September 09, 2014

Seven former Supreme Court Justices say they oppose medical marijuana amendment

An anti-drug group fighting Amendment 2 has elicited the backing of seven former state Supreme Court justices to oppose the effort to legalize medical marijuana. But a spokesman for a pro-amendment group countered that's "what's relevant is the majority opinion" of the current court.

A divided Florida Supreme Court ruled in January that ballot language for the proposed constitutional amendment meets all legal requirements.

“It strikes us as disrespectful to the sitting justices on the bench that these former members of the highest court in our state would publicly question the decisions of the court in such a manner,” Ben Pollara, spokesman for United for Care, the prime group fighting for Amendment 2, wrote in an email.

In a press statement billed as a  “paid political advertisement paid for by Drug Free Florida Committee,” former Justice Kenneth B. Bell said that “Once an Amendment is in the constitution, it is extremely difficult to change.  A subject such as this should be addressed by general law … The Legislature has already legalized a strain of low-THC marijuana for medical use that is not smoked. Any expansion of marijuana use should reflect further development in medical knowledge and have a carefully limited scope, which Amendment 2 does not do.”    


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September 08, 2014

Families remember lost loved ones at Missing Children's Day

Hilary Sessions quietly placed a yellow rose by the picture of her daughter, Tiffany, who disappeared more than 25 years ago. Her tribute was echoed by other family members who honored the memory of their missing or murdered child during an emotional ceremony held Monday for Florida Missing Children's Day.

In 2013, 35,124 missing children were reported missing, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But Florida Missing Children's Day focused more on paying tribute to those children and honoring heroes than statistics.

"You take it one day at a time," said Sessions, a Tampa resident and director of the board of the Florida Missing Children's Day Foundation. Her daughter, a University of Florida student, vanished Feb. 9, 1989 while taking a walk near her Gainesville apartment.

Sessions spent much of the rally hugging and comforting parents struggling with their own tragedies. "You can feel the relief of these parents when they talk to someone who's been through this."

Also lending support was Roy Brown, whose 7-year-old daughter Amanda was abducted on Sept. 11, 1998.

Amanda was last seen in her mother's mobile home in Seffner -- Willie Crain Jr., a 52-year-old crabber and convicted child molester who was also in the home the night Amanda disappeared, was charged with kidnapping and murdering Amanda, but he is still on Florida's death row.

Brown said his daughter was never found -- he hates it when people use the term body or remains. "This is my daughter we're talking about," he said.

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September 03, 2014

Movers & Shakers

Fort Lauderdale judge added to adult offender council

Raag Singhal, a judge with the 17th Judicial Circuit Court in Broward County, has been appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the State Council for Interstate Adult Offender Supervision.

Singhal, 50, of Fort Lauderdale, succeeds Elisabeth Goodner and is appointed for a term that ends June 30, 2015.

Former House general counsel joins Tallahassee law firm

Daniel Nordby, who was general counsel to the Florida House of Representatives under Speaker Will Weatherford, has joined Shutts & Bowen as a partner in the firm's Tallahassee office.

In his new job, Nordby, 36, will "litigate and advise on governmental affairs," according to the firm's press release on the appointment.

Nordby is the chairman of The Florida Bar's Administrative Law Section and is a member of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. He has also served as general counsel to Florida's Secretary of State and, in private practice, as outside general counsel to the Republican Party of Florida.

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March 20, 2014



Broward LGBT activists held a fundraiser March 19 at the home of Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis for Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.

2014-03-19 Charlie Crist fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale 020After his five-minute speech, which you can watch here, Crist stated why electing him governor would be good for LGBT people in Florida:

"One of the most important things we can do is get a law on the books in Florida that recognizes the kind of things that President Obama is talking about. And that simply is why not have marriage equality throughout our country," Crist said.

"Certainly, we ought to have it in Florida and I believe that we win this election Nov. 4, we get some other progressives elected in the Florida House and Florida Senate, we’re going to have a great opportunity to get that done, and I look forward to the day we do."

