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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

3rd time, no charm: St. Pete still mulling marijuana civil citations

The ordinance on the table in front of St. Petersburg City Council members was elegant in its simplicity: Police would have the option of issuing a citation for 20 grams or less of marijuana. If the fine wasn't paid within 30 days, an arrest warrant would be issued.

Then things got complicated. When should the city require education or treatment? At the second offense? The third?

How would giving police officers discretion to arrest or issue a citation impact racial disparities for misdemeanor marijuana possession?

Would a $75 fine for a first offense or a $300 fine for the third offense start a snowball effect for poor people, leading to a loss of driver''s licenses and other escalations that end up making petty offenses into a dangerous spiral? 

In the end, council members decided to take more time, marking the third time the city council has addressed--then pushed back--the issue at the committee level since December.

The council directed city attorneys to incorporate some of those suggestions and bring it back to the Public Safety and Infrastructure Committee at a later date. …

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St. Pete won't expand recycling to apartments and condos for now

Falling prices for recyclables and limited processing capacity has stalled St. Petersburg's efforts to expand recycling to the city's 46,000 apartments ands condos, officials told the City Council on Thursday.

A pilot project for 21 complexes is on hold after the city's recycling processor, Progressive, told the city that low prices and limited capacity would make it cost prohibitive under the city's current contract to add apartments and condos to a program that debuted for single-family homes last June.

Thursday's news was the latest bump in the city's recycling efforts. Last summer, anger over the city's initial refusal to pick up the 95-gallon bins in the alleys led to a policy reversal by Mayor Rick Kriseman and contributed to the abrupt departure of longtime Public Works Administrator Mike Connors. 

Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Mike Dove said that falling prices for recycables is a major factor in the city's inability to expand the option beyond single-family homes.

"Revenue has gone down substantially for recycling material," Dove told the Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee.  …

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Pinellas County tax collector's chief deputy to run for top spot

Charles W. Thomas said Wednesday he will run for Pinellas County tax collector.

Courtesy of Charles W. Thomas

Charles W. Thomas said Wednesday he will run for Pinellas County tax collector.

Following Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson's retirement announcement on Wednesday, her chief deputy said he plans to run for her position in the Nov. 8 election.

Charles W. Thomas, 58, has worked under Nelson for about 15 years. If elected, he said he plans to continue the office's emphasis on quality customer service by building a strong workforce.

"With the incredible turnover and loss of institutional knowledge, one of the big challenges is recruiting, retaining, developing and inspiring people to be longterm public servants," he said.

In 1990, Thomas came to the Tampa Bay area to set up a program sanctioned by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that was designed to measure emissions from cars at a time when there was bad air pollution in the area.

Thomas met Nelson during the program. She asked him to be her chief deputy when she was elected tax collector in 2000 after they discovered they shared a passion for customer service, Nelson said.

"He will make a fine tax collector," Nelson said. "We have created a road map on where we want to take this organization, and I'm extremely pleased to say that where I've left off, he will pick it up." …

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Rick Baker robo poll has mystery backer

Somebody is paying for a robo poll this week testing support for former Republican St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker against Democrat Charlie Crist in the soon-to-be open race for Congressional District 13 in southern Pinellas County.The mystery is who.

What we do know is that Baker is probably the only Republican with a shot at winning that district, now represented by Republican David Jolly but re-drawn to heavily favor Democrats. We know that Baker, currently working for businessman Bill Edwards, is seriously considering running for the seat, is talking with a lot of people, is hearing lots of encouragement from the likes for U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, and is likely to make a decision within the next few weeks.

A new fundraising quarter starts Friday, which means Baker had no incentive to announce before then (He would report very little money on his first financial report, if he did), but he can't wait much longer if he wants to mount a serious campaign. We hear Baker is leaning toward running, but he is still talking to people and nothing has been decided. …

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Diane Nelson, Pinellas County tax collector since 2000, announces retirement

Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson announced on Wednesday she plans to retire at the end of the year.

Courtesy Pinellas County Tax Collector's Office

Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson announced on Wednesday she plans to retire at the end of the year.

Diane Nelson, Pinellas County's tax collector since 2000, announced Wednesday that she will retire at the end of this year.

According to a news release from the tax collector's office, Nelson, 66, made the decision after her husband decided to retire from his job early next year. The couple plans to travel around the United States and Europe.

The announcement means Nelson will not seek a fifth term in office, which is up for election in November.

Nelson, Pinellas' first female tax collector, has worked for the tax collector's office for almost 47 years, according to the release. She started as a part-time employee at the First National Bank in Tarpon Springs, then was promoted in 1977 to manager of the Clearwater office. She was promoted again in 1994 to director of all five tax collector offices.

After she was elected tax collector, the office began issuing birth certificates and concealed weapon permits and modernized several aspects of the tax billing and collection operations, the release said. The office also took over driver license services and was an early adopter of a program that charged taxes on Airbnb rentals. …

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Have an opinion about the $20 million pier approach? Take the survey.

