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January 04, 2017

Legislators will replace post-Mosaic pollution rule with law requiring 24-hour notice

In the wake of the Mosaic fertilizer spill last summer, Florida legislators are drafting a law to require companies and local officials to notify the public when pollution threatens public drinking water.

The legislation, being drafted by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, is in response to a judge's ruling on Friday that rejected an emergency rule imposed by Gov. Rick Scott in September. Scott's rule was imposed after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Mosaic, the world's largest phosphate company, failed to notify the public for more than three weeks that the company had dumped 215 million gallons of contaminated water into the Florida aquifer.

After DEP claimed it had no obligation to notify the public about the pollution problem unless the contamination showed up beyond the borders of the company's property, the resulting public outcry provoked the governor to order the emergency rule. The rule required the owner or operator of a facility to notify DEP, local government and the general public of the pollution event within 24 hours of the onset of the contamination.

Scott said he was taking that step not only because of the sinkhole at the Mosaic facility in Mulberry, but also because of the delay in St. Petersburg officials reporting the tens of millions of gallons of sewage that the city's aging wastewater system released into Tampa Bay after Hurricane Hermine.

The rule, which was posted Nov. 15, was challenged by business groups as Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Trucking Association. 

But Judge Bram D. E. Canter said in the 19-page order on Friday that DEP had overstepped its authority in approving the new rule and that only the state Legislature can enact such a change in how the public is notified regarding pollution.

“This ruling is disappointing for Floridians who deserve prompt notification when potentially hazardous pollution occurs in their communities,” said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa in a statement on Tuesday. “However, the Legislature now has the opportunity to craft a permanent solution that will protect the health and safety of our citizens while preserving our environmental resources for future generations. I am heartened that Gov. Scott has made this issue a priority and House Democrats look forward to working with him on this vital protection for Floridians.”

Galvano and Peters each told the Herald/Times they are working with the governor's office to draft the legislation to achieve the goals sought by the original rule.

The issue promises to be a controversial one, however, as several lobbying organizations, have signed up to weigh in on the issue, according to the House's lobbyists disclosure portal. Among them is the Helena Chemical Company, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Gas Transmission Company, the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Associations of Realtors, the Florida Energy Pipeline Association and the Florida Association of Counties. 

Tampa Bay reporter Craig Pittman contributed to this report. 

Sarasota Senator wants to end short-term rental restrictions statewide



City and county governments would no longer be able to stop homeowners from renting their homes for less than a month or even just a week, under legislation a Sarasota Republican has filed.

Currently cities and counties have varying rules statewide on rental properties, particularly on beachfront communities. Some areas bar homeowners from renting their homes for less than 6 months at a time. Others allow for 1 month rentals. Yet others allow weekly rentals.

State Sen. Greg Steube said it makes no sense to have a patchwork of laws that infringe on private property rights. Steube said if a person wants to rent out their home for just one week and the home is in a area with zoning that allowed for it, then it should be allowed.

Steube said he and his wife were recently looking to invest in a home in Flagler Beach to rent out. But he said they were told rules there would not allow them to rent out the property for less than 6 months at a time.

“It’s a private property rights issue to me,” Steube said.

Steube’s bill follows up on similar legislation that passed in 2014 that barred cities and counties from restricting duration of rentals if they didn’t already have a law in place - that essentially grandfathered municipalities who had older ordinances to keep restricting rentals. But Steube wants those grandfathered rules eliminated too.

His bill comes at a time some communities, like in Pinellas County, are pushing the Legislature to go the other way and allow them to once again impose minimum limits on how long property can be rented. At the Pinellas County delegation meeting earlier this month, lawmakers heard from officials from Indian Rocks and Redington Beach who say the state needs to give them authority to stop the weekly turnover that comes with shorter rentals.

January 03, 2017

Trump wants to halt Guantánamo transfers. No, says White House

via @carolrosenberg

With little over two weeks left in the Obama administration, and Congress on notice of a series of looming detainee transfers, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday for a cessation of Guantánamo prisoner releases. The Obama administration swiftly rejected the request.

Expect announcements of additional transfers before Inauguration Day, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. Trump will “have an opportunity to implement the policy that he believes is most effective when he takes office on Jan. 20,” he added.

Of the 59 captives currently held at the detention center, 23 are cleared for release to other countries with security assurances that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Ten are charged with crimes and the remaining 26 are held as indefinite detainees in the war on terror, or “forever prisoners.” Carter has sent notices to Congress of planned transfers for most, but not all, of the 23 cleared captives that could begin later this week. 

