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Florida Braces for Tropical Storm

August 31st, 2016 by flanews

As Tropical Storm Hermine slowly barrels into Florida, the Governor traveled the state today to preach preparation. Matt Galka tells us what emergency officials are saying, and shows us how some folks in the panhandle are preparing.


Troy Segree made sure to grab plenty of sandbags for the Condo Complex he maintains.

“When it rains, it floods,” he said.

But the longtime Franklin County resident wouldn’t exactly say he’s worried.

“Been here all my life, never left for one *laughs.* Florida weather, gotta get used to it sometimes,” said Segree.

Down the street – sandbags turned into grocery bags as people prepared for bad weather. Some of the problems expected with this system – storm surge, tornadoes, and flash flooding.

“There’s a possibility this thing could turn into a Cat 1 hurricane,” said Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon.

Governor Rick Scott started Wednesday off at the state’s emergency operations center. He made stops in 3 other areas expected to be in the storm’s path throughout the day.

“We’re gonna see some water. Don’t drive into it. We’re going to see downed power lines, be careful. Drive around them. If you see something, let the utilities know. The utilities are ready to do everything they can,” said Gov. Scott.

If the storm reaches hurricane strength – it would be the first one to hit Florida in more than a decade.

The Governor has already declared a state of emergency in more than 40 Florida counties and put 8000 National Guard troops on standby.

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Primary Election Day off to Mostly Smooth Start

August 30th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

The state Division of Elections says that 1.7 million had voted early or by mail in ballot before the first polls opened this morning. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, despite several minor incidents, voting across the state was without major incidents.

Turnout was described as steady but not overwhelming across the state. It took Joanna Snyder about seven minutes to cast her ballot at this Tallahassee precinct.

“How’d it go in there?” we asked.

“Pretty well, I studied the ballot beforehand.”

The Secretary of State reported precincts in Flagler and Lee Counties were late opening

but were quickly up and running.

State officials say one precinct in Miami Beach had to be moved because of mosquito spraying over concert about Zika.

A precinct slated to open at the Botanical Gardens on Miami Beach had to be moved at the last minute, says Secretary of State Ken Detzner because the gardens were being sprayed to combat Zika concerns.

“The Supervisor of Elections has a notice there, and an employee at the location redirecting any voters that turn out to the city hall, which is one block away.”

The FBI has been warning some states to be alert for hackers seeking access to voting systems. Detzner says Florida was not one of the states being warned.

“we have put in place all the safeguards we fell are necessary for a safe and secure election.”

For the Curry Family, it was four month old Dawson’s first election,  making voting a family affair. Mother Molly says a child changed her thinking about voting.

“Well, I feel like I’m generally voting for her, I mean, she’s the future. So all the decisions we make now will impact her.”

Contribution Link reported that 294 million was given to state legislative races even though a full third of the legislature was elected without opposition.

As of yesterday afternoon, almost one point two million mail in ballots that had been requested were still outstanding. The ballots must be in elections officials hands by the time the polls close at 7, unless they are coming from overseas, in which case they must be postmarked by midnight and arrive within ten days.


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Courthouse Security Being Questioned

August 29th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

The Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court has ordered a review of security at all 67 county courthouses and annexes in the state. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the trigger for the review was the Pulse nightclub shootings.

When Chief Justice Jorge Labarga learned the Orlando mass shooter cased the club before opening fire, his first thought was keeping someone from doing the same thing at a court house.

“You know, all one has to do is come in and check out the courthouse and see where the weaknesses are and then come in and do what they are going to do. That’s what happened in Orlando” says the Chief Justice.

Many judges now have guns at the bench, Most Courthouses are secure, but not so 29 years ago in Port St. Joe when a hateful divorce case turned into murder.

Al Harrison was the Gulf County Sheriff in 1987.

“and two shots were fired over here” he explained to reporters at the time.

