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September 19, 2017

Irma spawns new panel in Legislature and a call for no 'pork projects'

The Florida House on Tuesday will announce the formation of a new Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness to analyze the state’s response to Irma and to find areas of improvement.

The committee will study whether protections for residents of nursing homes, group homes and ALFs should be strengthened as well as the Florida building code and ways to improve storage of food, water and fuel in advance of a menacing storm. 

NunezHouse Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, also called on all legislators -- including all 40 senators -- to forget the usual hometown projects in next year’s budget and to steer all discretionary spending toward hurricane recovery and mitigation efforts.

“I ask all of you, and our colleagues in the Senate, to join me in setting aside the business as usual of pork projects,” Corcoran said, “and instead invest all of those funds to either assist those in need after Hurricane Irma or prepare Florida against the threat to life and property that will surely come with future storms.” 

He noted that in the current year’s budget, lawmakers spent $638 million on member projects (a big chunk of which was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott).

Corcoran, who scheduled a 1 p.m. news conference Tuesday to announce the select committee, populated the 21-member panel with lawmakers who represent some of the hardest-hit areas of the state.

The committee will be chaired by Rep. Jeannette Nuñez, R-Miami (in photo). Other Republicans include Reps. Holly Raschein of Key Largo, Dane Eagle of Cape Coral, Ray Rodriguez of Estero, Michael Grant of Port Charlotte, Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills and Cyndi Stevenson of St. Johns.

The seven Democrats on the panel include Robert Asencio of Miami, Sean Shaw of Tampa, and three Broward lawmakers: Kristin Jacobs of Coconut Creek, Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs and Richard Stark of Weston.

“With any event of this magnitude, lessons can be learned,” Corcoran said. “We must move quickly to assess our recent experience and pinpoint tangible, meaningful ways to improve Florida‘s hurricane readiness and response capabilities.”

September 18, 2017

Every South Floridian in Congress wants to extend Haiti's TPS



Every member of Congress from South Florida is in favor of extending a temporary program run by the Department of Homeland Security that allows Haitians to live and work in the United States. 

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach, led a letter on Monday to acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke signed by every member of Congress who represents Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties urging the Trump administration to extend Haiti's Temporary Protected status for 18 months. 

"The Haitian people, and now their government, continue to work diligently to rebuild the country after the earthquake, cholera outbreak, and Hurricane Matthew," the letter said. "This work will be made more difficult if the country must also welcome back over 50,000 Haitian nationals at once." 

Former DHS secretary and current White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly extended Haiti's TPS status for six months instead of 18 earlier this year and he also said that Haitian nationals in the United States should begin making plans to return home. Haiti's TPS status runs out in January 2018. 

Hastings was part of a group of Democrats who huddled in the Haitian embassy last week to discuss a strategy for getting more awareness about how important TPS is for Haiti. 

The letter was also signed by Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson along with Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel. 

View the letter here.

Bill Nelson criticizes Rick Scott over nursing home deaths



Sen. Bill Nelson decried the lax regulatory standards for backup generators in Florida nursing homes after the deaths of eight elderly people at a Broward County facility during a speech on the Senate floor on Monday, and his criticism included a jab at his likely 2018 senate opponent: Gov. Rick Scott

"Eight people died in a nursing home right across the street from a major hospital in Hollywood, Florida," Nelson said. "Eight frail, elderly (people) from ages 70 to 99. Eight needless deaths." 

Nelson said that "all the phone calls that had been made that were not answered both to the government as well as to the power company as reported" will "come out in the criminal investigation." 

He was referencing a report by CBS Miami that an official from the nursing home called a cellphone provided by Scott 36 hours before the first death. The nursing home also called Florida Power and Light, though the utility did not immediately restore power to the building. 

"We don’t know all the facts, it will come out in the criminal investigation, but it is inexcusable that eight frail elderly people would die," Nelson said.

Hurricane Irma was already turning into a political spectacle for Nelson and Scott, as President Donald Trump encouraged Scott to run against Nelson while viewing storm damage in the Naples area on Thursday.

"I hope this man right here, Rick Scott, runs for the Senate," Trump said. Scott wasn't present during Trump's remarks. 

Nelson did not mention Scott by name during his floor speech, where he also jabbed his likely opponent over a reluctance to attribute powerful hurricanes like Irma to climate change. 

“Clearly the environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I couldn’t tell you which one it is,” Scott said last week. “But I can tell you this: We ought to solve problems.”

Nelson disagreed with Scott, who generally avoids using the term climate change. 

"Hurricane Irma is just another reminder that we are going to confront huge natural occurrences and maybe just maybe people will relate that there is something to the fact that the earth is getting hotter," Nelson said, adding that warmer oceans allow hurricanes to gain strength. 

Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio were absent for votes in Washington last week after Irma. 

As state Senate election nears, Diaz, Taddeo debate 'lessons learned' from Hurricane Irma

Diaz taddeo debate 0917


The impacts and recovery efforts that followed Hurricane Irma have presented fresh fodder for political debate between the two main candidates who are seeking voters’ support in a bitter battle that will be decided next week for an open state Senate seat in Miami-Dade County.

On WPLG Local 10 News’ “This Week in South Florida” on Sunday, Republican state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz and Democrat Annette Taddeo sparred about the “lessons learned” from the storm.

They also used the 10-minute televised debate to trade attacks over which of them caters more to special interest groups and industries that came to the forefront during and after the hurricane, such as utilities and nursing home care.

“What we have learned is that industry has a great impact at the [Public Service Commission], at the Legislature. They have killed certain legislation so it could have prevented the lives that we lost at the nursing home,” Taddeo said on the Sunday morning show, referencing the eight elderly people who died last week in a Broward County facility that lacked air conditioning after the hurricane.

Whether it was the elder care industry or utilities, like Florida Power & Light, Taddeo said: “We need to make sure we have representatives that represent us — not the special interests. And that’s not what we have right now; we have had this problem in Florida for decades.”

Diaz — who’s served in the Florida House for seven years — countered that “it’s unfortunate that my opponent would try to paint me off as someone who’s beholden to special interests.”

“The only special interest that matters to me is the people of my community. Nobody’s worked harder during and after this storm than me,” Diaz said.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Republican state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, left, and Democrat Annette Taddeo, right, debate during Sunday’s episode of “This Week in South Florida” on WPLG Local 10 News in Miami. Diaz and Taddeo are candidates for the open Senate District 40 seat in Miami-Dade County. [WPLG]

Lawmakers have favored relaxing school building codes. Will Irma change that trend?


by @WLRN's @jessicabakeman

As Hurricane Irma bore down on South Florida, Kevin Youngman and his family sought shelter at Falcon Cove Middle School in Weston. There, he found himself in enemy territory.

“I think it’s weird for us because we all went to the rival middle school, Tequesta Trace,” said Youngman, 25, as he relaxed on an air mattress in the school gym.

“We’re kind of backstabbing our roots a little bit,” he joked, as he and his mother laughed. “But I guess Tequesta is backstabbing us, because they didn’t open up a shelter there — so I guess it’s their fault, not ours.”

Youngman was right about his alma mater: Tequesta Trace didn’t open as one of Broward County’s 21 shelters during Hurricane  Irma. That’s because the school wasn’t built to withstand the most dangerous storms. Alternatively, Falcon Cove is what emergency officials call an “Enhanced Hurricane Protection Area,” one of the state’s most fortified shelters.

Most public schools are constructed specifically for the purpose they served during Irma: to house people during emergencies. But that could change over time, as the Republican-led state Legislature has begun relaxing the more stringent building codes that apply to public schools. At the same time, lawmakers have promoted the growth of privately run charter schools, which aren’t required to comply with the same high construction standards.

Local leaders worry: If more schools are built without hurricane protections, there could be fewer places for people like Youngman and his family to go during storms.

More here.

WLRN is a news partner of the Miami Herald.

Photo credit: People from different part of the city gets ready to spend the night at the South Miami Senior High School shelter as South Florida prepares for the coming hurricane Irma in South Florida on September 08, 2017. Pedro Portal / Miami Herald

Bonuses based on teacher test scores violate civil rights, lawsuit alleges

Dept of Education

A state program that awards bonuses to top-rated teachers based on their own SAT and ACT scores from high school violates federal and state civil rights laws against employment discrimination, argues a potential class-action lawsuit filed this week by Florida’s largest teachers union and seven classroom teachers from South Florida.

The Best and Brightest program — first enacted in 2015 and now in its third year — continues to be envisioned by Florida House Republicans as an innovative means to recruit and retain the best teachers in the state’s public schools.

But it’s been a subject of ongoing controversy because the program relies on teachers’ own test scores — sometimes decades old and unavailable — which has no proven correlation to teacher effectiveness.

The Florida Education Association is now asking a federal judge to step in and declare the program illegal and discriminatory against teachers who are older and who are non-white.

The FEA first made the accusation two years ago through a complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — an avenue the union said Friday it had to exhaust before it was recently given federal authorization to file a lawsuit.

“The SAT/ACT score requirement has an illegal disparate impact on teachers based on their age and on teachers based on their black and Hispanic race,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys, John Davis and Kent Spriggs, argued in the 58-page lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee. “The SAT/ACT score requirement is not required by business necessity and is not related to job performance.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Florida Department of Education [Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times]

September 17, 2017

Clinton visits Miami-Dade shelter still housing Irma victims


The hundreds of Hurricane Irma refugees still living in the last remaining local emergency shelter got a surprise visit Sunday afternoon from a high-profile guest: former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton dropped in on the shelter at the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exhibition fairgrounds at Tamiami Park, a source familiar with the trip told the Miami Herald. Some 700 evacuees from the Miami area and the Florida Keys were living in the shelter as of Sunday morning, down from about 900 on Saturday night.