It was unclear what prompted the president-elect to tweet on the topic with such urgency on Tuesday. “There should be no further releases from Gitmo,” the president-elect said, using the shorthand for the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba. “These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.”

More here.

Florida Democratic Party chair feud erupts over residency


With the race for Florida Democratic Party chair less than two weeks away, activists are fighting over who is eligible to remain in the running.

An activist filed a challenge with the party alleging that Alan Clendenin, who moved counties to keep his chair bid alive, is ineligible to run. When Clendenin lost a race for state committeeman in Hillsborough, he then rented a mobile home in Bradford County and won a similar position there. 

Patricia Byrd, a state committeewoman in Bay County, wrote in the Dec. 30 complaint that Clendenin has homestead exemptions in Hillsborough and Manatee counties and doesn't actually live in Bradford.

"It appears that Mr. Clendenin has disengenuously played a shell game with residences and homestead exemptions in total violation of state election laws and state homestead laws for the sole purpose of positioning himself to be eligible to run for the state party chairman," Byrd wrote. "However, despite his best efforts, it is clear that he was not, and is not, a resident of Bradford County."

Clendenin called the complaint "petty gamesmanship." 

Property records show that Clendenin and John Pecchio are co-owners of the two homesteaded properties. Clendenin said he takes the homestead exemption on the Tampa home and Pecchio, his partner, takes it on the Manatee home. 

Scott Tussing, director of public service and exemptions for Manatee County, confirmed that Pecchio is the only one who has the homestead exemption for the Manatee property and Clendenin has it for the Hillsborough county. (If they were a married couple, the situation would be different and then only one home could be homesteaded. The couple is not married.)

Richard Boylan, chair of the party's rules committee, said he hadn't yet received the complaint.

Clendenin wasn't the only candidate to move counties in the hopes of keeping his candidacy alive.

Former state Sen. Dwight Bullard moved to Gadsden County where he won a state committeeman position after he lost a similar election in Miami-Dade to Coconut Grove developer/donor Stephen Bittel. Voter registration records show that on Dec. 27th Bullard changed his address for voting purposes to 36 Lanier Lane, Gretna but listed his address in Miami-Dade for mailing purposes. The Gretna address doesn't exist in records on the Gadsden property appraiser website. Bullard, a teacher at Coral Reef Senior High in Miami, hasn't responded to text messages or an email about his move.

Winning a county position is a requirement to run for chair. In addition to Clendenin, Bullard and Bittel, Duval County's Lisa King and Osceola County Democratic Chair Leah Carius are also running.

All five candidates will appear at a forum in Pompano Beach Jan. 11th and they face off in the election Orlando Jan. 14th.

This blog has been updated with comments from the Manatee County property appraiser's office.



Rubio lands appropriations committee spot

via @learyreports

Sen. Marco Rubio, sworn in this afternoon to a second term, has taken on two new committees: Appropriations and the Special Committee on Aging.

He retains his posts on the Committee on Foreign Relations, the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

He will no longer serve on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which had oversight on space issues.

“With so many threats to America’s national security around the world, I look forward to continuing my work on the foreign relations and intelligence committees," Rubio said in a statement. "In the days and weeks ahead, we must reestablish America’s moral standing in the world, and make it absolutely clear that the United States will remain a true friend of Israel and a beacon of hope and freedom to oppressed people everywhere. The challenges posed by countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia, China and North Korea will require decisive American leadership and resolve.

“We also have a lot of work to do here at home. Too many Americans have been left behind in the 21st century economy, and there is real anxiety among parents that their children will not have the same opportunities they had to work hard, pursue the American Dream, and climb the economic ladder. That’s not acceptable, and I’m going to work with anyone who wants to find real solutions for workers and their families. Of course, a key factor in growing our economy from the bottom up is our small businesses, and I’ll continue to collaborate closely with Florida job creators during my work on the small business committee.

“One major thing that will cost us jobs and hamstring our economy is our rising debt. With federal spending at record highs, our national debt has nearly doubled over the last eight years, despite the fact that government is taking in more tax revenue than ever before. The primary drivers of this unsustainable imbalance are our entitlement programs. More and more people are retiring, and while sunny Florida hopes to welcome them all, the rising number of retirees means we’re going to have to find ways to make Medicare and Social Security work better for everyone, so that people like my mother can continue to rely on these important programs and they are still there when our children need them. The committees on aging and appropriations will be at the center of these policy discussions, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to go to work for the people of Florida on these committees.”

