A year after vacating his Miami Beach City Commission office amid a campaign finance scandal, newly elected state representative Michael Grieco wants to move back into the building. But his request to set up shop near the entrance to city hall, which would displace city employees, hasn’t gone over well with some former colleagues.
Grieco requested a space on the first floor — wedged between the elevators leading up to the commission chamber — to use as his primary district office in his new role representing Miami Beach, North Bay Village, Little Havana, downtown Miami and Fisher Island in the Florida Legislature. Grieco’s predecessor, David Richardson, rented office space on the fourth floor of a city-owned building next door for $311 a month, but Grieco argued that the city hall office would be more accessible and easier for constituents to find. He asked for a $1 annual lease, the same price Miami-Dade County pays to rent a space on the first floor for the county commissioner whose district includes Miami Beach.
City Manager Jimmy Morales told Grieco that the space he wanted wasn’t available and offered Richardson’s old office instead. The problem, Morales explained in a memo to commissioners, is that the office Grieco wants is already occupied by the Urban Forestry division and five city employees. Residents visit the office every day seeking tree permits, Morales wrote, which are often required for construction permits that can be obtained in the same building. Relocating the office, he said, “will likely result in added cost to the city, in addition to the inconvenience to our customers.”
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The next leader of the Florida Senate rejected the sharp political discourse that dominates America's politics, telling his fellow senators today that the chamber will be an "example" to other states and governments over the next two years.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who took over for Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Tuesday, encouraged both sides to come together after a "vigorously fought" election cycle.
"As Senate President, I have very little ability to change the national discourse, or to stem the tide of modern-day incivility that is so pervasive in an era of social media and 24-hour news cycle," he said, "But I can tell you as Senate president, and while I’m Senate president, that the Florida Senate will have civility, transparency, candor, and provide opportunity."
He added that the actions of his fellow senators "stand in stark contrast to much of the dialogue we are witnessing today, not just in the political process, but really, in all areas of society."
Galvano, a soft-spoken moderate who has spent 16 years in the Legislature, earned praise last year for leading the Parkland school safety bill through the Senate last year.
It was a largely bipartisan bill that included some of the first gun restrictions in Florida in decades, earning him the ire of the National Rifle Association and a $200,000 check to his political committee from the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund.
"Incoming Florida Senate President Bill Galvano calls himself a Republican but is rumored to be the one who colluded with anti-gun Democrats to engineer the gun control package," NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer wrote in September.
Tuesday's swearing in, with Governor-elect Ron DeSantis watching, kicked off the start of the 2019 legislative session. Over the next few months, lawmakers will begin pitching bills until March 5, when the official two-month sprint in the legislature begins.
Galvano said he couldn't predict what lawmakers would be facing next year, but he encouraged his colleagues to "think innovatively." He said that he looked forward to implementing the many constitutional amendments that were passed this year.
"Together, we can be the example for other states and world governments, as to how to focus on policy, not politics, service, not severance," he said.
His message of unity earned praise from the Democratic minority leader, Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.
"You have always been a measured thinker, very receptive to ideas, and very thoughtful and willing to listen," Gibson said.
The massive bill passed into law in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting contained a slew of highly contentious proposals that divided Florida's moderate Republicans from the staunchest Second Amendment buffs on the right and Democrats seeking tighter gun control on the left.
But another mandate of the new law received much less attention during the final weeks of the 2018 legislative session, yet it got presidential praise yesterday.
The "FortifyFL" app was unveiled by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who said the app will allow students and members of the public to anonymously report "suspicious activity." That includes any "information concerning unsafe, potentially harmful, dangerous, violent, or criminal activities, or the threat of these activities," according to a press release from her office. That information will then be forwarded to police and school officials.
President Trump, who was with Bondi at an International Association of Chiefs of Police event in Orlando on Monday, tweeted about the app.
Bondi held a press conference about the new app at a hotel in Orlando, across the street from the Orlando Convention Center where she was with Trump shortly before.
The press release also credited Bondi with getting the language that created the app into the new law.
"After Parkland, I made it my mission to ensure that when students provide information that could potentially save lives, there would be a centralized tool they could use to quickly send that information to the right authorities," Bondi said in the statement.
The app, which was available for download on Monday afternoon, will be monitored by both the Florida Department of Law Enforcement "in collaboration" with the Attorney General's office and the Department of Education, according to law.