Attendees included South Florida Gay News publisher Norm Kent; Florida Agenda publisher Bobby Blair; Ken Keechl, who's seeking to regain his Broward County Commission seat; former Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti; and Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Commissioner Levoyd L. Williams, a state House candidate.

Crist’s Democratic rival is former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, a longtime LGBT rights advocate.

To view a photo gallery from the fundraiser, visit Steve Rothaus' Gay South Florida blog.

February 14, 2014

Movers and Shakers

New state ombudsman for the elderly takes the helm

Leigh Davis has been named the state’s new top advocate for the elderly in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care facilities.

Davis, who has 30 years experience in the health-care and long-term care industry, filled the role of long-term care ombudsman for the Department of Elder Affairs on Feb. 3. In her position, she’ll oversee the statewide council of trained volunteers who visit facilities and investigate complaints and act as advocates for the elderly.

Davis was most recently the Agency for Health Care Administration’s program administrator for risk management and public safety. She has also worked in the long-term care industry in Missouri.

Her appointment follows the troubled tenure of Jim Crochet, who retired from the job last summer while under investigation by the agency. Crochet had replaced an outspoken advocate Brian Lee, who has a lawsuit against the state, which fired him from the department.

Changes in Tallahassee Press Corps

Matt Dixon, a state government reporter for the Jacksonville-based Florida Times-Union, will become Tallahassee Bureau Chief of the newly created E.W. Scripps Co. bureau in the capital.

Dixon has been working at the Florida Times-Union since 2010. He was previously a government reporter for the Panama City News Herald.

The Associated Press has hired investigative reporter Steve Miller to help cover the state’s 2014 legislative session.

Miller, 56, has 20 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Texas Watchdog, the Washington Times and the Dallas Morning News, according to an announcement from the Associated Press. He has written three true crime books and two on rock and punk music and recently freelanced for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

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February 07, 2014

State office issues warning about unlicensed combat sports

Florida has its share of under-the-radar  “combat sports,” including “fighting” matches involving strippers, backyard brawls and unlicensed boxing events.

One of those events involved celebrity boxing promoter Damon Feldman, who was banned from holding an unlicensed celebrity fight in a Fort Lauderdale hotel in 2011. Feldman was recently in the news for planning a controversial boxing match pitting George Zimmerman, acquited in the death of Trayvon Martin, and rap star DMX, expected to take place in March in Philadelphia, if it actually happens. The hype alone has prompted a groundswell of opposition.

Unlicensed combat sports are often undetected until someone files a complaint or gets hurt, so the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation has issued a cautionary note to warn consumers and amateur athletes about the dangers of these events, whether you're a participant or bystander. 

“If they’re not following rules, there are obvious safety violations that could occur,’’ said Beth Frady, deputy communications director of the DBPR. Equipment could be substandard and these types of unlicensed events often attract unscrupulous spectators, she said.

Combat sports licensed and regulated in Florida include boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts (unarmed combat that includes grappling, kicking and striking).


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Crist says he'll meet with UF students over state's rejection of campus center as early voting site

Criticizing the state's decision to block the University of Florida's student union as an early voting site, Charlie Crist posted a Facebook notice Friday stating he'll meet with students and voters at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday at Turlington Plaza to discuss the issue. 

The posting follows a tweet from the Democratic candidate at 6:15 p.m. Thursday:  "This is an outrage," Crist tweeted. "Stay tuned on how we can protest Rick Scott's awful insult to every student & voter in the state."

To address complaints of long waits at polling sites in 2012 that attracted national attention, legislators last year expanded the list of early voting sites to include fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, county commission buildings, stadiums, convention centers and government-owned community centers.

In response to a request by the city of Gainesville to use the Reitz Union for early voting in March's municipal elections, Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, which is run by a Scott appointee, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, wrote in an advisory opinion that "the terms 'convention center' and 'government-owned community center' cannot be construed so broadly as to include the Reitz Union."

Crist joins the growing number of critics blasting the state's decision, including the League of Women Voters, election supervisors and Democratic legislators.

