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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.”

 

Rick Baker emphasizes education issues during fundraiser in south St Pete

Upon taking the stage Tuesday night, Rick Baker made a promise to the hundreds of supporters in attendance at the Morean Arts Center for Clay.

Baker vowed he wouldn’t speak as long as he did on the steps of City Hall two weeks earlier when he officially announced a bid for Mayor of St. Petersburg.

He kept to that promise, clocking in with an address that lasted a little more than 22 minutes. While some of it was a rehash of the themes that he talked about on May 9, Baker said he wouldn’t spend any time in getting into it with his main rival, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.

That promise he did not keep.

Referring to how St. Petersburg became the state’s first “Green City” back on his watch in December of 2006, Baker said “It’s hard to maintain that green cities status when you dump 200 million gallons of sewage in the Bay,” referring to the sewage spills that occurred on Kriseman’s watch the past two summers and his reaction to them, eliciting a huge mocking cheer from the crowd.

“If you hear anybody talking about the environment, I want you to remind them that it’s hard to stay a green city when you do that. We’re going to fix that problem,” Baker declared. “I promise you, we will fix that!” before being drowned out by more cheers.

There was a spirit of bonhomie at the event, and why not? Buoyed by a recent St. Pete Polls survey that has him up by double-digits over Kriseman, Baker said at the onset of his speech that he wanted to talk about the future of St. Petersburg, though he spent a considerable amount of time recounting the past, when he served as mayor from the spring of 2001 until January of 2010.

Baker spoke about how people laughed at him when he declared in 2001 that he wanted to make St. Petersburg the best city in America, but “nobody questions” that claim now, at least not in St. Pete.

“We’re arrogant about it now. We really do believe that, but it’s not assured that it’s always going to be that,” Baker said, saying that the plan is the same for any city in America — public safety, good schools, economic development, strong neighborhoods and being fiscally responsible.

Regarding public safety, Baker said that going after drugs in the community is the “number one thing that you should do,” and decried the removal of the street crimes unit from the St. Petersburg Police Dept.

He boasted about streamlining government, referring to the fact that almost 300 positions in city government were eliminated during his tenure (some of that had to do with the loss of revenue to the city following the recession). He vowed to bring back one specific position, however, a deputy mayor for neighborhoods.

Baker also talked about how involved he was in education in St. Petersburg when he was elected, even though he was told that at the time that wasn’t part of the mayor’s portfolio.  He said that it was and it is, because a lack of good schools will prevent people moving into neighborhoods and businesses from entering the community.

He then went over the panoply of programs that he implemented to improve the schools when he was in office, including a mentorship program created in 2001 where the city partnered the city with local schools to recruit and train volunteers from the city, businesses and the community.

“We need to work in partnership with the school board,” he said. “It is not acceptable for our schools to be where they are.”

Although he didn’t name names, the after effects of the Tampa Bay Times series on “Failure Factories” regarding five Midtown schools continues to resonate as an issue, nearly two years after those stories were first published.

Cracia Richmond works as an assistant at Lakewood Elementary, one of the five South St. Pete schools cited in that piece. A Kriseman supporter in 2013, Richmond says she will vote for Baker this year.

“He’s been a great leader for us, and I feel that we need that back in our community,” she said Tuesday while awaiting Baker’s appearance.

“I’m not happy with a few things,” was her answer when asked why she’s not backing Kriseman this year. “I would say some of the things happening in the public schools. I work in the public school system, I assist in the classrooms, and I just feel that we need a lot of support.”

Kriseman says he’s done plenty of work on schools since becoming mayor.

Speaking to FloridaPolitics.com earlier this month, Kriseman referred to several programs: Take Stock in Children scholarships; a mentorship program with city workers; matching businesses with schools to provide resources for education and reading more opportunities for students; anti-bullying initiatives; service learning and mini-grants with the Pinellas Education Foundation; pairing college students with high school students for mentorship, and has in Leah McRae a dedicated schools liaison from City Hall to focus on the city’s resources on its schools.

Bob Buckhorn apologies for military conference joke

Over the course of six years as mayor, Bob Buckhorn has said things that have offended some people, but he has rarely (if ever) been forced to apologize.

Until now.

Unless you’ve been avoiding local (now national) press over the past couple of days, you know the mayor has been (metaphorically) under fire since the Tampa Bay Times’ Howard Altman reported Friday afternoon on a number of reporters who took offense with a crack Buckhorn made at a military conference last week at the Tampa Convention Center.