Mariana "Marili" Cancio has long been a supporter of local anti-violence groups, financially funding hotel rooms and T-shirts while successfully advocating for a witness protection law last year.
The Republican candidate for the Florida Senate District 40 race touted that work on a recent mailer. On one side, she posed with Tangela Sears, the founder of Miami Dade Parents of Murdered Kids, a support group Sears began after her own son was killed in 2015.
On the other side, the mailer said Cancio's efforts were recognized by Sears' organization and the Trayvon Martin Foundation.
But the foundation's namesake, who was from Miami and became the face of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign when his murder was publicized in 2012, was misspelled on the mailer. Trayvon was spelled with an "e."
"That's definitely not the spelling," said Kat Tynes, spokeswoman for the Trayvon Martin Foundation based out of Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. "it just takes a few seconds to do some research just to make sure the research is accurate."
When first asked about the typo by the Miami Herald, Cancio said, "There's been a lot of mailers."
Cancio sent the Miami Herald a photo of a plaque from the Miami Dade Parents of Murdered Kids and the Trayvon Martin Foundation, dated May 2016, recognizing Cancio for her "support, commitment and dedication on our journey to justice."
"I'm proud of the work I've done for this community." she said.
Tynes said Cancio was recognized at a joint event hosted by Sears and her organization, but that the Trayvon Martin Foundation has not "directly" honored Cancio.
But Sears says Cancio should not use her organization or the Trayvon Martin Foundation on the campaign trail and has asked Cancio's campaign to cease mentioning those groups.
"It's misspelled and it shouldn't have been there," Sears said, adding, "I don't mix our dead kids work up with politics. I support her and I'm willing to advise her without parading groups of dead kids."
Cancio gave no further comment.
Cancio is running against Democratic candidate Annette Taddeo, who won the Southwest Miami-Dade seat in the 2017 special election.
Parkland activist David Hogg appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday to announce a partnership with dozens of mayors across the country to register young voters in high school and college ahead of the general elections in November.
Hogg, a crusader for stricter gun laws following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was joined Thursday by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and educators died during the Valentine's Day shooting, said dozens of U.S. mayors — including a handful in South Florida — would pledge to make resources available for a community-wide voter registration to take place Sept. 25, which will coincide with the Sept. 25 National Voter Registration Day.
As part of the so-called Mayors for Our Lives effort, named after the March for Our Lives movement against gun violence, city leaders from Parkland to Los Angeles have agreed to dedicate resources to a community-wide voter registration day on high school and college campuses within their respective cities.
“It’s a push toward the general,” said Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky, who was recruited to join the effort. “The more people who are involved in the process, the better it is for democracy.”
In Florida, the final day to register to vote in the general election is Oct. 9.
During his TV spot, Hogg said young voters were critical to the victory of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the Democratic primary for governor of Florida — and that poll numbers don’t take recently registered voters into account.
“We had a Florida team going...to every Congressional district, all 27, in Florida throughout the summer registering thousands of new voters,” Hogg said, referring to the March for Our Lives: Road to Change voter registration tour that launched over the summer. “Our team from March for Our Lives Orlando helped promote voter registration so much that it went up 90 percent. In Florida, youth registration is up 41 percent. Those people are not taken into account in polls.”
NextGen America, a political action committee formed by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, said voter turnout in college-area precincts jumped during Tuesday's primary. In Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, turnout was up 10 percent, according to the PAC, which backed Gillum financially. Precincts in Tallahassee that skew younger saw five times more votes cast Tuesday compared to 2014's primary election.
In Florida, the mayors of Parkland, North Miami, Pembroke Pines and Miami Gardens have pledged to help register young voters through the Mayors for Our Lives effort.
“What we’re doing with Mayors for Our Lives is we’re announcing a campaign that’s bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats, to register a new generation of voters,” Hogg said.
Hunschofsky, who said her city saw a two-to-threefold increase in overall voter turnout compared to the last midterm primaries, said the city commission would present some of the members of March for Our Lives with a city proclamation designating Sept. 25 as National Voter Registration Day in Parkland.
She said the Broward County Supervisor of Elections would work with schools across the county to make resources available during the registration drive.
“As a mayor, I’m extremely proud of our students and I’m extremely proud of our city,” she said. “Civic engagement is a crucial part of our democracy.”