Clyde Melvin chased down a wounded judge, shot through a barricaded door and killed the judge after killing two other people.

Security in courthouses is the responsibility of each and every county.

Earlier this month, Liberty County administrators got an earful from Attorney General Pam Bondi. The sheriff was appealing his budget after County commissioners axed money for a second bailiff at the rural courthouse.

“I don’t know how one Bailiff, if you practiced one day a month, could protect one criminal trial, one civil trial, one heated trial with domestic violence” asked Bondi at the August 2nd Cabinet meeting.

The Sheriff got the money for a second baliff. The Chief Justice says its better to be safe than sorry.

“And in today’s climate, anything can happen. And I want to make sure we evaluate each courthouse in this state” says Labarga.

Part of the review will focus on a statewide reporting system for security incidents in courthouses.

Eight judges and two lawyers will conduct the study. County funding practices will also be part of the review.

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Opt Out Movement Lives

August 29th, 2016 by flanews

A judge’s ruling last week that said schools weren’t following the law by not allowing some students to enter the fourth grade over a reading test could be just the tip of the iceberg for changes to Florida’s testing system. Our Matt Galka got reaction from testing opt out advocates.

The department of education and some school districts were reprimanded by a Leon County judge last week.  Judge Karen Gievers sided with parents and students who said the children shouldn’t have been held back in the third grade for not answering questions on a state mandated reading test.  The students had no prior reading deficiencies. Opt out supporter Beth Overholt called it a win.

“We feel like Judge Gievers ruled in our favor, we feel like this is a big win for us, we’re thrilled,” she said.

And opt out advocates say the ruling could add fuel to the fire of the movement.

“The opt out movement isn’t against testing, ok? We want the test to be used to inform instruction, not to penalize and punish, and that’s what we have in Florida. The Tests penalize and punish our kids,” said Overholt.

Bob Schaeffer with the group FairTest says that students being held back harms kids in the long run.

“This policy that’s been in effect in Florida is based on faith or ideology or politics, not on educational evidence or, most importantly, it’s not based on what’s best for our children,” he said.

And while the ruling from last week only applies to third grade tests, Schaeffer says he wouldn’t be surprised if more change was coming.

“The victory in court, presuming that it holds up on appeal, could be the first step towards a total overhaul of Florida’s testing system,” he said.

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Tim Kaine Rallies Rattlers at FAMU

August 26th, 2016 by flanews

Florida will likely be front and center come election day with both major candidates vying for the state’s 29 electoral votes. As Matt Galka tells us, the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee made the first of two stops in the sunshine state this weekend trying to lock up more votes.

Hillary Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine talked up his candidates record at Florida A&M University Friday.

“Florida will be one of the closest, possibly the closest battleground states this election and your vote will really matter,” he said to a modest crowd of students.


Kaine also took shots at Clinton’s opponent Donald Trump outside near the University’s quad.

“Donald Trump has a different point of view, you’ve heard during the campaign he’s ridiculed people with disabilities, he’s ridiculed people if they were of Mexican-American origin, he’s said that anyone who’s muslim should be treated as second class religiously. That’s not the way we do things in this country,” said Kaine.

The rally served as a voter registration kickoff. Student Bryant Floyd registered at the event. He says he’s voting for Clinton because her message is about bringing people together.

“Right now we’re facing a lot of things in the community and in the world, and we need to be able to have a president that can identify the things that are happening in the community,” he said.

And even though Raven Kirton is undecided on who to pick, she says she understands the importance of going to the polls.

“IF people want, you know, they want things to change, they want to have that say it’s important to get out and vote because your voice is heard,” she said.

Before he went to FAMU, Kaine toward a local small business support center and touted Clinton’s economic plans. Kaine heads to Pembrooke Pines and Miami Lakes Saturday.

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FAMU Enrollment Down after Death and Turmoil

August 25th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

This fall marks the fifth anniversary of the hazing death of Florida A&M University Drum Major Robert Champion. The University settled the case for one point one million and an apology, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the cost to the university has been much higher.

