. Violators would be liable for, among other things, a fine of up to $10,000 for each offense. Each day fracking occurred would be considered an independent offense.

The county would also have the option to force an offender to reimburse Pinellas for the cost of remediation and removal of the contaminated soil or water.

If the ordinance passes, the county will become the second Pinellas government to take a stand against fracking. The St. Petersburg City Council has proposed banning the practice within the city limits.

Long agreed that the Pinellas proposal is not unique to the state. Other counties have already passed resolutions or ordinances banning the practice. Among those are Brevard, Broward, Seminole, Volusia and Wakulla counties.

The news that Pinellas County is moving to ban fracking comes on the eve of “Hands Across the Sand,” a worldwide event designed to draw attention to the need for clean energy and a way to say no to “filthy fuels.”

Three of the 83 global events planned are in Pinellas County. One is in Tarpon Springs, another in Indian Rocks Beach and a third on Treasure Island.

Local, state and federal officials, business owners and activists from across Pinellas have indicated they plan to attend the Treasure Island event, which includes a living art display. Internationally renowned aerial artist John Quigley will design and help create a human sun with up to 300 people on the beach behind the Bilmar Beach Resort, 10650 Gulf Blvd. The sun, with “100 percent” inside, symbolizes the need for transitioning away from dirty fossil fuels like coal and gas and toward 100 percent clean energy like solar power. Creation of the human art is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m.

Welch said he planned to be at the Treasure Island event. He was at the first Hands Across the Sand about six years ago and says the issues are just as important now as they were then.

“There’s some short memories in Congress, and perhaps our Legislature, who forget the impact of even an oil spill” in the Gulf and the Tampa Bay area, he said. Yet, the issues of near drilling, fracking and other environmentally dangerous practices keep cropping up.

“It’s still a vitally important issue,” Welch said. “We don’t want people to forget.”

Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson awarded Governor’s Sterling Award

In 2013, the Pinellas County Tax Collector’s office was awarded Florida’s top honor, the Governor’s Sterling Award, for operational and service excellence. The office is now the proud recipient of the 2016 Governor’s Sterling Sustained Excellence Award for its commitment to continuous improvement.

“I am so proud of the team members in my office for not just accepting the sterling journey, but adopting and living it. Best-in-class operational efficiency and continuous improvement is the new norm in our office,” said Diane Nelson, Pinellas County Tax Collector. “I am most proud of our outreach into the Pinellas community through public/private partnerships like the Kids Tag Art Pinellas program. Becoming a sterling organization has elevated our business from status quo to being a true community partner for the residents of Pinellas County.”

The Pinellas County Tax Collector has maintained focus on its vision of World-Class Service, Anytime, Any Place by leveraging its core competencies of workforce training and development, customer service excellence, compliance and transaction accuracy, and continual process improvement. This is evidenced by results in customer satisfaction for walk-in customers that has shown sustained high performance moving from 98% in 2012 to 99% in 2015. The Pinellas County Tax Collector’s Office continually pursues organizational excellence through its mission of empowering its workforce to excel; serving its customers respectfully, accurately, and professionally; and providing exceptional stewardship of public funds.

The Pinellas County Tax Collector’s office acts as an agent for multiple state departments to provide a wide range of services for 930,000 residents. The office is also responsible for collecting and distributing over $2 billion annually in taxes and fees for state and local agencies.

Former Pinellas commissioner waits to see if his “unhiring” lawsuit against county can continue

Before Norm Roche was elected to the Pinellas commission in 2010, he had spent a decade as a county employee. So when he lost his bid for re-election to former state Rep. Ed Hooper in the Republican primary, he figured he could go back to work for the county.

He figured wrong.

Roche said he was turned down for 26 county positions. On his 27th attempt, he was successful.

He was hired April 28, 2015, as a customer service specialist. He passed all the background and other checks county employees undergo. He was fingerprinted, photographed, given the same employee number he’d had before, and received an employment packet containing a “welcome aboard” letter. He was told he’d start work on May 18, 2015.

But he never started. Roche said an assistant county administrator, Paul Sacco, called him on May 8, 2015, and told him not to report to work because he could not be hired. Roche said he tried to find out why but was denied an explanation and public records.

So, in December, he sued the county, County Administrator Mark Woodard, Sacco, and unidentified county commissioners who may have been involved in the “un-hiring” decision. The county has not responded to the suit, but asked instead that Roche’s claims be denied. Woodard could not be reached for comment.

The case went to court earlier this week. Now Roche is waiting to see if the judge kicks out his case or allows it to proceed.

