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167 posts from December 2012

December 19, 2012

Miami-Dade report: County to blame for some elections problems

The waits of up to seven hours at some Miami-Dade polls during last month’s presidential election occurred in part because the county failed to estimate how much time it would take to fill out 10- to 12-page ballots, did not open more early-voting sites and decided not draw new precincts this year as planned, a report issued Wednesday concluded.

A last-minute surge in absentee ballots that overwhelmed the elections department staff, and a 12-hour Election Day breakdown of a machine that sorts the ballots also delayed the final results tally by two days, according to the department’s after-action report.

Wednesday’s report was the first comprehensive document outlining all of the factors that contributed to troubles in Miami-Dade. State officials, local elected leaders and county administrators have been piecing it together since the Nov. 6 election.

Some of the blame lies with Florida lawmakers, who placed 11 lengthy constitutional amendments on the ballot and cut the number of early-voting days to eight from 14.

But the 53-page report, while not providing any explicit mea culpas, also places responsibility on the county’s election department, run by Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s appointed elections supervisor, Penelope Townsley.

“It was a combination of factors,” Gimenez told The Miami Herald Wednesday evening. “But I can’t put the blame on any one person or one entity. The blame can go all the way around.”

The report points to seven key factors that affected the election, which was budgeted to cost $11.3 million:

Four employees ousted at Blind Services over sweetheart deal

Thousands of state workers haven't received pay raises in years, but Division of Blind Services worker Caroline McManus was due for a $97,000 boost overnight.

The plan: To quit her $59,000 computer programming position and return the next day as a $156,000 contractor.

All the managers approved it. Same job, same desk, more than double the pay.

While that sounds like a great deal for the employee, it also violates a rule that bans workers from leaving state jobs and returning within two years for more money.

After learning about the ploy from an audit released this week, officials with the Department of Education halted it and fired two employees, suspended two others without pay, and forced two more to resign. One of those forced to resign was the division's director, Joyce Hildreth, who had approved the pay raise for McManus.

This is only the latest sign of turmoil at the Division of Blind Services. Last month, a Times/Herald story revealed Hildreth, a former contractor, farmed out no-bid contracts to her former coworkers that were so loosely worded the groups could charge $58 dollars per hour for driving to a blind person's house or more than $2,000 for a brief phone call.

Read more here. 

Bondi drops appeal, no longer demanding reporter's testimony in Carletha Cole case

 Just yesterday, the Associated Press reported that Attorney General Pam Bondi had asked an appeals court to reverse a Leon County judge's ruling quashing the testimony of a Jacksonville newspaper reporter in the state's case against Carletha Cole. Bondi's office claimed that reporter Matt Dixon's testimony was so crucial, the illegal wiretapping case against the former aide to Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll would fall apart without it.

Now, the AP is reporting that Bondi has abrubtly dropped her appeal. No word if that means the case will get settled or dismissed soon.

From the AP:

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is dropping her push to force a newspaper reporter to testify in a criminal case involving a former aide to Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. 

Bondi earlier this month asked an appeals court to overrule a judge who blocked prosecutors from interviewing Matt Dixon, a reporter with The Florida Times-Union. 

Bondi's office late Wednesday withdrew the appeal. 

Continue reading "Bondi drops appeal, no longer demanding reporter's testimony in Carletha Cole case" »

Atwater wants Scott to appoint inspector general at Citizens immediately

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said Gov. Rick Scott shouldn't wait until legislation is passed next year to create an independent watchdog position at Citizens Property Insurance. Arguing the public's confidence needs to be reestablished, Atwater is suggesting a workaround that could create an inspector general job at Citizens right away.

"I am deeply troubled by the ongoing reports of reprehensible behavior and mismanagement at Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, and applaud your demands that Citizens appoints a strong, independent Inspector General," Atwater wrote.

In a letter sent to Scott today, Atwater points out that that the Cabinet, which also operates as the state's Financial Services Commission, has oversight of Citizens. He suggests that the commission vote to hire an inspector general that is assigned to Citizens but reports to the panel for the next 12 months.

"Citizens' stakeholders have a right to know that the resources of the Corporation are being deployed appropriately, and that the management team conducts itself in a responsible manner," Atwater wrote. "This can best be achieved by our direct oversight of an independent Inspector General."