When Robert Champion died in 2011, FAMU had 13,207 students enrolled. Now, five yeas later, one third fewer students are attending classes.

President Elmira Mangum calls it: “Rightsizing this institution.”

In the most recent figures available, the number of new freshmen choosing FAMU has also been cut by a third.

Jasmine Simon from Miami is bucking the trend.

“FAMU seemed like the best place for me with the community and everybody seems to care. And they are really focused on you graduating and doing well” says Simon

FAMU is the only state university that has seen a major decline in enrollment. Everywhere else, there’s a modest increase.

FAMU’s President is also engaged in a highly public spat with her board over her contract, casting doubt on the school’s future direction. To it’s credit, it’s also trying to improve a 38 percent graduation rate by going after better students like Makala Shannon from Atlanta Georgia who more likely to graduate.

“Because of my SAT and ACT scores, i received a full scholarship” says Shannon

But every student that hasn’t or isn’t coming to FAMU has a cost for those who do come here says Board of Trustees Chairman Kelvin Lawson/

“Every one hundred students means a million dollars out of our budget.”

Q:”Which affects everyone here?”

“It effects everything.everything we do. Students are the lifeblood of what we do” says Lawson.

And even if FAMU decides that it’s right size is smaller for the future,it is still a thousand students short of the goal.

In 2010 FAMU hit a high for enrollment at 13,277. An estimated 9200 students are in class this fall.

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State Eyeing Potential Storm Threat to Primary

August 25th, 2016 by flanews

It’s still too early to say what could happen, but we are keeping our eye on a potential storm system that could impact Florida. As Matt Galka tells us, with a primary looming, state officials are keeping a close eye as well.

Florida voters head to the polls in five days for the August 30th primary with everyone hopeful that severe weather doesn’t end up hitting the state.  It wouldn’t be the first time weather impacted the ballot box.

Hurricane Andrew’s devastation sent Miami-Dade voters to the polls a week late, and Tropical Storm Fay in 2008 flooded some people in Tallahassee. Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho says they had to take emergency action to make sure every vote counted.

“I had to deliver mail ballots and pick up mail ballots through swamp buggies and boats, but we were able to accommodate every voter who wanted to have a ballot counted and we intend to do the same in 2016,” he said.

The good news – early voting is going swimmingly.  More than 1.3 million Floridians have already cast a ballot.

The storm is on the Governor’s radar, too.

We reached out to the Governor’s office asking about a potential contingency plan. A spokeswoman responded that Governor Rick Scott has been on calls with both the Secretary of State and  Florida’s Emergency Management Director.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner put out a statement urging people to take advantage of early voting but said it was too premature to say if weather will impact the primary.

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FAMU in Leadership Limbo

August 24th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Following an unsatisfactory performance evaluation, Trustees at the historically black Florida A & M  Univeristy voted seven to five against extending the President’s contract for a year. The contract is set to expire in April, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, what happens next is anything but clear.

A board evaluation of the President Elmira Mangum’s performance was less than satisfactory, especially when communicating with the board. Trustee Robert L. Woody put it bluntly.

“The majority of us have the same opinion that this relationship is not working.”

The evaluation drew her ire.

“I don’t know what the definition of organizational management is” said the President.

A series of conflicting motions followed.

“I move that the Board of Trustees not renew the contract” was made by Trustee Thomas Dortch.

Trustees finally voted on extending her contract for a year and requiring executive leadership training.

“No” won on a 7-5 vote.

After that failed

A motion was made to start the search for a new President, then it was withdrawn.

Which leaves the leadership of FAMU in Limbo. Afterwards, the embattled President was in no mood to talk.

Q:”It appears they have backed down from the idea of wanting to find a new President, to trying to negotiate with you one more time.”

“I didn’t hear that” she told us.