As Altman originally reported, Buckhorn told the crowd about his experience as a hostage during a demonstration of special operation rescue tactics:

The highlight, he said, was when he was aboard a Navy special warfare boat, firing blanks from 50-caliber machine guns. “And so, the first place I point that gun is at the media,” he told the crowd.

“I’ve never seen grown men cry like little girls, for when that gun goes off those media folks just hit the deck like no one’s business. It’s great payback. I love it.”

Altman reported that the audience — approximately 1,000 people — mostly laughed at the remark. But some in attendance, specifically military reporters who have had live guns pointed at them for real, found nothing humorous about the comment.

Initially, Buckhorn blew off the furor.

It was “a silly reaction,” he told the Times.

But after the story got legs in the national media over the weekend, Buckhorn spokesperson Ashley Bauman responded Monday afternoon.

“This was a story that he had told for three consecutive years,” she said in a statement to FloridaPolitics.com, “and at no time was it ever construed to be serious or an accurate portrayal of what occurred.”

“It was merely a humorous tongue-in-cheek description. Clearly, that does not translate on Twitter and in light of the current rhetoric at the national level aimed at the media, inadvertently served to reinforce some of those sentiments. That was not his intention, in fact, as the son of a former wire service reporter he has nothing but the highest regard for the work of journalists and their profession and he apologizes to those he offended.”

The mayor also offended the sensibilities of some local residents when he typed, “whatever” on Twitter over the weekend in reaction to a tweet by Tampa Heights activist Rick Fernandez on his concerns with the Tampa Bay Express project.

Tampa City Council wants lawmakers to explain bill that would have gutted CRA’s

A proposal by Lithia Republican Jake Raburn (HB 13) calling for an end to all community redevelopment agencies (CRA’s) died in a legislative committee in the Florida House last month.

And members of the Tampa City Council are happy about that.

Raburn’s bill didn’t go as far as a related proposal by Brandon Republican Tom Lee in the Senate (SB 1770). That bill would have placed much stricter requirements on CRA’s, but it also stalled in a committee as well.

At Thursday’s Tampa City Council CRA meeting, Councilman Mike Suarez expressed annoyance about the proposal and that Hillsborough County lawmakers never informed them about it.

That prompted Councilman Frank Reddick to suggest that the council invite the two GOP lawmakers to attend an upcoming CRA workshop, so that board members could inform them about all of the positive aspects of what those agencies do for Tampa. The Council voted to hold that workshop on August 10.

CRA’s are geographic areas that meet certain physical and economic conditions and thus receive special designation and attention by local governments. That usually results in receiving tax revenues from increases in real property value, referred to as “increments” that are deposited into a CRA Trust Fund and dedicated to the redevelopment area.

Historically they were created to focus attention and resources in a particular area characterized by blight and disinvestment. But a 2015 Miami-Dade grand jury report from 2015 came down hard on local CRAs, saying that they acted almost like a “slush fund” for the elected officials who were in charge of doling out millions in property taxes diverted from general revenue for the purpose of eliminating slum and blight.

“Some of these CRA’s around the state are an absolute embarrassment to me as a public official, and as someone who really believes that there ought to be an opportunity to direct some of this revenue into blighted areas to help improve the living conditions of the people who live there,” Lee commented at a Senate committee discussing the bill last month.

Tampa has seven separate CRA’s. St. Petersburg has four, with more than 200 overall in Florida.

“This is both alarming and disturbing that this was even brought up at the state level for CRA’s,” said Councilman Guido Maniscalco.

Councilman Harry Cohen applauded the move, but said that city also needed to be concerned about the Legislature’s approval of a 2018 voter referendum that would increase the homestead exemption by another $25,000, which would effectively cut local property taxes and make a major negative impact to cities and counties throughout the state who rely on those taxes to fund their governments.

“Whatever guests that are coming to the City Council this year from the Legislature, I would also talk to them at the same time about why they view it as being a good idea to take more money out of the hands of local governments,” Cohen said.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times this week that the county could lose as much as $30 million annually if the measure is approved by the voters next year.

 

Augie Ribeiro to decide ‘in near future’ on St. Pete City Council run

Augie Ribeiro, the wealthy trial attorney who made a late run for state Senate District 19 in 2016, is now considering a run for the District 6 seat on St. Petersburg’s City Council.