Airboat operators carrying passengers on their boats will soon have more stringent requirements to pilot their vessels, after a deadly crash that killed a University of Miami graduate last year.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved new course requirements Tuesday, following the passage of a law that directed the agency to set new regulations for commercial airboat operators earlier this year. The legislation, named for 22-year-old victim Ellie Goldenberg, requires airboat operators to complete a more comprehensive training course and pass an exam to pilot the powerful boats, which are popular with tourists in the Everglades.
In the last several years, commercial airboat tours have had little official oversight, with no required licenses for operators or specific safety classes. Though airboat operators are currently required to complete a general eight-hour boating safety course, no background checks are required and no education specific to airboating is mandated. The flat-bottomed boats, propelled by powerful airplane-like engines, do need to be registered with the FWC and have basic features like a muffler for the engine’s sound. But insurance is often not required and airboat operators have been otherwise unregulated.
A Miami New Times analysis found more than 75 accidents involving private and commercial airboats in the last three years, with at least seven deaths and more than 100 injuries.
The rule approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission Tuesday will require operators to be certified in CPR and first aid, subject to a fine. Anyone operating an airboat with passengers must also take a course with at least 24 hours of instruction, including 8 hours of classroom time and 14 hours on the water. Courses will be required to cover several topics, including state and federal boating requirements, navigation rules, environmental concerns, ecosystem awareness and the causes and prevention of airboat accidents.
Airboat operators will also have to pass a final exam of at least 50 questions, and course instructors will have their own standards too: at least 120 hours of experience operating an airboat in the last three years and no felony convictions in the last five years.
“Public safety is important to the FWC, and with the Legislature’s guidance, this new rule provides additional requirements for airboat operator courses which will improve safety measures for passengers aboard an airboat for hire,” commission chairman Bo Rivard said in a statement.
The law behind the new rules was approved during this year's legislative session after Goldenberg, a recent theater graduate at the University of Miami, was killed during an Everglades airboat tour last May. The 22-year-old died the day after she received her diploma when, during the tour her family took to celebrate, the craft flipped over and trapped her underneath. The other passengers on the boat and the operator survived.
Blood tests showed the airboat operator, Steven George Gagne, had high levels of THC, the active compound in marijuana. But Gagne was not charged with a crime after prosecutors said they were unable to definitively prove Gagne was piloting recklessly. Among the obstacles in charging Gagne was the fact Florida law does not set a standard for how much THC can be considered operating a vehicle or vessel “under the influence.”
Goldenberg's death spurred her family to push for legislation in Tallahassee that would tighten requirements in airboating. The bill, which was nicknamed “Ellie’s Law,” directed the FWC to set stronger standards for airboat operators and for required courses before they can pilot the crafts.
The rules will go into effect by Jul. 1, 2019.
Goldenberg's father, David, said the rules were a "step in the right direction" but insufficient in addressing his daughter's death. He said he intends to return to lawmakers next year to increase the penalties for violating the new boating requirements to make sure the law "has some teeth."
An earlier version of the legislation made violating the new regulations a more severe second-degree misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to 60 days, though it was amended down to a more lenient penalty.
"A misdemeanor means nothing — it's not even a slap on the wrist," he said. He said he also intends to advocate for a law punishing drug use among operators: "Just because there's no marijuana law in Florida yet is not a good enough reason," he said. Gagne "walked off scot free and he killed my daughter."
Photo: The airboat that crashed last year in the Everglades, killing recent University of Miami graduate Ellie Goldenberg. [Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office]
They made clear Wednesday their concerns that the program could be ripe for abuse by families more interested in getting vouchers than in protecting children who really were victimized.
"The way the statute reads, we would have to make the scholarship [notification] available even if the allegations were not merited," Santa Rosa County assistant superintendent Bill Emerson said during an hour-long rule-making conference call. "What we're asking is if we've interpreted that correctly."
State Department of Education officials couldn't disagree.
Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, responded to Emerson by reading from the law, which was included in HB 7055 passed in the spring.
It reads, in relevant part, "a student enrolled in a Florida public school in kindergarten through grade 12 is eligible for a scholarship under this program if the student reported an incident" listed in the law. Those include bullying, fighting, sexual harassment and several other offenses.