“You didn’t hear that? So you’re out the door then?”

I think that’s what was said.”

So we asked Trustee Matthew Carter what was next.

Q:“How can she be effective while in limbo like this?”

“I don’t think she can be.”

FAMU Trustee Chair Kelvin Lawson says he isn’t ready to declare the divorce final, yet.

“Let’s organize this committee, let’s enter into negotiations, and let’s see where we net out in September. Right now, I still go back to all the options are on the table.

The board will meet again in September. Between now and they, it will try to reopen negotiations with the President.

Enrollment at FAMU has dropped by more than three thousand students since the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion. the death, a cage in focus on recruitment, and the ongoing turmoil between the board an President are the reasons behind the enrollment drop.


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Florida Counties Big Part of Harvard Law Death Penalty Study

August 24th, 2016 by flanews

A new study from Harvard Law shows a decline in the death penalty in America since the 1970’s, but as Matt Galka tells us, some counties in Florida aren’t fitting into the trend.

Only 16 counties in the country imposed 5 or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015. And four of them are right here in Florida according to Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project.

Hillsborough, Miami Dade, Pinellas, and Duval Counties were all named – with Duval being a focus.  The report slammed county prosecutors and State Attorney Angela Corey.

Ingrid Delgado with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops is disappointed Florida isn’t following national trends.

“For a long time, the Bishops of Florida have been calling for an end to the use of the death penalty, so this study just confirms that the death penalty disproportionately effects minorities, the mentally ill, and the poor,” she said.

Death penalty cases around the state remain in limbo waiting on the state’s supreme court to give guidance on capital punishment.

Florida lawmakers raised the requirement this year so that 10 out of 12 jurors need to recommend a death sentence – a change that’s still being disputed.

“We would prefer that we end using the death penalty at all, but if we are a state that does use the death penalty, it should be recommended by a unanimous jury,” said Delgado.

The report found that in 2015 across the country – 49 death sentences were recommended – the fewest amount since 1976. The report is the first of two, with the second report focusing on the other Florida counties named as death penalty outlives.

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Charlie Crist is a boogeyman for many in GOP primaries

August 23rd, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Former Governor Charlie Crist isn’t on the ballot until November in his effort to become a Congressman in his hometown of St. Petersburg, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, the former Republican turned Democrat could be a factor in multiple  primary races next week.

As Governor, Charlie Crist had sky high approval ratings, but now, from one end of the state to the other, Crist has become the boogeyman for conservative Republicans. In the GOP Primary for the Second congressional district, opponents are slamming each other for their ties to Crist.

One ad supporting Neal Dunn takes Mary Thomas to task for having worked for Charlie Crist. “Even after Crist left the republican Party, Thomas kept collecting her government paycheck as a senior member of his administration.”

But an ad from a PAC supporting Thomas asks “Who is Neal Dunn? A liberal lobbyist, Obama Car loving, Charlie Crist republican.”

Crist is also the ogre in Jacksonville’s fourth congressional district race that slams candidate Hans Tanzler.

“Then he used his money to support Democrats and Charlie Crist.”

In Ft. Myers, he’s the object of shame in a heated State Senate race. An ad for Kathleen Passidomo says this about opponent Matt Hudson. “He voted for Crist’s massive tax increase and all those Obama stimulus dollars.”

And Crist is even being compared to Marco Rubio by Senate Candidate Carlos Beruff,  even though the two have never gotten along.

“Both abandoned Florida. Conclusion: Rubio and Crist are virtually identical.”

So why is Charlie Crist so big a target. We asked Political Scientist Carol Weissert.

“So you are talking about main stream Republicans here, and I think they were offended by his  what they might call being a turncoat” says Weissert.

We reached out to the former Governor more than a week ago for a comment. He didn’t return our text.

But like it or not, the former Governor could be a factor this coming Tuesday, and he’s not even on the ballot.