Residents who want to offer suggestions about amenities, transportation, activities and other features of the city's planned $20 million pier approach have until midnight Thursday to complete an online survey

The approach will connect St. Petersburg's downtown to the new pier and form part of the Pier District. A grand entry, art bridge, open-air market and restaurants, ideas drawn from the city's Downtown Waterfront Master Plan, will be among the area's attractions.

The survey asks such questions as what types of children's and adult activities and amenities should be included, as well as the kind of art, ranging from permanent sculptures or art installations to space for working artists. The online survey follows a public session that drew an overflow crowd at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in mid-March. 

The project is being designed by W Architecture and Landscape Architecture of New York and St. Petersburg's Wannemacher Jensen Architects.

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Governor to headline Pasco GOP fundraiser

Gov. Rick Scott is headed to Pasco County.

Fresh off the governor and Cabinet approving $3 million in state dollars to preserve a central Pasco ranch, but just two weeks after Scott vetoed $14 million worth of state spending for local projects, the Pasco Republican Party announced the governor will be the keynote speaker for its annual Reagan Day Dinner fundraiser. 
The event begins at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 19 at the Spartan Manor in New Port Richey.  Scott also was the featured speaker at the local party’s 2012 fundraiser.

For information about the $90-a-plate dinner, or $175 for the meal and a VIP reception, contact State Committeeman Bill Bunting at 727-514-7676 or Treasurer Fred Manno at 813-838-3556.

 

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15 ways to remake the Trop

If you're really, really into resumes and looking at glossy PDF versions of urban planning visions, perusing the thousands of pages of proposals for remaking Tropicana Field's 85 acres might be your idea of fun.

You can access the plans here

To summarize: A lot of "here's why you should pick us" and not a lot of detail comprise the proposals of 15 responses to St. Petersburg's request for qualified firms to undertake a master plan for developing the Trop with our without a baseball stadium.

The city wants a plan with a stadium done quickly, by the end of September. And city planners have a checklist of things they'd like to see take the place of the vast expanse of concrete currently sprinkled with cars during Tampa Bay Rays games.

Last week, the firms submitted their proposals to the city. The schedule calls for a City Council approval of the winning firm by June.

 A selection committee will get to work whittling down the proposals shortly.  …

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Why would Volkswagen owe 'many millions of dollars' to Hillsborough County environmental regulators?

The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission says Volkswagen and other automakers that skirted emission rules owes them "many millions of dollars" in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

Associated Press

The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission says Volkswagen and other automakers that skirted emission rules owes them "many millions of dollars" in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

TAMPA — Hundreds of Volkswagen diesel car owners will argue in court that they were duped by the German automaker into believing their vehicles meet federal emission standards. And several states are already suing VW on behalf of their consumers, claiming they were deceived.

But that’s not the argument Hillsborough County’s Environmental Protection Commission made in its lawsuit this week against Volkswagen, as well as Audi and Porsche.

So why does the EPC believe those automakers owe it “many millions of dollars,” according to the complaint filed yesterday?

The EPC’s case will probably be one of the most unique lawsuits that will come before a San Francisco court, where a judge is already assigned to the multi-district litigation. That’s because the commission has a rule on its books that seems tailor made for Volkswagen’s illegal action.

It says: “No person shall tamper, cause, or allow the tampering of the emission control system of any motor vehicle” and “no person or motor vehicle dealer shall offer a tampered motor vehicle for private or retail sale, or effect the transfer of title of any tampered motor vehicle.” …

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Independent candidate switches to Democrat

Less than three weeks after filing to run for Pasco Tax Collector as a non-partisan candidate, 28-year-old Marisol Rodriguez switched her affiliation and now is running as a Democrat.

Rodriguez, a tax professional at H&R Block, had been a member of the Democratic Party, but said she last month she figured it was safer to run as an independent.

“I’ve noticed voters are not very partial to Democrats here,’’ she told the Tampa Bay Times in a Feb. 24 interview. “Our last governor was Republican and switch to Democrat and they gave him hell for it. I’m trying to steer away from that kind of controversy.’’

Sixteen days later, she changed his candidate designation to Democrat. This is her first run for public office. Neither Rodriguez nor Democratic Party Chairman Michael Lebetter were available for immediate comment.

Incumbent Tax Collector Mike Fasano has not yet filed his candidacy papers, but has said he will seek re-election. Gov. Rick Scott appointed Fasano him to the job in August 2013 following the death of longtime Tax Collector Mike Olson. Fasano ran unopposed in 2014 to complete the remainder of that term.

 

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Critics sound off on FDOT's TBX campaign

Hey, look, it's the TBX mascot!

FDOT

Hey, look, it's the TBX mascot!

Residents of Seminole and Tampa Heights voiced their frustrations Tuesday night, arguing that community outreach for the Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion only seeks to build consensus for the project, not listen to critics' objections.

The Florida Department of Transportation partnered with the University of South Florida's Florida Center for Community Design and Research for its latest charette --  detailed planning sessions. They're part of a series of community outreach meetings organized after members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization called for more public engagement on the controversial TBX project.

That meeting was intended to brief the community on the feedback gathered from the second round of charettes before the third round kicks off next week.

