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Angry Mullet Fishermen Seek Relief

June 30th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

The oyster bars opened early; so did scallop season.  All in an effort to harvest the aquatic resources before the oil reaches the bays. Now, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, angry mullet fishermen say their needs are being ignored.

A small group of panhandle mullet fishermen have been protesting the net ban since before it took effect in 1995. They argue the constitution allows them a larger mesh size, if not a larger net, which they say will make it easier to catch more fish while trapping fewer small non-game species.

“It rolls them up like a crepe, you could catch a bumblebee,” mullet fishmen Richard Van Munster said. “And the monofilament, which is one strand of stiff webbing, you could take a fish and shake him out like that.”

The fishermen have argued before the Fish and Wildlife Commission to no avail. Spokesman Lee Schlessinger says the FWC has absolutely no leeway.

“The fact is a larger mesh size net would be considered to be an entangling net and that is not consistent with the net limitation amendment that was passed by voters in the mid-1990s,” Schlessinger said.

But fishermen say that others facing losses from the oil have been given exceptions and he should too.

“They’ve opened the oyster season earlier, you know, a month earlier,” fisherman Roy Hutton said. “They opened the summer bars up because they’re scared the oil is going to come in here. They opened up scallop season a week or two early. We just want them to give us a break.”

For now, though, there will be no changes, unless voters decided to change what they did by a three to two margin, banning many nets in 1994.

Dozens of court challenges have upheld the net ban, and those complaining don’t have the resources to mount a petition drive to take the issue to voters.

Posted in Business, Gulf Oil Spill, State News | No Comments »

Greer Discovery

June 30th, 2010 by flanews

State prosecutors are releasing hundreds of pages of documents and several recorded phone conversations in their investigation of former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer. Greer faces criminal charges for funneling party contributions to a consulting company he co-owned. As Whitney Ray tells us, Greer’s partner in the company sold him out to avoid jail time.

To avoid criminal charges, Delmar Johnson picked up the phone and sold out to his former boss. Johnson was the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. His boss, then-RPOF chairman Jim Greer, is facing criminal charges for a scheme to funnel political contributions to a consulting company the two men owned. But Johnson read the writing on the wall, and on March 25th taped this phone conversation.

“I heard the same thing last week, that you were throwing me under the bus and saying all you orders came from me, so I went and hired the top attorney in Tallahassee,” said Greer on the recording of phone call.

The recording along with hundreds of pages of documents are part of the state’s case against Greer. Among the documents is a witness list. Among the names is Governor Charlie Crist, who claims he never new about Greer and Delmar’s consulting company.

The Florida Democrats say the evidence against Greer could reveal more questionable activity among some of the party leaders.

“They were simply just using the Republican Party to basically launder money to live large. They were basically taking bribes through it,” said Jotkoff.

While the state builds its case against Greer, federal agents are poking around Tallahassee to find out if charges made on party issued credit cards held by members were legal.

In exchange for his cooperation, Johnson will avoid jail time, but he still has to pay back the 65-thousand donor dollars he made through the consulting company. The RPOF, under new leadership, will finish its internal audit next month to determine if any more money is missing.

Posted in Charlie Crist, Criminal Justice, Legislature, Politics, State News | No Comments »

“Officer Down” Statue Commemorates Tampa Loses

June 29th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

More than 700 Florida Police officers have been killed in the line of duty since records have been kept. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, their deaths, as well as the deaths of Tampa Police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, have been memorialized in a relatively new statue on the grounds of the state capitol.

On the grounds of the state capitol, under the limbs of a giant oak, sits a monument titled “Officer Down.” It commemorates every officer’s and every family’s worst nightmare. Steve Slade of the Police Benevolence Association says the traffic stop that claimed the two Tampa officers is one of the most dangerous things cops do.

“You could be stopping a citizen for speeding and that citizen could be an escapee, someone who just got out of prison, who may have narcotics on them, who may have active warrants out on them, who made the decision that they’re not going back to jail,” Steve Slade with the Police Benevolence Association.