While the former Governor did not return Mike’s text, his media advisor, Kevin Cate, did say in an email that he wouldn’t touch this story, quote, with a ten foot pole.”

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Solar Push Heading into Primary

August 23rd, 2016 by flanews

Early voting is in full swing and the primary is next week, but as Matt Galka tells us, voters will be deciding on more than local elections with a group of environmentalists pushing a constitutional amendment.

Florida voters have a solar choice in the August primary. On the ballot – Amendment 4 – which gives businesses a tax break for installing solar panels.  And now a coalition of environmentalists called the Florida Conservation Voters want to make sure you’re casting a ballot.

“One of the things we noticed was that it’s really not that easy to find your early voting location,” said Aliki Moncrief, the Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director.

They’ve launched a website that helps voters find their closes early voting location. So why the election push? The amendment would need 60 percent of the vote to pass.

“Florida voters overwhelmingly support solar, but primaries typically have lower turnout, that is why we wanted to make it as easy as possible,” said Moncrief.

State lawmakers are responsible for the ballot measure.

“When people try to do the right thing, by installing solar panels on top of their roofs, they shouldn’t be taxed for doing the right thing,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-Florida).


The environmentalist group opposes November’s other solar ballot initiative – saying it’s a utility backed measure looking to maintain the status quo on solar.

If Amendment 4 gets 60 percent of the vote during the August primary, it would require the legislature to act in the 2017 legislative session, and would go into effect in 2018.

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FPL seeking one point three billion for “good service”

August 22nd, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

A months long hearing into whether Florida Power and Light should be allowed to increase its rates by one point three billion dollars a year began today in the state Capitol. FPL spokeswoman Sarah Gatewood says the company has earned the increase because it’s done such a good job keeping rates low.

“We have worked very hard to improve service for customers and in keeping their bills low. We’ve lowered rates four times over the last two years. We want to continue to make the smart investments we can improve our service while keeping our bills low, among the lowest in the nation and the states” says Gatewood.

But the State Public Counsel and AARP say the company should return 800 million a year, not get more. Kenneth Thomas is an AARP volunteer on fixed income.

“Salaries aren’t going up that quickly. Retirement incomes are not going up very quickly. As a matter of fact those in my community on fixed incomes, we haven’t seen a reasonable rate increase in several years.this is really a severe burden on older adults, on all adults” says Thomas.

A decision is expected in October for rates that would take effect at the beginning of the year.


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Third Grade Retention Policy on Trial

August 22nd, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Parents from six counties (Orange, Hernando, Sarasota,Broward, Osceola, and Pasco)were in court today challenging a star law that requires the retention of third graders who don’t perform well on state assessment tests. As Mike Vasilinda tells us,  the parents told the court their kids were not given alternative ways to be promoted as star law requires.

The day long hearing began with lawyers jockeying to have the challenge to the third grade retention law heard in each of the six counties. When the judge didn’t rule, they refused to participate. Richard Bush is the Attorney for the Hernando County School Board.

“Hernando is not participating in this because we don’t think the court has jurisdiction” Bush told the judge.

Hernando County mom Brandy Kinkade told her kids to be in class, open the test, but not answer questions. She says she doubts the validity of the tests.

“The FSA is not a vetted test, and my child is not a guinea pig, and she will not be used for profit” Kinked testified.

“Did your child receive passing grades in the third grade” asked her lawyer.

“Honor roll all year.”

State law allows third graders to move to the fourth grade if they can show they are competent, even if they don’t do well on standardized tests. But parents challenging the law say their kids weren’t given that option.

A Broward County mom testified her attempts to have her children judged by alternative assessment methods were rebuffed Brandy Paternoster said that even her kids principal hated the decision, but.

“She understood that my children deserved to go to fourth grade, but that her hands were tied. She said it was coming down from the district” says Paternoster.

Beth Overholt is not part of the suit, but she is  a firm believer in the opt out movement.