That included design plans that could help mitigate the impact of the project, such as bike paths, greenways and creative use of the space under the expressway. Some of those, residents said, feel a little over the top, such as a rendering of a massive outdoor movie screen hanging from an elevated road. …

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Hillsborough County sues Volkswagen over emissions scandal

A Volkswagen Touareg diesel is tested in the Environmental Protection Agency's cold temperature test facility in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission voted Wednesday to sue the carmaker over an emission scandal.

Associated Press

A Volkswagen Touareg diesel is tested in the Environmental Protection Agency's cold temperature test facility in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission voted Wednesday to sue the carmaker over an emission scandal.

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission voted 7-0 on Wednesday to sue Volkswagen for illegally skirting emission rules.

The county hopes to join a class action lawsuit filed by other local governments against the carmaker after it was revealed in September 2015 that the company employed a device in millions of its diesel vehicles designed to trick federal emission regulators.

The EPC is hoping to follow a similar playbook that led to a lucrative settlement for the county in their lawsuit against BP after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Hillsborough won $28.5 million in that settlement, though after lawyers took their share, the county was left with about $22.8 million.

Similarly, Hillsborough's EPC, which is made up of the seven county commissioners, will pay an outside legal team one-third of any settlement won from Volkswagen. If the suit is unsuccessful, the lawyers won't get anything.

The lawsuit is likely headed to a San Francisco courtroom, where the class action lawsuit is currently underway. The EPC learned just two weeks ago it also has grounds to sue. …

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Shhh! No more talk about Tampa Bay Rays stadium sites in Hillsborough, Hagan says

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, left, and County Commission Chair Ken Hagan talk with reporters in 2013 about a potential Tampa Bay Rays move to Hillsborough. On Wednesday, Hagan said there won't be any more public talk about potential stadium sites anymore.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, left, and County Commission Chair Ken Hagan talk with reporters in 2013 about a potential Tampa Bay Rays move to Hillsborough. On Wednesday, Hagan said there won't be any more public talk about potential stadium sites anymore.

TAMPA -- Ever since St. Petersburg opened the door for the Tampa Bay Rays to find a new stadium in the region, there’s been plenty of speculation on where the team might end up if they move east of the bay.

Would Tampa Park Apartments work? Could Jefferson High School be moved? Might ConAgra sell the land around the old flour mill?

No more of that, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan said at Wednesday’s commission meeting.

Hagan told commissioners that there won’t be any more public discussion about future stadium sites from himself or any of the other members of the Hillsborough group courting the Rays. Such disclosure, he said, would have a “disastrous impact” on efforts by the team and county to secure a location for a new stadium.

“I recognize the importance of transparency throughout this process,” Hagan said. “We cannot, and we will not, negotiate in public.

“There will be times when sensitive discussions occur and those circumstances we will need to defer on specifics,” especially when it comes to potential sites, he added. …

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Design changes to new pier will only make it better, architects say

One of the new pier's architects sat down with the Tampa Bay Times' editorial board Tuesday to talk about how their original concept has evolved.  

The changes are most evident in the shape of the building and the loss of what some have referred to as its "birdcage" appearance. 

The former look came from strips of fabric, a material similar to that used at Tropicana Field, that partially enshrouded the pier building and was meant to provide shade. Some critics, though, expressed concern that the fabric strips might actually obscure views. There was also concern about the fabric's durability and maintenance. 

Now shelter from Florida's sun -- and rain -- will be provided by a concrete roof, accented with an aluminum trellis. 

Other changes to the original design from ASD of Tampa, Rob Rogers of Rogers Partners Architects and Urban Designers and Ken Smith Landscape Architect of New York, have included removing a grandstand that faced the great lawn in front of the pier building and could obscure views from within the restaurant. The restaurant also was reoriented to take advantage of desired downtown views.  …

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How Georgia's anti-LGBT bill could help Tampa land Super Bowl

The crowd during halftime of Super Bowl 50 completes a card stunt that spells out "Believe in Love" in rainbow colors, which many took to be a pro-LGBT message during the NFL's biggest game. Atlanta could have trouble convincing an increasingly inclusive NFL to pick the city for a future Super Bowl if a controversial LGBT bill is signed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Could Tampa benefit from that decision?

Associated Press

The crowd during halftime of Super Bowl 50 completes a card stunt that spells out "Believe in Love" in rainbow colors, which many took to be a pro-LGBT message during the NFL's biggest game. Atlanta could have trouble convincing an increasingly inclusive NFL to pick the city for a future Super Bowl if a controversial LGBT bill is signed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Could Tampa benefit from that decision?

Tampa’s chances of hosting a future Super Bowl may improve if Georgia moves forward with a controversial anti-LGBT bill.

The bill, which already passed both chambers of Georgia’s legislature and now sits on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk, supposedly protects faith-based organizations and businesses from having to provide services that contradict with a “sincerely held religious belief.” In practice, it allows religious nonprofit organizations to fire LGBT employees and to prohibit homosexuals from using their facilities for a gay wedding. It also says no one can be forced to attend a gay marriage.

If Deal signs the bill into law, it could cost the state a Super Bowl, the NFL told the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Friday, in not so few words. Atlanta is on the short list of cities to host a Super Bowl in 2019 or 2020.  …

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