Atwater's plan would give the Legislature time to pass a law needed to permanently assign an inspector general to Citizens. Asked to respond to the proposal, Scott office didn't say whether he would agree to the plan but continued to call for additional oversight at Citizens.

“Gov. Scott supports the concept of an independent Inspector General for Citizens," wrote Melissa Sellers, Scott's communications director, in an email.

Continue reading "Atwater wants Scott to appoint inspector general at Citizens immediately" »

It's official: Florida passes the millionth concealed weapons permit milestone

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida officials don't know when, but sometime in the last 24 hours someone received the 1 millionth concealed weapons permit in Florida -- making it the first state to reach that mileston.

"We have 1,000,645 concealed licenses as of this morning," said Amanda Bevis, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who oversees the permit program. "Yesterday, we had 999,932, so we crossed the milestone at some point yesterday."

Putnam held a news conference last week -- two days before the Newtown, Conn. shooting -- that touted the milestone. While Putnam at the news conferernce said he wasn't celebrating the 1 million mark, the press release was titled: Firearm License Program is One Million Strong.

Florida Republicans still mum on a response to Newtown shooting

TALLAHASSEE – How Florida Republicans, who control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, were going to respond to the Newtown, Conn. shooting, was still unknown as of Wednesday.

In California, where Democrats are in control, bills have been introduced that would require background checks and one-year permits for those purchasing ammunition. In Michigan, where Republicans are in control, the governor vetoed a bill that would allow concealed weapons in schools. In Ohio, where the GOP rules, the governor signed into law a bill that allows people to keep guns in their cars at the Capitol garage. In South Carolina, a bill has been introduced allowing guns on school grounds.

In Florida, Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, filed Senate Bill 136 that would make some significant changes to the state’s self-defense law known as “Stand Your Ground”. It would eliminate automatic immunity for those who defend themselves by the use of force and would require the state to track all Stand Your Ground cases. But this effort was prompted by the February shooting of Trayvon Martin and shows little promise among Republicans who still generally support the law.

Meanwhile, Republicans refused to talk about what they would do in response to Friday’s shooting.

“It’s far too early to be talking about this,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. “We need to stay away from responding to this with a knee-jerk reaction.”

This is the slow season for the Legislature. Session, the three-month period where bills get passed, doesn’t begin until March. Committees meet beginning Jan. 14 to discuss pending bills.

“That’s when we’ll start discussing it,” Latvala said. “There’s nothing we can do about it in the newspaper and nothing we can do about it during Christmas week.”

In the House, Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has issued one statement on the shooting.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Newtown, CT,” Weatherford tweeted Friday. “Can’t imagine the grief the parents of the victims feel today.”

He’s referred all questions about possible legislation to Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the chair of the House’s judiciary committee, which would review any gun reform legislation. Baxley has said the absence of guns at schools have made them a target for mass shootings, but said he won’t offer any bills because he chairs the committee that would review them.

So far, no bills have been proposed.

“The last thing we want is a knee-jerk reaction,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. “It wouldn’t serve anyone well.”

Gaetz chairs the House subcommittee on Criminal Justice, which would be where any bills addressing the shooting would start. He said he won’t comment on possible bills until he sees them, but like Baxley, talked up school safety as a solution.

Gov. Rick Scott, Gaetz said, “got the ball rolling when he asked the school districts to review their school safety plans.” Gaetz said. While professing his love for the Second Amendment, Scott told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien on Wednesday: “My approach on things like this is to, one, respect the families, mourn their losses, make sure our schools are safe and then start the conversation and then listen to the Floridians.”

Republicans could be waiting for a more clear direction from the NRA, which has helped write much of the pro-gun legislation that has passed in the last few years. The national headquarters of the organization broke its silence yesterday with a short press release.

“Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting,” it said. “The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

Marion Hammer, Florida’s NRA lobbyist, said she won’t comment until after an NRA news conference on Friday.

“Until they release a statement on Friday, we have no comment on those issues,” Hammer said.

Sen. Chris Smith files 'Stand Your Ground' legislation

Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith is making good on his promise to propose substantial changes to  the state's self-defense law, known as "Stand Your Ground."