“We believe that teachers need to be treated as professionals.  and that we should listen to them for promotion decisions” says the mother of two high schoolers.

While parents in six counties are challenging the retention requirement, a victory for them could impact kids in every county in the state.

The same lawyers who didn’t participate today also tried unsuccessfully to have the case moved to Federal Court last week. A federal judge refused.


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Opting Out Law Suit takes unusual turn

August 19th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Legal gymnastics played out in a Federal Court today in a lawsuit by parents whose kids opted out of state tests last spring and were held back.  As Mike Vasilinda tells us, a state court judge is on track to decide as early as next week if kids who dan’t take a standardized test can be held back.

The Opt Out Florida network has thousands of likes on it’s Facebook page, as well as this video featuring Jennifer Deuterwmann.

“It’s not okay that art music and research are being squeezed out by testing and test prep. It’s not okay to reduce social studies in a number of grades” she tells a crowded room.

Opt Out is also trying to raise money to fund it’s law suit. 13 Parents whose kids didn’t answer questions on state standardized tests last spring are in court after their children weren’t allowed to go from third to fourth grade.

A state judge was set to rule on the case as early as Monday. Then, late Thursday, the state as well as six school boards being sued asked a federal court to take the case over.

In an emergency hearing Judge Mark Walker questioned why the maneuvering was taking place.

“If someone was a conspiracy theorist, they’d think there was a design to secure a particular judge when the case was filed in Gainesville. Why was this case filed in Gainesville?”

Matthew Mears, FL Dept of Education General Counsel responded.

“We, we don’t know what happened. It was some kind of a technology glitch” Mears told the Judge.

The filing in Federal Court came after the state judge sent signals she was sympathetic to the kids who had opted out of the test.

But after more than an hour long phone hearing, Judge mark Walker decided to keep the case in state court.

Now the legal path is clear for the state judge who has a history of siding with kids to rule on whether they can be held back for not taking a test.

The state and six counties being sued argued that if the case goes back to state court, they would like each case to be heard individually in their respective home counties. That’s a issue they are likely to raise on Monday when they appear before a judge in Tallahassee.


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Task Force Makes Dozier Recommendations

August 19th, 2016 by flanews

The Dozier School for Boys – the panhandle reform school and site of alleged child beatings, sexual abuses, and murders – still stands. But as Matt Galka tells us, a statewide panel was appointed to try and come up with a proper memorial, and in their final meeting – solutions were hard to come by.

What should happen to the Dozier School for Boys – the reform school caused immeasurable pain for so many.  A state assembled panel had plenty of ideas Friday.

Rep. Ken Roberson/(R) Punta Gorda

“A large memorial of solid, grey blue granite, a monument to commemorate the lives of the boys who died at the school,” said Rep. Ken Roberson (R-Punta Gorda) who has substantial funeral experience.

“It would provide community meeting space for living in to forgiveness and embrace here in this county,” said Rev. Russel Meyer.

“We in Gadsden County, we are fully willing to accept those remains if the state is wiling to work with us,” said Stephen Britt, who’s uncle’s remains were found at the school.

But for people who actually spent time at Dozier, there are two very different sides of the issue.

Charles Fudge is part of the White House Boys – a group that says they were victims of notorious beatings at Dozier in the early 60’s. He doesn’t want remains anywhere near the site.

“Those boys died because they tried to run away and leave there, why would we want to leave their bodies there?” he said.

But Richard Huntly – sent to Dozier from Orlando for truancy – feels like sending remains elsewhere like Tampa – an idea that was pitched – would gloss over the school’s awful history.

“Why would something happen in Jackson County but now you got it over in Tampa? Why? Because you don’t want that on your hands,” he said.

The task force voted to rebury remains of victims in Tallahassee, with two memorials – one in Jackson County and one in Tallahassee. The legislature and cabinet will receive the recommendations and ultimately have the final say.

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