Once a principal receives a report, the school must investigate the incident. Miller continued reading:
"Upon conclusion of the investigation or within 15 days after the incident was reported, whichever occurs first, the school district shall notify the parent of the program and offer the parent an opportunity to enroll his or her student in another public school that has capacity or to request and receive a scholarship to attend an eligible private school, subject to available funding."
What if two students were equally involved in a fight and neither reported it? Would the district have to inform families of the scholarship program, asked St. Johns County government relations liaison Beth Sweeny.
Not if the student doesn't initiate a report, Miller said.
But what if both students report being involved in a fight or another of the listed offenses?
"Then the notification would go to both," Miller answered.
This scenario has been a driving concern of the scholarship critics, who pointed out that the law as written does not prevent someone from creating a situation simply to get a state-supported private school scholarship.
A May 30 report from the PreK-12 Education Impact Conference estimated that 7,302 Hope Scholarships will be awarded to students in the 2018-2019 school year, with the most going to kids in sixth through eighth grades because of the bullying rates in those groups.
The report estimates that $27 million will be collected for the pilot year, which will come from people who elect to have the sales tax from a car purchase directed toward the Hope Scholarship fund, per the new law. That money is expected to be available to start being distributed to students in late 2018.
The Senate attempted to rewrite the bill to offer scholarships to students with "substantiated" incidents, but the House did not agree.
Proponents questioned why a family would disrupt its school life unless the children had true safety problems. The bill sponsors repeatedly said their goal was to give victims a way out.
They did leave the door open for less egregious incidents to qualify.
"The reasonable parent is not going to say, 'Oh my gosh, I have to move my child,' because of a minor random incident," sponsor Rep. Byron Donalds said in November, when presenting the measure in committee. "Would they still be afforded the information? Yes they would."
Emerson said the districts were asking the Department of Education to consider tightening up that aspect within the rule. Miller said that couldn't happen.
"We don't have the ability to revise what is explicitly provided for in the law," Miller said.
The department will continue to take comments on the proposed rule on its website until the State Board of Education votes on it. That vote is tentatively set for July 18.
This report was written by Tampa By Times reporter Jeffrey Solochek and Tallahassee bureau reporter Emily L. Mahoney contributed.
The National Rifle Association is famous for assigning letter grades to politicians based on how they respond to the organization's questionnaire.
And this year, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Florida, Marion Hammer, is clearly still fuming over the most recent legislative session, in which lawmakers passed several gun-related reforms in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
This year's survey asks politicians whether they will repeal parts of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act (the NRA calls it the "Gun Control/School Safety" bill). It's not a popular idea and so far has limited public support.
The survey was sent to Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who's running for a state House seat in Orlando.
She noted it was sent a week before the two-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, which was the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history at the time.
"Hard pass, and heading to the recycle bin," she wrote on Twitter today, along with a picture of the envelope.
The four-page questionnaire by the NRA and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida is full of defenses of the Second Amendment, and it calls out "anti-gun school administrators" who don't support concealed carry permit holders on campuses.
Here are some of the questions (and photos of the questionnaire by Eskamani are below):
1. In our view, completion of this questionnaire and signing your name is giving your word. NRA and USF members as well as other constituents in your district trust you to keep your word. Do you agree that your answers are giving your word and that we expect you to keep it?
2 (c). Do you believe elected officials commit an act of malfeasance if they violate their Oath of Office and support legislation that contains provisions that they believe are unconstitutional?
3. The 2018 "Gun Control/School Safety" bill contained gun control provisions that we believe are unconstitutional. In addition to the lawsuits that have been filed against the state to overturn these provisions, pro-gun legislators have pledged to file legislation to repeal the gun control provisions.
3 (a) The new law prohibits adults between 18-21 years of age from purchasing a firearm. Adults 18 and older can vote, sign contracts, become law enforcement officers and join the military. Will you support legislation to repeal this provision of the law?
3 (b) The new law also imposes a 3-day waiting period between the purchase and the delivery of any firearm. There is no empirical evidence that waiting periods stop crime or violence. Will you support repeal of the 3-day waiting period provision of the law?
3 (c) Additionally, the law imposes a ban on the sale, transfer and possession of bump stocks, which are used to increase the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles AND any accessory, device or kit that can be used to increase the rate of fire of a firearm. This language, which is undefined, is so broad that it could include anything that improves the function of a firearm, including scopes, competition triggers and forgegrips, to name a few such items. The law makes anyone who sells, transfers or possesses these items, which were acquired legally, a felon. Will you support repeal of the bump stock, accessory, device and kit provision of the law?