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

2 Miami Republicans favor gutting congressional ethics office


UPDATE: In an emergency meeting Tuesday, House Republicans agreed to reverse their decision to curtail the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics, after facing public backlash and skepticism from President-elect Donald Trump. Here's an updated statement from Curbelo:

"The House ethics process needs to be reformed in order to better investigate allegations of misconduct. I support referring this matter to the House Ethics committee where Republicans and Democrats can work together on bipartisan reforms that would ensure Members of Congress are‎ held accountable while given due process to address accusations."

A full, updated story has been posted here.

ORIGINAL POST: U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday they backed the Republican conference's move to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.

The OCE, created eight years ago after a series of congressional scandals, would be renamed the Office of Congressional Complaint Review and, instead of being independent, report to the GOP-controlled House Ethics Committee.

Republicans' decision, proposed by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and made without notice in a private party meeting on Monday, a federal holiday, prompted immediate rebuke from Democrats, government watchdog groups and even some Republicans. But don't count Ros-Lehtinen and Curbelo among them.

"I voted for Rep. Goodlatte's amendment to improve and reorganize the renamed Office of Congressional Complaint Review (OCCR) because it includes much needed oversight and accountability from the House Ethics Committee," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement to the Miami Herald. "The reforms will allow for due process rights for all parties involved and will ensure a fair hearing as Members of Congress seek to better serve our constituents."

Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said in a statement to the Herald that Curbelo also backs the changes.

"Coming from a district that knows firsthand the impact corruption has on a community, Congressman Curbelo has always been committed to ensuring members of Congress are held accountable and allegations of misconduct are investigated seriously<" she said. "The Office of Congressional Ethics has not lived up to its stated mission and reforms are long overdue to strengthen its ability to take complaints from the public, complete independent investigations, and provide due process for those facing allegations of misconduct. The Congressman supports Speaker [Paul] Ryan's commitment to protect the Office's independence and he is dedicated to making sure that commitment is honored.

"The Congressman will be supporting H.Res. 5, the complete Rules Package for the 115th Congress on the House Floor later today."

Ryan opposed the ethics amendment, which the GOP conference agreed to with a 119-74 vote. Because the vote took place in a private party meeting, there is no public disclosure of how each member voted.

The third Miami Republican in Congress, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, told the Herald in a statement that while the ethics office needs an overhaul, he doesn't think the rules legislation is the way to change things.

"The Office of Congressional Ethics is in dire need of reform," Diaz-Balart said. "Members of Congress must be held accountable to the highest standard in a process that is fair and just. I strongly believe the way to do this is in a bipartisan, open discussion through legislation, not through the rules package."

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that dealing with the ethics office shouldn't be Congress' first priority, though he still called the office "unfair." He used the hashtag "#DTS," from his campaign mantra to "drain the swamp."

This post has been updated to include Diaz-Balart.

Ron Book is big winner in local government lobbying contracts

For the first time, the Florida House is posting copies of contracts between lobbyists and local governments online and more than a third of the first set of contracts posted are with one lobbying firm: Ron Book of Aventura.

BookSarnoffBook has been a fixture in the halls of the Capitol for four decades and has built local government lobbying work into a cottage industry in Florida.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O-Lakes, is a vocal critic of the practice. He has called it a "disgrace" that cities, counties, school boards, sheriffs and others spend tax dollars on hired lobbyists to represent their interests in Tallahassee. Corcoran says local elected officials should be doing that work themselves, and that legislators should be able to look out for local interests without the help of hired guns.

But the practice is common and has grown over the past decade. Lobbyists hired to represent local governments often get unparalleled access to the powerful because they make campaign contributions, which cities and counties can't do. Many local governments also hire lobbying firms in Washington, too.   

Corcoran, who has challenged business as usual in the state Capitol on a number of fronts, could not get a consensus of House members to outlaw the practice in the House rules, which they could have done. Instead, the rules require mandatory disclosure of all government contracts by any lobbyist who lobbies the House. No such requirement exists in the Senate.

Taxpayer-funded lobbying contracts are already public record. However, this is the first time they will be posted in one place where anyone can compare what comparably-sized cities and counties pay for the same work by contract lobbyists. The disclosures could easily set off a bidding war, as lobbyists and local officials discover for the first time wide disparities in what cities and counties are paying.

Seventeen of the first 46 contracts posted online are with Book's Aventura firm, totaling more than $1 million a year.