Roche, who was an often controversial commissioner for his views and statements, says that county hiring should be based on merit, not on political views or other political criteria. Among other things, Roche is asking the courts to decide if the county and other defendants was not only to “unhire” him but to “black ball” him from county employment and to make sure he’d never work for the county again despite his experience and qualifications. Roche is also asking for an unspecified amount of damages for what he calls the wrongful actions of the county and Pinellas officials.

Roche’s third claim involves public records. Roche alleges he paid the county $576.20 for records that pertained to his retraction of employment. The documents he received did not include “any reasoning or explanation for the ‘unhire’ action,” according to the suit.

Lack of competition hasn’t slowed down fundraising for some Pinellas County candidates

There aren’t too many candidates running for each of the Pinellas County constitutional officer posts up for election in 2016, but that doesn’t mean the donation money isn’t flowing.

According to the Supervisor of Elections’ most recent finance reports, in the Pinellas Property Appraiser race, Mike Twitty, a political newcomer and 25-year professional real estate appraiser, is handily out-fundraising his lone opponent, fellow Republican and former state Rep. Jim Frishe, $120,820 to $44,065.

Current Pinellas Property Appraiser Pam Dubov is stepping down at the end of her current term. She endorsed Twitty as her successor back in 2015.

Meanwhile, Pinellas’ Sherif, Bob Gualtieri, has raised an impressive $118,505 since filing to run for re-election back in November of last year.

In April alone, Gualtieri brought in $31,950 on 50 donations. It was his best month since January, a month in which the Sheriff raised $62,785 on 189 donations.

Gualtieri’s complete campaign expenditure total only amounts to about $8,000, the majority of which has gone towards paying for food and drinks for fundraisers, as well as printing and postage fees.

His only competition so far is fellow Republican Joshua Black, a St. Petersburg activist who just jumped into the race for Sheriff last month. So far, he’s only raised $20 for his campaign.

Over in the one-man Clerk of the Circuit Court race, Republican — and long-time incumbent — Ken Burke has raised $35,604 for his re-election campaign, none of which taken in April. His total expenditures come in at just under $4,000.

Pinellas’ current Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark is also running for re-election. And, like Burke, she has no filed competition. To fund her campaign, the Republican loaned herself $11,000. She also received a $500 check from St. Petersburg attorney Susan Churuti back in March but raised nothing before or since. Her campaign purse is holding exactly $11,500.

As for Pinellas’ Tax Collector spot, Republican Charles Thomas is the only person filed to run the office. Pinellas’ longtime tax collector, Republican Diane Nelson, is opting for retirement rather than another term and Thomas was her handpicked successor.

Thomas, who served as Pinellas’ Chief Deputy Tax Collector since 2000, only began his election efforts last month, but his campaign wallet is already holding $30,000. About $12,000 came from donations while Thomas funded the rest himself.

Thomas’ host committee includes six of Pinellas’ seven constitutional officers: Nelson, Public Defender Bob Dillinger, State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Clerk of the Court Ken Burke, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and outgoing Property Appraiser Pam Dubov.

The primaries are August 30; the General Election is November 30.

Mike Twitty adds to fundraising lead over Jim Frishe in Pinellas Property Appraiser race

In the race for Pinellas County’s Property Appraiser post, Mike Twitty is continuing to out-fundraise his lone opponent, fellow Republican Jim Frishe.

According to the latest campaign finance reports from the Supervisor of Elections, Frishe hauled in $3,750 on six donations in April. Not a bad showing, considering that until now he hasn’t raised over $650 in any monthly reporting period since the start of 2016.

Twitty, however, had a stronger showing, coming close to doubling Frishe’s April fundraising total, reeling in $6,620 on 47 donations last month.

As for the source of Frishe’s six donations, two maximum allowable $1,000 contributions came from PAC’s: Tampa’s Creating Possibilities, and St. Petersburg’s Suncoast Better Government Committee, respectively.

St. Petersburg real estate developer Mel Sembler also kicked in $1,000. While Pinellas Park Doctor Gary Heller contributed $500 to the Frishe campaign.

The other two donations to the Frishe camp came from retirees.

Twitty, on the other hand, had a wider array of donors.

Palm Harbor’s Prior Marina gave the only $1,000 April donation to the Twitty campaign, while Indian Shores redevelopment company Page Companies, and Belleair Beach retiree Kelly Coleman gave the only two $500 donations.

Twitty also grabbed donations from a couple of area politicians in former St. Pete City Council candidate and Democrat Winthrop Newton, and current St. Pete City Councilman Ed Montanari, who each gave $100.

Overall, Twitty is leading the fundraising race by a count of $120,820 to Frishe’s $44,065.

Frishe, however, does have a moderately hard-hitting list of support. His endorsers include State Sen. Jack Latvala, former State Rep. Ed Hooper, Treasure Island Mayor Bob Minning, and Gulfport City Councilman Dan Liedtke.