Among other things, Senate Bill 136 would eliminate provisions that allow people found to be the aggressor in altercations to later claim "Stand Your Ground." It also would eliminate automatic immunity, allowing law enforcement additional leeway to investigate cases where the self-defense laws are invoked. Lastly, the proposal would require the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to track all "Stand Your Ground" cases.

Smith created a task force to study the issue in the wake of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. At the time, Smith said he was forced to act because the state had not. Senate Bill 136 is based on that group's findings, Smith said.

“The tragic shooting in Sanford, Florida, earlier this year, was a call to action,” said Smith, a Democrat from Ft. Lauderdale. “It underscored the ease with which an aggressor can dodge prosecution simply by claiming fear of bodily harm. And it underscored the abuse of the law by non-law abiding citizens and the confusion law enforcement faced about its basic provisions.

Gov. Rick Scott did appoint Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to lead a a separate "Stand Your Ground" panel. The group studied the issue for six months but ultimately didn't recommend any substantial changes to the law.

Here is the full press release from Smith:

Continue reading "Sen. Chris Smith files 'Stand Your Ground' legislation" »

Charlie Crist trashes Rick Scott in Sen. hearing for vote suppression, turning FL into a ‘late-night TV joke”

Former Gov. Charlie Crist bashed Gov. Rick Scott twice by name during a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday for signing an election law that helped suppress the vote and turn Florida into a “late-night TV joke.”

Crist’s Senate Judiciary Committee testimony came just hours after the release of a new poll showing he’s more popular than the current governor, who is preparing to face his predecessor – a Republican-turned Democrat -- in the 2014 elections.

Scott earlier Wednesday acknowledged on CNN that some fixes might be needed for the election law he signed in 2011. That law cut back the days of in-person early voting and helped make the ballot longer, which led to long lines.

More here

New Broward sheriff hires Lisa Castillo as chief of staff

Lisa Castillo, wife of Pembroke Pines City Commissioner and former Broward House CEO Angelo Castillo, will serve as the  new Broward Sheriff Scott Israel's chief of staff. Israel, a Democrat, beat Republican Sheriff Al  Lamberti in November and will be sworn in  Jan. 8.

The transition team released a list of command staff hires today. Angelo isn't on that list but Ron Gunzburger, Israel's general counsel, said that Angelo will be hired for a senior position in the Department of Administration. (Read more about Angelo Castillo in the Miami Herald's coverage of the Broward House scandal in which his successor was ousted.)

Lisa Castillo previously worked for Republican Jim Scott when he  served in the state Senate and as  a Broward County Commissioner.  She also worked in the past for campaign consultant Judy Stern.

Israel's Command Staff draws heavily from those who have worked for the Fort Lauderdale police department where Israel spent most of his career. Here are a few of the other hires:

* Robert Pusins, executive director of community outreach. He retired as a major from Fort Lauderdale after 30 years.

* Veda Coleman-Wright, acting director of media relations. She has been at BSO since 1996.

* Jim Chinn, executive director. Former BSO employee has taught criminal justice for decades, currently at FAU. He has a doctorate in math from  FAU.

*  Anthony Stravino, fire chief. He is currently Margate's fire chief and spent decades at the Deerfield Beach fire department.

The news release did not include salaries.



Miami-Dade commissioners shrink Jackson board

The board that governs the public Jackson Health System will soon shrink, following a decision Tuesday by the Miami-Dade County Commission.

The Public Health Trust will be reduced to seven members, from 17, in May. The smaller trust will be the same size as the Financial Recovery Board that has been temporarily overseeing the financially troubled Jackson system since the spring of 2011.

“The smaller number... definitely is a step in the right direction,” Marcos Lapciuc, the financial board chairman, told commissioners after they approved the change.

While Lapciuc had argued that a smaller trust would make Jackson more nimble, Martha Baker, union president of SEIU Local 1991, had opposed the reduction, in part because the nominating council that would appoint trust members would be made up of current financial board members.

But the proposal was amended to include the president of the South Florida AFL-CIO, or his or her designee, on the nominating council. The nominees will then be approved by county commissioners.

A divided commission only narrowly moved the measure forward in a preliminary vote in October. They deferred another vote scheduled for earlier this month.

But on Tuesday, without discussion, commissioners gave the plan final approval with a 7-3 vote.

More here.