“Officer Down” was dedicated in 2009.

“Every 53 hours, an officer is killed in the line of duty somewhere in America,”John Rivera, President of the Police Benevolence Association, said.

More than a statue, “Officer Down” is a time capsule. It’s filled with pictures and stories of the lives and deaths of dozens of officers.”

“We want future generations to know the sacrifices that these people made, and hopefully that will inspire others to keep us safe,” David Murell with the Police Benevolence Association said.

A Dixie County officer died in January. These two shootings bring the total to three this year. Last year, a total of eight officers died in the line of duty.

Each year in May, a Capitol ceremony commemorates the officers who lost their lives the previous year. History suggests there will be more names than just the three officers who have died so far in 2010.

In 2008 and 2009, Florida was ranked as one of the top three states in the number of officers dying in the line of duty.

Posted in State News | 1 Comment »

4th of July Firework Safety

June 29th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

State Fire Marshall Alex Sink gathered with fire chiefs at the capitol Tuesday to warn Floridians about using fireworks safely this Independence Day weekend.  The message of the day was responsibility.  When used safely by adults, the chiefs say everyone can have fun on the 4th of July, without anyone having to go to the hospital.

“Be courteous, be safe, don’t let your children use the fireworks,” Tallahassee Fire Chief Cindy Dick said. “Over half of the injuries related to fireworks are for those under the age of 15, and from five and a half to nine, you are two and a half times more likely to be injured by fireworks.  So, just use a lot of good sense and have a good time.”

Florida has far stricter restrictions on what types of fireworks can be bought and sold than many other states.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

FCAT Scores Released, Finally

June 29th, 2010 by flanews

Florida schools finally know their students FCAT scores, after a month of delays. The data processing company grading the tests is blaming computer problems for the late scores. As Whitney Ray tells us, the holdup is costing districts millions of dollars.

Students tested in March will have to wait a little longer to find out their FCAT scores. The test results are normally given to schools in late May, but a computer error by Pearson Education, a state contractor in charge of grading the tests, delayed the release for nearly a month.

The delay cost Principal Rocky Hanna and his staff a lot of time and stress.

“The phone is ringing off the hook, my secretary is ready to walk out the door, parents are beating on the front door wanting results and we still don’t have them,” said Hanna.

Schools won’t get the individual scores for students and parents until July 8th; until then administrators will be working overtime.

Now that schools have the scores, the rush is on to analyze the data in order to build class schedules and hire teachers. But speeding up the process will take money.

The cost of calling administrative and clerical staff back to school to do the work they would have finished in early June will reach into the millions. Department of Education spokesman Tom Butler says Pearson is promising to go the distance to make up for its mistake.

“They’re going to cover the cost as far as what districts have to incurs with these delays. They have been very good about that, and even if it goes beyond the cap that’s in contract for liquidated damages, they’ve said they’d cover it,” said Butler.

The cap in the contract is $25 million, one tenth of the company’s 250 million dollar contract with the state. Once the individual test results are delivered to schools, it will be up to each individual district to decide how to get those results to parents. Some principals will ask parents to pick them up; others will mail them. Mailing the results will cost districts thousands of dollars.

Posted in Children, Education, State News | No Comments »

Sea Turtle Egg Relocation Plan

June 28th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

State and Federal officials have hatched a plan to move thousands of sea turtle eggs from the Florida panhandle to the oil free east coast to protect the hatchlings. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, moving eggs is a risky proposition at best.

From the last week of July through early September, tens of thousands of sea turtles would normally hatch along Panhandle coasts and make their way into the Gulf. Bill Wargo and 20 volunteers scour Alligator Point every morning looking for new sea turtle nests.

Wargo says the plan is to move the eggs when they are about  50 days old or ten days before their scheduled hatchling.

“We will very careful, and I mean very carefully, dig into the nests and pull those eggs out as gently as possible, without rotating them,” Wargo said.

The eggs will be transported to the oil-free east coast and released into the Atlantic. It is unclear whether the hatchlings, which instinctively come back to the nesting area when it is time for them to lay eggs, will come back to the panhandle or where they were released.