Although, Twitty’s list of supporters might stack even higher — and weigh a bit more too. In his corner are Montanarioutgoing Pinellas Property Appraiser Pam Dubov, Pinellas County Clerk of the Court Ken Burke, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, and longtime Pinellas Tax Collector Diane Nelson, among others.

The Republican primary is August 30.

Lealman improvement plan moves forward

Back in June, county commissioners made a historic decision: They created the first community redevelopment area in unincorporated Pinellas County.

It was a move that, for years, was unthinkable with Pinellas officials saying they would never sanction a CRA in unincorporated Pinellas. CRAs were something cities did. That changed under a county administration and commission that’s become willing to try new things. In this case, the new thing – a county CRA – is the most recent effort to solve longstanding problems of poverty and deprivation in the Lealman area. It’s an area county officials have long struggled to help.

The Lealman CRA took another step forward Tuesday when commissioners passed a proposed plan to solve the region’s many problems to the Local Planning Agency for review. If the LPA says the proposal conforms to county planning rules, it will come back to commissioners for adoption.

“There’s nothing but excitement for the potential” of the CRA for Lealman, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said.

Ray Neri, a longtime Lealman activist, who serves as the head of the neighborhood CRA board, said residents are excited that real progress appears to be on the horizon. But it’s frustrating, he said, that the plan has to go through so many hands before the real work can begin.

“We live with this issue, and we’ve lived with it a long time,” Neri said. “It just takes time. I hate that it takes time.”

The unincorporated Lealman area spans a portion of south Pinellas County that’s located generally between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg and I-275 and Park Street. Kenneth City divides the area into two segments. Pinellas County has been working to revitalize the Lealman community since at least the late 1990s. Most of the efforts have focused on east Lealman, the portion on the eastern side of Kenneth City that’s generally west of I-275.

It’s an area of high poverty – one of the poorest in the county – that lacks infrastructure, including few fire hydrants, sidewalks and narrow streets flanked by steep ditches. Much of the area lacks street lights. Absentee landlords are in part responsible for the poor condition of some of the housing stock, which tends to be older.

The county, helped along by area activists, has had some success in the area. The amount of green space has been increased with the cleanup of Lealman Park on 54th Avenue N and the addition of Joe’s Creek Greenway Park. A street light district provides nighttime lighting in part of the area. Lealman boasts the unincorporated area’s first unified garbage service. Some new fire hydrants have been installed. And, recently, newly constructed apartments were opened for veterans.

But the area remained poor, depressed and was classified as a slum and blight area as part of the process for creating the CRA. A CRA uses money generated in the area exclusively for improvements in the area. The immediate oversight is provided by a citizens’ board, but the County Commission serves as the ultimate authority.

The first duty has been to come up with a plan. Once approved by the County Commission, it will be the framework used for future development and improvements in Lealman. The 44-page plan proposed for Lealman notes that the ultimate goal is making Lealman economically and socially self-sustaining.

It identifies eight areas of concentration: economic development and innovation, retail and business investment, improved housing stock, infrastructure and transportation, communitywide curb appeal and livability, sustainability, health and safety, and the creation of a sense of place.

Among the possible strategies for getting to those goals: creating a Lealman logo to use on marketing and other materials, purchase of property, installation of streetlights, increasing the number of fire hydrants, façade grants to encourage housing and business improvements, and the development of incentive programs.

Dwight Dudley files to run as judge in Pinellas County

Pinellas County state House Democrat Rep. Dwight Dudley has filed to run for Judge of the County Court in Pinellas County’s Group 9.

Dudley is a St. Petersburg-based attorney who operates his own law firm. He announced last week that he would not run for reelection for his HD 68 seat that he was first elected to in 2012, and reelected to in 2014.

Dudley will be running against Judge Myriam Irizarry, who was appointed to her position last July by Gov. Rick Scott to  fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Walt Fullerton.

Previously, Irizarry served as chief deputy and general counsel to the Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court since 2003.

Dudley’s abrupt departure from the Legislature has left a heated Democratic primary in the Dem-leaning seat, where Dudley fended off a significant Republican challenge in 2014.

Former Obama administration Eric Lynn has exited a Congressional primary against former Gov. Charlie Crist in CD 13 to seek the seat. Meanwhile, attorney and longtime Democratic politico Ben Diamond, filed first for the HD 68 seat after Dudley’s departure, has garnered the support of Democratic establishment operatives in Tallahassee and elsewhere around the state.

Expansion set for East Lake library

Officials from the East Lake Community Library are in the early stages of planning a million-dollar expansion.

The 2,500-square-foot addition would be the first phase in a plan that would eventually take the library from 6,400 square feet to 19,000 sq ft, library director Lois Eannel told Pinellas County commissioners Thursday. Her remarks came during a budget information session. The library is independent of the Commission, but commissioners set the tax rate for the library’s operation.