“I am considering running for this seat,” Ribeiro wrote in an email to FloridaPolitics.com Monday afternoon.

“I will be deciding in the near future if it is the right time and position to serve the public,” he says, adding that “District 6 encompasses many of  the same constituents as in the state Senate district I campaigned for last year.”

The District 6 race already has seven candidates in the mix.

The 52-year-old Ribeiro has only lived in St. Petersburg for four years, and though he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in his bid to win the SD 19 seat last summer, finished fourth in that race behind the three much better-known candidates, Darryl Rouson, Ed Narain and Betty Reed. An uphill battle from the start, Ribeiro didn’t help his cause by entering the race just days before the filing deadline last June in a race that took place in late August.

News of Ribeiro’s interest in the race was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times Friday.

If he does enter the race, Ribeiro could possibly set records for spending in a Council race. He spent more than $672,000 in just two months in his unsuccessful bid for the SD 19 seat last year.

Poll shows Rowdies soccer stadium referendum cruising to victory

During a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Rick Baker said there were no plans for direct mail or other campaign spending to win a May 2 referendum to negotiate a 25-year lease with the city to expand Al Lang Stadium.

That’s because Baker, the former St. Petersburg mayor and president of the Edwards Group who is quarterbacking the pitch for Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, is confident St. Pete residents will support the stadium expansion as part of an effort to entice Major League Soccer to award the community an expansion franchise.

Per usual, Baker is right. Very right.

According to a new survey conducted by St. Pete Polls, 70 percent of city voters say they will vote to approve the referendum, 19 percent indicate they will vote against it, while 11 percent say they are unsure.

While not exactly relevant to the May 2 referendum (but entirely relevant to the upcoming mayoral election, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman‘s favorability/unfavorability rating stands at 48 to 35 percent, while Baker is at 60 to 23 percent).

The poll includes only responses from those registered voters who have participated in a city election within the last four years.

Vote-by-mail ballots were sent out late last month. Polls will be open May 2 in several locations throughout St. Pete (a list of polling locations is at votepinellas.com).

The proposed upgrades to historic Al Lang Stadium would cost up to $80 million and would increase capacity from approximately 7,500 to 18,000. The full cost of the renovations would be financed entirely by Edwards, and the upgrades would only happen if Tampa Bay is awarded an MLS expansion team.

The Rowdies, who are moving from NASL to USL this year, submitted their expansion application to MLS on Jan. 30. The club is one of 12 groups in 12 different cities that submitted a bid. The league will announce two new expansion clubs in 2017, with those teams set to begin MLS play by 2020. Two more teams will be added at a later date, taking the league to 28 total clubs.

Material from MLSSoccer.com was used in this report.

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.

Michael LaForgia leaving Tampa Bay Times to join New York Times investigative reporting team

Another award-winning Tampa Bay Times reporter and editor is moving on.

On Thursday, the paper announced Michael LaForgia is heading to The New York Times to become part of its investigative reporting team.

The 33-year-old LaForgia has been the investigative editor for the Tampa Bay Times since August, and with the paper overall since 2012. He has been twice part of a team that won a Pulitzer for Local Reporting.

The first Pulitzer was in 2014, when LaForgia and Will Hobson won for exposing problems in a Hillsborough County homeless program. In 2016, he was part of the team that won for “Failure Factories,” the much-heralded series on Pinellas County’s neglect of five schools in predominantly black neighborhoods. LaForgia shared that award with colleagues Lisa Garner and Cara Fitzpatrick (who is married to LaForgia). The three reporters on Failure Factories also shared a George Polk Award, IRE Medal and the Worth Bingham Prize.

LaForgia is a South Carolina native who graduated from the University of South Carolina. He started at The Florida Times-Union and worked at The Palm Beach Post before joining the Times.

“I’m excited about the opportunity but sorry to leave the Tampa Bay Times. I was ready to spend the next several years here, but this opportunity found me — and it was too good to pass up,” LaForgia told SPB Thursday night. “I’m not at all worried about what my leaving might mean for the Tampa Bay Times. It’s a place that regularly takes good reporters and molds them into great reporters, and that process will continue no matter who comes or goes. I’m just grateful I got to work with the journalists here for as long as I did.”

The New York Times announced the hire Thursday. He will start with them April 3.