“They get magnetic signals and may, even if we move them to Cape Canaveral, which is the plan, they may return to where we gather them,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Spokesperson Henry Cabbage said.

“This is one of the first nests of the season. These eggs are due to be dug up on August 11th, but if the oil gets here sooner, it could create real problems.

The turtle patrol is also preparing plans for posting cages around the nests in case they are born early. The live hatchlings would then be transported to an oil free beach and released.

The best case scenario is that one in five transplants will be successful.

Posted in Environment, Gulf Oil Spill, State News, Wildlife | 1 Comment »

Clean Energy Congress

June 28th, 2010 by flanews

120 state, business, and environmental leaders are making a declaration to stop using oil and they want the state to try and do the same. The delegates are meeting in Tallahassee this week to draft a state energy policy. As Whitney Ray tells us, the gulf oil spill is increasing the appetite for alternative energy.

Florida has plenty of wind, waves, and sunshine to power the entire state and then some… but we’re not capturing enough to break our dependence on oil. Only four percent of the state’s power comes from renewable resources…

“There’s 50 states in the US and about 49 of them are leading Florida when it comes to renewable energy,” said Mike Antheil, the Executive Director with the Florida Alliance of Renewable Energy.

A 120 member clean energy Congress is meeting in Tallahassee this week, to move Florida up in the ranks.

But past efforts to go green have failed…. Like the promise to reimburse Floridians who installed solar panels on their homes. 10-thousand people are still waiting for their checks.

“If they had a way to finances it, there would be six times as many people putting in solar,” said Al Simpler, owner of Simpler Solar System.

Cutting down the gas consumption of the state’s fleet of cars is also no the agenda. In the Museum of Florida History, right next to a Model-T, there’s a Baker Electric car from 1911, proving the technology to ditch fossil fuels has been around for at least a century.”

Fran Sullivan-Fahs drove a newer electric car to capitol for the clean energy congress.

“If we had more state incentives for electric transportation, that would help people who can not afford a pricier car to be able to get one,” said Fran.

At noon Tuesday, the delegates will sign a pledge to stop using oil… they just hope they can keep their promise before the country runs out.

No matter what the 120 member delegation decides Florida’s energy policy should be, they’ll still have to get approval from legislative leaders, who have traditionally squelched progressive energy policies for more oil.

Posted in Gulf Oil Spill, Highways, Oil Drilling, Politics, State News | No Comments »

Myron Rolle Camp

June 28th, 2010 by flanews

Next week foster kids from across the state will meet at the National Guard Training Facility at Camp Blanding to learn leadership skills, healthy eating habits and most importantly to play.

Former FSU football star and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle is hosting the camp in conjunction with the Department of Children and Families. DCF Secretary George Sheldon threw around a football this morning with Austin, a 14-year old who is heading to the camp next week. Sheldon says foster kids don’t want to be treated any differently than their peers; they just want a chance to be kids.

“What I hear from young people like Austin, more and more is, I want to be normal. I want to do normal things, and that’s what this camp is about…. But its also about providing some leadership opportunities,” said Sheldon.

100 kids are going to the camp. They’re councilors will include Myron Rolle as well as other NFL players and cheerleaders… and some adults who have aged out of the foster care system, graduated from college and started their careers.

Posted in Children, State News | No Comments »

Taking Advantage of the Spill

June 25th, 2010 by flanews

The state is seeing a surge in people applying for saltwater fishing licenses since the Gulf Oil disaster began. BP requires the licenses for anyone entering into its Vessels of Opportunity program. And while most of the people filing for the licenses have a legitimate claim, as Whitney Ray tells us, there are reports of recreational fishermen trying to get into the program and take jobs away from out-of-work fishermen.

Fishermen, oystermen and shrimpers are fighting to save their coast and their livelihood. BP has enlisted 6-thousand of their boats in the war against the oil leak; cutting the boat captains a check to help make up for the business they’ve loss because of the company’s negligence.