Nearly all are with local governments in South Florida. Miami-Dade County paid Book $120,000 over the past year, Fort Lauderdale paid him $97,500 and Broward County paid $53,000. The city of Tallahassee pays a total of $90,000 to Book's firm and the lobbying firm of Sean Pittman.

Nine small-to-medium sized South Florida cities also pay Book an average of about $50,000 a year each. They are Aventura, Bal Harbour Village, Cooper City, Dania Beach, Marathon, North Miami, Sunny Isles Beach, Sunrise and Tamarac.

Book and his associate Kelly Mallette also lobby on behalf of the Public Health Trust, which operates Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Book, whose daughter Lauren Book is a newly-elected Democratic senator from Broward County, said his first tax-supported client was the South Broward Hospital District in Hollywood more than 20 years ago. "When nobody was representing local government, we started representing local governments," Book told the Herald/Times. ""We felt they were entitled to the same type of representation that private sector clients were receiving."

Book also posted his lobbying contracts with Brevard County and the cities of Palm Bay and Marco Island.

Marco Island, on Florida's southwest coast, with a year-round population of about 17,000 residents, pays Book $60,000 a year to lobby on its behalf in Tallahassee. A 10-page contract requires that Book meet with city officials no less than once a year and to "monitor and track all legislation of interest to the city."

Lobbyist and former state Rep. Paul Hawkes, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Cardenas Partners LLC, the Fiorentino Group and Rutledge Ecenia are among the other firms whose contracts are the first to be posted online.


Report: Women in Florida are poorer, have less health care and make up a growing racial divide compared to other states


In Florida, women are poorer and have less access to healthcare and development opportunities than most states in the country, according to a recent poverty report.

The number of women 18 and older in Florida living below the poverty line is 15.4 percent (compared to men, which is 12.2 percent), according to the study, The Status of Women in Florida by County: Poverty & Opportunity, by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In 2004, the percentage of women below the poverty line was 12.6.

The number of women and men living below the poverty line in Florida is higher than the national average. In the United States, 14.6 percent of women 18 or older and 11.1 percent of men live below the poverty line.

“Poverty, and especially poverty among women and women of color, continues to be a persistent problem” in Florida, states the annual report, published since 2004 and supported by various women and non-profit organizations. The Institute has been publishing a national report on the status of women since 1996.

Read more here:

December 30, 2016

Florida Democratic Party chair forum set in Broward



The drama of the race to lead the Florida Democratic Party will travel to left-leaning Broward when the candidates convene at a forum in Pompano Beach Jan. 11.

Wealthy donor/developer Stephen Bittel, activist Alan Clendenin, former state Sen. Dwight Bullard, Duval County's Lisa King and Osceola Democratic chair Leah Carius have all confirmed they will attend, said Tim Canova, one of the organizers. The forum gives Democratic activists in Broward -- the county with the highest number of registered Democrats -- a chance to hear how the candidates hope to reinvigorate the party after its crushing defeat in November with an eye toward 2018 races for Senate and governor.

But ultimately, the opinion of only two Democrats in Broward matter -- state committeeman Ken Evans and committeewoman Grace Carrington -- who get a powerful vote in the chair election in Orlando Jan. 14th.

Evans said he hasn't decided who he will vote for but said he will base his decision on who Broward Democrats coalesce around. Carrington said in a text to the Miami Herald "I'm not making my decision until 10 minutes before the vote."

Votes are weighted based on the number of registered Democrats in each county which means that Broward and Miami-Dade get a major say in the chair election to replace Allison Tant.

Chair candidates have been racing around the state meeting with Democratic leaders who get a vote and other activists who will try to sway the vote.

One of the key organizers of the Pompano forum is Progress for All, a group headed by former Congressional candidate Canova who lost the Democratic primary to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Canova said he hasn't backed any candidate so far. 

The race for Florida Democratic Party chair has been full of drama. Weeks ago, it appeared that Bittel, a wealthy donor and Coconut Grove developer, was the frontrunner when other key candidates failed to become eligible in their own counties. In Miami-Dade, Bret Berlin won a state committeeman seat and then quickly resigned to make way for Bittel to run for the post, a prerequisite to running statewide. Bittel beat Bullard 250-161.

It appeared that Bullard had given up -- he didn't show up for his own election because he was on a family cruise. But then he revived his bid by moving to Gadsden County, a small rural county in northern Florida, where he won a state committeeman spot Tuesday. 

Bullard was the second candidate to move to keep his candidacy alive: after Clendenin lost in Hillsborough County, he moved into a rented trailer in Bradford County and won a similar post there.