LaForgia becomes the second major member of the Times investigative unit to announce his departure in the past two weeks. Reporter-editor Alex Zayas announced last week she will be departing for New York in June to work with ProPublica.

 

Tampa Bay Times’ Alexandra Zayas to work for ProPublica

Tampa Bay Times award-winning investigative reporter Alexandra Zayas is departing the newspaper to work for ProPublica, the investigative non-profit organization based in New York City.

The 34-year-old Miami native has been with the Times since 2005, coming to work for the paper after graduating from the University of Miami.

“It’s a really exciting time to join ProPublica,” she said Monday morning, a few hours after the news of her hiring went live. “Investigative journalism is having a very important moment right now, and it’s going to one of the best places to be there for that. It’s a great opportunity.”

Zayas began at the Times covering a variety of beats before working with the investigative team, where her 2013 three-part series “In God’s Name,” put her into the national spotlight.

The series exposed abuse at unlicensed religious group homes in Florida, and won the 2013 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting that year.

It was at that time that Zayas was offered jobs at competing news organizations but decided to stay put, saying now that she still felt she could learn more under Chris Davis, who spent five years at the Times as the deputy managing editor for investigations and data before leaving last summer to work for USA Today.

Other big stories followed, including the 2015 “Biking While Black” piece regarding the Tampa Police Dept.’s policy of disproportionately citing black bicyclists. The story roiled City Hall for much of that year, ultimately leading to the creation of a police citizen’s review board as well as a Justice Dept. review of the TDP (the DOJ report said the policy was “not discriminatory,” but also not effective).

A homeowner in Seminole Heights with a partner and a child (and another one the way), Zayas calls the decision to leave living Tampa and the Times, “an excruciating choice,” because she’s adopted the Cigar City as her own hometown.

“It was a very painful choice,” she says. “I have decided not to take other opportunites over the past few years, and this one was just too good to pass up.”

She’s not yet out the door, however. Her next major piece, a report on juvenile car theft in Pinellas County, will be published sometime in the next month.

“Alex embodies ProPublica’s commitment to digging deep into pressing and often complex issues, with a sharp mind for making all stories engaging to a general audience,” said Robin Fields, ProPublica’s managing editor, in a story published on ProPublica’s site. “We have long admired her conversation-starting, high-impact work, and are excited to welcome her to our team.”

Zayas begins at ProPublica in June.

Andrew Warren slams proposed bill that would shift the burden of proof in Stand Your Ground cases

Elected on a platform of wanting to reform much of Hillsborough County’s current system of justice,State Attorney Andrew Warren is voicing his strong opposition to a measure pending in the Florida Legislature that would shift the burden of proof in ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense cases.

The bill, sponsored by Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley (SB 128), would shift the burden of proof to prosecutors during evidentiary hearings in self-defense cases. It stems from a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that said defendants have the burden of proof to show they should be shielded from prosecution under the “stand your ground” law.

“Proponents of changing the law claim it restores the fundamental principal of justice that a citizen is innocent until proven guilty. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Warren writes in an op-ed published in Friday’s Tampa Bay Times. Our Constitution guarantees the innocence of the accused until every element of the crime has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As the state attorney for Hillsborough County, I wholeheartedly embrace our extremely high burden of proof to obtain a conviction. The proposed changes, however, create an unnecessary and technical legal hurdle in the law to force the state to disprove a defense — which would often require proving a negative — beyond a reasonable doubt, upending the constitutional standard and centuries-old common law.”

Warren also says passage of the bill would be extremely costly to Hillsborough taxpayers, writing that if it were implemented, “we will need more judges, more courtrooms, more prosecutors and more law enforcement officers. In Hillsborough County, this would impact more than 5,000 cases per year. If only half of those cases involve a claim of “stand your ground” immunity, the time and resources in my office alone amount to nearly $3 million annually.”

The 40-year-old Warren is a former federal prosecutor who won in a stunning upset victory over 16-year GOP incumbent State Attorney Mark Ober in November. He was one of a wave of  reform-minded candidates who won prosecutorial races in major jurisdictions across the country, including Aramis Ayala in Orange County and Melissa Nelson in Jacksonville.

Bradley’sproposal passed the Senate during the 2016 session but failed to get to the House floor. It’s being sponsored in the House this spring by Duval County Republican Jason Fischer and Palatka Republican Bobby Payne.

 

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