As is the case in almost every disaster, there are some people out there trying to cash in on the miss fortune of others.

Bob Zales, the president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators, says his members sometimes have to compete with recreational fishermen, who make their money inland… but want to rent their boats to BP.

“These are people who are lawyers, doctors, who have private vessels, that are in my mind are stealing from the fishermen that do this because they are working in a program making money that should be going to a fishermen who is not making money,” said Zales.

Since the BP pipe began pumping millions of gallons of oil into the gulf… there has been a surge in the number of saltwater fishing license issued. BP is requiring people wanting to join their Vessels of Opportunity Program to have a license.

Most applications are from legit claimants. Henry Cabbage with Florida Fish and Wildlife, says those who aren’t will be weeded out by BP.

“BP will require documentation that you actually lost income from fishing if you are going to file a claim that says you lost income. Just having a saltwater product license is not sufficient documentation,” said Cabbage.

It’s not just the Vessels of Opportunity Program; outsiders are trying to break into, there are 4-thousand cleanup jobs available in Florida… the state is watching those applications closely to make sure, the people hired have been affected by the leak.

Posted in Environment, Gulf Oil Spill, State News | 1 Comment »

Tourism Ad Campaign Cash Running Out

June 25th, 2010 by flanews

Visit Florida will soon be out of the advertising money BP gave the state tourism agency to spread the word that most of Florida’s coast is still open for business. Visit Florida received the seven million dollars June 7th, and used the money to air TV, Radio, and Internet ads mainly in Southeast region of the country. CEO Chris Thompson says Visit Florida still plans to promote instate travel, but more money will be needed to continue the out-of-state campaign.

“Some of the instate stuff we are doing will be go beyond that, but as far as the big push which is through television and radio it pretty much ends this weekend,” said Thompson.

Visit Florida is asking Governor Charlie Crist to get more money from BP to continue running ads the rest of the summer.

Posted in State News, Tourism | No Comments »

Oil on Pensacola Beach

June 25th, 2010 by Mike Vasilinda

Three days after a massive oil slick closed Pensacola beach, swimmers were back in the water today and a health advisory along 33 miles of beach has been lifted. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the cleanup is far from over.

In Fort Pickens National Seashore, more than 300 yellow vested workers sifted through sand, finding quarter size tar balls. On the bay side of the national park, Ted Dwiggins lamented the fact he couldn’t take his dog, Cheeseburger, out for a swim.

“You just watch it creep up slower and slower,” Dwiggins said. “More tar balls.”

Across from a crowded section of Pensacola beach, heavy equipment replaced what should have been tourists in RV’s.  That’s where we met vacationing John Costa from Memphis.

“I’ve been coming here for a number of years, so it’s very sad to see,” Costa said. “We’re only living with it for a week or two a year, you guys have to live with it year-round. It just kills me that this is happening to you guys.”

Swimmers were back in the water on the first day since the health ban was lifted, but they were few and far between.

“I mean it’s pretty much clean,” beach swimmer Ayla Murphy said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t care. I’d be in the water anyway.”

Empty beach chairs were plentiful, and tangible evidence of the economic toll the spill is having on the local economy.

This is day three since the first wave of oil hit Pensacola Beach and crews are still hard at work trying to pick up the mess. That’s prompting the Governor to call on BP and the federal government to get more crews here before the next wave of oil hits.

Along the beach, more than 1100 people were involved in finishing the cleanup. The Coast Guard says they aren’t going anywhere.

Favorable conditions will likely keep oil off the beach through the weekend, but how much longer is anybody’s guess.

Posted in Environment, Gulf Oil Spill, State News, Wildlife | 2 Comments »

Travel Incentives

June 24th, 2010 by flanews

Florida hotel and restaurant owners want to give travelers a free ride and a half priced room to convince them to visit… And they want to do it on BP’s dime. The Gulf Oil leak has tourists gun-shy, but as Whitney Ray tells us, many think BP gas cards and hotel vouchers could be the nudge skeptical tourists need to Visit Florida.