Clinton’s visit, which was closed to news reporters, was organized after the former president inquired about how he might say hello to Irma victims. Guiding Clinton through the shelter was Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

The county moved evacuees into the fairgrounds after shutting down the other 41 shelters opened ahead of the storm. They were then joined by Keys evacuees, who had previously been housed next door at Florida International University. Monroe County started allowing Lower Keys residents to return home Saturday.

More here.

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, Miami Herald staff

September 15, 2017

Scott picks Ritch Workman over Ron Brisé for PSC post

BrisePageGov. Rick Scott rejected the re-appointment of Ron Brisé, a former Democratic legislator from North Miami, to a third term on the state’s powerful Public Service Commission Friday, replacing him with a former lawmaker from Melbourne.

Scott named David “Ritch” Workman, 44, a former state legislator who how serves as the director of business development at Keiser University, to the utility board, replacing Brisé, a former telecommunications consultant.

The appointment was one of three made by Scott to the five-member utility board that oversees regulation of the state’s electric, water and sewer industries.

Workman has worked as an Uber driver, served in the Florida Army National Guard, and received his bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University. He has no utility industry experience. His term will expire Jan. 1, 2022.

Brisé, 44, had been a telecommunications consultant before he was first appointed to the Public Service Commission in 2010 by former Gov. Charlie Crist. He had been reappointed to the four-year term by Scott and was seeking a third term. When he represented North Miami, Brisé had been an outspoken critic of Florida Power & Light’s high voltage transmission lines and sought to give the community more input in the process.

Scott reappointed Art Graham, 53, of Jacksonville Beach, who was also first appointed by Crist in 2010. He has previously served as a city councilman for the City of Jacksonville Beach. His term also ends Jan. 1, 2022.

Scott also appointed Gary Clark, 49, of Chipley, to the shortest term on the commission. Clark, the deputy secretary of Land and Recreation at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, will fill the seat vacated by Jimmy Patronis. The former Panama City legislator left the commission when Scott named him to be the state’s chief financial officer.

Clark received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix. His term began Friday and will extend through Jan. 1, 2019.


Marathon residents could be able to return by Sunday

Marathon homes Raedle
@PatriciaMazzei @HowardCohen @lesleyclark @DavidGoodhue

MARATHON -- Residents of the Florida Keys may be allowed in as far as Marathon as early as Saturday and at the latest by Sunday, Monroe County leaders said Friday, urging patience as they described in greater detail than ever before some of the widespread, systemic damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

There is no estimate yet for when people who live in the hardest-hit Lower Keys might be allowed to return. Key West has already had some electric and water service restored; the problem is getting there without interrupting the work that is being done to help the islands that took the brunt of the Category 4 storm and lack full power, water or sewer services.

When might Lower Keys residents get the OK to drive back down?

“I’m going to stick my neck out,” Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi estimated, “and say that, at the rate we’re going, probably another week or so.”

Residents, who have sought all week to get home, might have finally resigned themselves. At 4 p.m. Friday, no cars were in line at the Mile Marker 74 checkpoint where a day earlier frustrated drivers pleaded with state troopers to let them through. 

Conditions have undeniably improved over the last few days. Cell phone service, while still spotty, now extends more deeply into the Keys. More places have power. Utility and debris pickup crews dot U.S. 1, including a team working Friday from a small boat.

What emergency managers most fear: that the early recovery will be overwhelmed once people start returning to the 110-mile island chain en masse. Only about 10 percent of Lower Keys residents stayed through the storm, estimated Marty Senterfitt, the county’s emergency director.

“Our system is very fragile right now, and if we open the gates, it collapses,” he said. “You’re going to see the crisis escalate again.”

More here.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

No decision yet on which traditional public schools will get 'Schools of Hope' aid

Johnson and stewart


Some of Florida’s lowest-performing traditional public schools will have to wait a bit longer to find out if they’ll be among the 25 schools that will get financial help through a new state program called “Schools of Hope.”

The State Board of Education was supposed to meet in Tallahassee on Wednesday to select the recipients out of the 57 eligible schools that applied.

But, like so much else in Florida this week, Hurricane Irma derailed those plans.

The board met instead by conference call on Wednesday, and it left a decision on the “Hope” schools for another day.

More here.

Photo credit: Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, left, and State Board of Education Chairwoman Marva Johnson listen during a May 2017 meeting of the state board. [Florida Channel]