5. Licenses to carry Concealed Weapons & Firearms are issued only to persons who are 21 years of age or older. The constitutional right of self-defense does not end when a person enters the campus of a college or university. Do you believe that anti-gun school administrators should be stopped from discriminating against persons licensed by the state to lawfully carry firearms for self-defense?
So when state lawmakers in 2013 passed a law requiring licensed check-cashers to report, in real time, the people and checks passing through their doors, law enforcement called it a big step in the right direction. Florida is believed to be the only state with a database like it.
But the nation's largest retailer is displeased.
For the last year, Walmart has been pushing to be able to cash bigger checks without participating in the database, arguing that its own anti-fraud programs are a "highly effective" substitute.
The company asked for a temporary waiver last year so it could cash bigger FEMA assistance checks in the wake of Hurricane Irma. And in this year's legislative session, it pushed for a bill that would have effectively gutted the state's database, rendering it nearly useless.
Walmart believes that Florida's unique restrictions are too onerous, and it wants to change them so it can serve more customers.
"For us, this issue is not about fraud, it’s about serving our customer’s needs," Walmart spokeswoman Monesia Brown said in a statement. "We think the current limit in Florida is outdated and our customers agree."
The issue received little attention during session. Walmart's bill quickly died after the state's Office of Financial Regulation, which manages the database, came out strongly against it.
But it received attention last week, after Politico reported that Walmart went above OFR's head in the middle of the Legislative session, appealing to state CFO Jimmy Patronis on the bill. Last week, the head of OFR announced he was resigning, under pressure from Patronis.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sponsored the bill, said that with the current head of OFR leaving, Walmart could be effective avoiding the state regulators.
"I think the new head of OFR, having a different perspective, could pave a new path forward," Brandes said.
The state's financial regulators had serious concerns about this year's bill, however.
Businesses that specialize in cashing checks have to be licensed by the state, record the IDs and thumbprints of customers cashing checks larger than $1,000, and send the information into the database.
But large companies that don't specialize in check-cashing, like Walmart, are allowed to cash checks of up to $2,000 per person per day without recording any information about the customer. Information about the checks and who cashes them also does not go into the state's database.
It's a loophole that Walmart wants to expand, so that it can cash up to $7,500 in checks per person per day without the state's safeguards.
State regulators fear that would be disastrous. Since 94 percent of all checks in the state's database are less than $7,500, the vast majority of criminals could simply go to to Walmart to cash their checks without scrutiny.
"The amount of data and the usefulness of the CCDB [check-cashing database] would be substantially reduced, and its fraud-detection abilities would be virtually eliminated," one OFR document states. "The potential impacts of Senate Bill 1126 are cause for great concern."
For decades, law enforcement and businesspeople fought to get the state to crack down on the industry. Two statewide grand juries and a state task force all recommended greater scrutiny of check-cashing stores, which they called in 2008 a "shadow banking industry" responsible for laundering hundreds of millions of dollars each year in the state.
The new database, rolled out in 2015, allows state regulators to see in real time who is cashing checks and where. Before, regulators had to rely on the store's own electronic logs, and they weren't able to track criminals who jumped from store to store to pass fraudulent checks.
The database is used by the IRS' Miami and Tampa offices and by police around the state, and officials chalk up some arrests to the new system.
But Walmart believes its own security justifies increasing the limit to $7,500.
"While we understand the intent of the state’s limit - the risk of fraudulent checks - we believe our advanced in-store technologies, expert investigators and asset protection associates are highly effective in deterring, identifying and researching fraudulent activity," Brown, the company spokeswoman said.
The company's lobbyist, Jeff Johnston, said that Walmart wants to serve a population that doesn't have bank accounts, and that it did not want to hamper the state's anti-fraud efforts.
"We never had any intentions to hurt the database, blow up the database," Johnston said. "From what we’ve been told, it’s doing very, very good things."
He said the Walmart is not opposed to sharing some data with state regulators, but it has no interest in becoming a licensed check-casher.
"There are no other states that have a database or would require us to do what Florida has asked," Johnston said. "We’re not designed that way."
For Brandes and the House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, the issue is whether the restrictions hamper businesses from operating in the state.
"We don’t want to do something that isn’t in the best interests of Florida’s business climate," McClure said.