A tank full of gas, a trunk full of luggage and a destination is how most road trips begin. But since oil began gushing into the gulf, fewer of those trips end in Florida.

To combat the impression that Florida’s beaches are covered in oil, Visit Florida is releasing waves of commercials, letting people know most of our beaches are clean.

But travelers aren’t responding in large enough numbers to keep hotel and restaurant owners above water. Carol Dover, the President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, is asking BP to help fund people’s Florida vacations.

“”We have our hotels having to cut their room rates down just to get an incentive for people to come. We feel like that should be on the backs of BP,” said Dover.

The Association is also asking for 10-thousand BP gas cards. The cards would be for 50 or a 100 dollars worth of gas and go to traveler within driving distance of the state.

But the cards wouldn’t just fill up gas tanks, the hope is they’ll fill up restaurants and tourist attractions losing business because of the spill.

Visit Florida likes the idea. If BP is willing to finance the vacations, the state travel agency will spread the word. Visit Florida CEO Chris Thompson says the cards and vouchers could save BP in the long run if enough people take advantage of them.

“In BP’s perspective you can, I guess, either pay on the front end or back end and all of us are trying to litigate and minimize the negative impacts on the tourism department,” said Thompson.

The request is in BP’s hands and tourism officials hope the company decides soon enough for Visit Florida to start promoting the offers in time for the Fourth of July Weekend.

Issuing gas cards may help BP on two fronts; It prevents economic damages the company will be liable for but it may also help increase business at BP gas stations at a time when thousands of drivers are avoiding the company.

Posted in Economy, Gas Prices, Gulf Oil Spill, Highways, Oil Drilling, State Budget, State News, Taxes, Tourism, Transportation | No Comments »

Drilling Ban

June 24th, 2010 by flanews

There are renewed calls for a state ban on offshore oil drilling tonight… and a promise from an environmental group… that if the state legislature doesn’t act soon, it’s going straight to the voters. Talks of a special session to pass a constitutional ban on drilling in state waters quickly died this spring over a hold out in the House. Manley Fuller, president of Florida Wildlife Federation says Florida needs a ban with or without the state legislature.

“The best thing would be if the Florida legislature in special session would place a constitutional amendment prohibiting oil drilling in Florida waters before the voters in November,” said Fuller.

Fuller is also calling on BP to establish a trust fund to fuel the restoration of Florida’s estuaries and salt marshes for years to come.

Posted in Environment, Gulf Oil Spill, State News, Tourism | No Comments »

Food Stamps Applications Soar

June 24th, 2010 by flanews

Applications for food stamps in Panhandle counties have soared since oil began gushing from the broken BP pipe leak. Since May 1st application are up 15 percent. The Department of Children and Families is keeping separate data to track people who qualify for food stamps because the oil has destroyed their careers. Don Winstead is the Welfare Advisor for DCF. He says along with the growing need for food assistance is a growing need for councilors to help families going through hard times.

“Being not only in the food stamp program and other benefit programs but also seen through our mental health program also. One of the things we typically do after disaster is increase our counseling capacity because people are going to be affected in a variety of ways,” said Winstead.

The number of new applications for food stamps is actually higher in non-coastal panhandle counties than those on the waters. Winstead says that’s the case because many of the people being affected by the spill work near the coast, but can’t afford to live there.

Posted in Gulf Oil Spill, State News | 1 Comment »

Taking Advantage of the Spill:

June 24th, 2010 by flanews

There have been reports of some recreational fishermen trying to use their boats to cash in on BP’s Vessels of Opportunities program. The program attempts to help charter boat captains who are forced to stop fishing because of the spill, earn a pay check cleaning up the oil. At an economic recovery taskforce meeting yesterday, Bob Zales, the president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators, warned a BP representative of the imposters trying to steal work from fishing and charter boat captains. To try and keep the program honest… BP is checking fishing licenses and denying applicants who aren’t career fishermen or charter boat captains.

Posted in Economy, Gulf Oil Spill, State News, Tourism | No Comments »

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