In a statement Friday, House Minority Leader Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) said  “Governor Scott and state elections officials seem once again to be trying to suppress the vote of university students and other Floridians. I urge him to stop laying roadblocks to voting. The governor should do more to encourage, not discourage, voting among young people who are interested and engaged citizens.”

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February 04, 2014

Bondi, legislators call for passage of "Aaron Cohen Act" to crack down on hit-and-run drivers

Attorney General Pam Bondi, legislators and law enforcement leaders are joining the widow of a Miami cyclist killed in a 2012 hit-and-run crash on the Rickenbacker Causeway in her campaign to crack down on hit-and-run drivers.

At a press conference Tuesday, Patty Cohen said she has been pursuing a change in the law, which now gives drunk drivers an incentive to leave the scene of a hit-and-run, since her husband Aaron was struck by a motorist on the Causeway’s William Powell Bridge on Feb. 15, 2012.

The proposal, known as the “Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act,” aims to eliminate that incentive.

Under current Florida law, drunk drivers who kill someone receive a minimum mandatory sentence of four years in prison. But those who leave the scene to avoid being caught drinking face less stringent penalties, said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, sponsor of SB 102.

“It is a growing epidemic,” said Diaz de la Portilla, who was flanked by a nonpartisan group of legislators as well as a cadre of uniformed officers and representatives of police and sheriff’s associations at the press conference.

Florida motorists were involved in 69,994 hit-and-run crashes in 2012, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Of that total, 168 were fatal -- roughly three people a week. And most were pedestrians.

“No family should have to suffer like ours has,” said Cohen, whose daughter Lily was 3 ½ and her son, Aiden 9 months, when her 36-year-old husband was killed. He had been riding with cycling partner Enda Walsh, who was injured, when they were hit by Michele Traverso, who fled the scene. 

“He kept driving,” Cohen said. “He ran, he hid his car, he never even stopped, he never even called 911.”


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February 03, 2014

State gets five-year extension of a funding waiver to help at-risk children

Florida’s child welfare system got a boost Monday with the approval of a five-year renewal of a federal waiver that allows the state to have more options in helping children from troubled homes.

The waiver enables the state to use Title IV-E federal foster care funds to pay for services it deems necessary for children in at-risk families, whether it's mental health counseling or substance abuse treatment. In the past, that money could only be used for children placed in the foster care system.

The waiver "allows us to have more flexibility in the services we provide families," said Stephen Pennypacker, assistant secretary for programs for the state Department of Children and Families. 

Florida was the first state to get a federal waiver and in the past had only short-term extensions. Getting a five-year extension means "we can continue to demonstrate the impact it’s been having and hopefully make it permanent," said Shawn Salamida, the CEO of the community-based care program Partnership for Strong Families in Gainesville.

He said the waiver enables workers to identify families at risk of foster care placement and "use funds to provide services to intervene to keep the kids safe and families intact."

The waiver has been a factor in helping to reduce the number of kids in the state's child welfare system, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children’s First.

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January 06, 2014

Movers & Shakers

Alia Faraj-Johnson, press secretary for former Gov. Jeb Bush, will be joining Hill+Knowlton Strategies as a senior vice president, leading the firm's Tallahassee office.

Prior to joining H+K Strategies, Faraj-Johnson served as managing director of public relations and public affairs at Sachs Media Group. She was Bush’s press secretary and communications director from 2002 to 2007, and managed communications at 18 state agencies.

Faraj-Johnson was previously a television news reporter and vice president of news operations for Capitol News Service in Tallahassee.

New partner at Ballard

The government affairs firm, Ballard Partners, is expanding, adding veteran lobbyist Christopher Hansen, to its Tallahassee office.

Hansen, who will be a partner, previously served as a governmental consultant for Gray Robinson, P.A. and before that, he worked in a similar role at Huey, Guilday, Tucker, Schwartz & Williams, P.A.

Hansen was a legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives' majority office and the executive director of a large political action committee.

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