Eannel said the expansion, which she hopes will be complete sometime next year, will mean the addition of a children’s room, a teen room and a place for more public computers. The total cost is expected to be about $1.2 million.

Most of that – about $1 million – would come from a state grant. The remainder would come out of savings and fundraising efforts.

It is unclear when construction might start. Eannel said the library had scheduled a June 20 public meeting with the Council of North County Neighborhoods to get comments from area residents about the proposal.

Pinellas Tax Collector candidate Charles Thomas rolls out campaign platform at Clearwater fundraiser

Charles CarlosThomas only jumped into the race for Pinellas County Tax Collector last month, but he’s hit the ground running.

The Republican, who served as Pinellas’ Chief Deputy Tax Collector since 2000, laid out the foundations of his campaign platform to a crowd of supporters gathered last night at Bascom’s Chop House, in Clearwater.

“We have, in our branch offices, a 99 percent satisfaction rating from our customers,” said Thomas during his opening remarks. “So if that’s what you like, and if that’s what you want to have continue in Pinellas County, well, that’s what I’m going to give you.”

Thomas said one way he’ll go about delivering on that promise is by maintaining a customer service oriented workforce.

“The plan is to recruit, retain, develop, and inspire today’s, as well as tomorrow’s, public servant whose focused on customer service excellence,” said Thomas. “That’s how we’re going to continue to deliver that high level of customer service that you’re used to and that you deserve here in Pinellas.”

More specifically, Thomas said — should he get elected — that he’d also bank on his employees to be ever mindful of new ways to make the office run more efficiently, saying, “they’re the folks that have the best ideas on how to make things better,” citing their continuous day-to-day dealings with the office and those who use it.

Thomas also discussed the tax collector office’s need to incorporate private sector techniques into its daily operations, should the office want to maintain its efficiency in the future.

“You should adopt the best practices from both the public sector and private sector any time you have the opportunity,” Thomas said. “So my pledge is to continue the organization’s goal of being better tomorrow than it is today, and one of the best ways to do that is to adopt the best practices, wherever we find them.”

Before linking up with Pinellas’ tax collector team, Thomas worked as the program manager for Gordon-Darby Inc., where he was responsible for maintaining the company’s $5 million annual budget, as well as overseeing the day-to-day operation of 11 separate locations which generated roughly $14 million in annual revenue. 

To close out his comments, Thomas turned his attention to technology, proclaiming that, “we need to use technology when there’s a good return on the investment, and when it brings value to our customers.”

He pointed to the wide array of citizens who depend on the tax collector office as an example of why it’s imperative to stay ahead of the tech-curve.

“We serve a wide range of people: from the 16-year-old who just got their license, to the retiree,” said Thomas. “And they all have a different need, and a different way they want to be served. As the younger folks come on, they’re looking at their smartphones. They’re looking to technology for the answer.”

So far, Thomas is the only person to enter the race for the county’s Tax Collector post.

According to the most recent figured filed with the supervisor of elections, he’s raised $30,000 for his campaign, about half of which Thomas gave to himself.

His host committee includes six of Pinellas’ seven constitutional officers: Public Defender Bob Dillinger, State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Clerk of the Court Ken Burke, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, outgoing Property Appraiser Pam Dubov, and outgoing Tax Collector Diane Nelson.

Some other big name supporters include St. Pete Sen. Jeff Brandes and Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni.

The General Election is in November.

Pinellas Commissioners to hold live, interactive chat

Pinellas County commissioners and the county administrator have scheduled a community conversation to discuss county services and important topics such as housing, social services and transportation with residents.

The public meeting will be from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Petersburg College, Seminole campus, in the University Partnership Center Digitorium, 9200 113th St. N. A meet and greet is scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

There are five ways to participate in the conversation:

Be part of the live audience.

Watch it live and blog on www.pinellascounty.org/communityconversation. The blog opens 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Watch it live and ask questions on Pinellas County’s Facebook or post on Twitter and Instagram accounts using #pinellascc.

Call (888) 409-5380 to listen and ask questions.

Watch on PCC-TV (Bright House Channel 637, WOW! Channel 18 or Verizon Channel 44) and SPC-TV (Bright House Channel 636, WOW! Channel 19 or Verizon Channel 47).

Held in partnership with St. Petersburg College and Bay News 9, the community conversation offers an interactive venue for citizens to talk about issues, with the convenience of social media, online video streaming and blogging. Residents can also participate in the event via phone and by watching live on PCC-TV or SPC-TV.

Photo via Pinellas County
Photo via Pinellas County
Photo via Pinellas County
Photo via Pinellas County
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