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AP lowers code fines on former bowling center site

AVON PARK — At Monday’s City Council meeting, Sebring attorney Michael Keiber, representing property owner Johnathan Davis, said he was requesting a reduction of the code enforcement lien at the former bowling alley.

Davis, believing it would be mutually beneficial, voluntarily annexed the property into the City of Avon Park, after Hurricane Irma resulted in a complete loss of the bowling alley and it has been an inactive site since that time, Keiber explained.

Following Irma, the city contacted Davis about the hazards of the site and he quickly spent $6,000 or $7,000 to erect a fence, he said. A code notice was issued in June, which was sent to the house occupied by his mother and, Keiber said, she apparently inadvertently overlooked that notice.

“It wasn’t until we had a real estate contract for a portion of the property that was ultimately sold to Mr. Franklin at the Kubota dealership that we recognized the lien in our title search examination,” Keiber said.

Davis quickly remedied that lien and cleared the violations that were reported on the northern portion of the property and when the code enforcement officer came out to inspect he identified another violation on the south end that was quickly remedied, Keiber said.

“We are now soliciting a reduction; the site has not been in use,” Keiber said. There was an oversight on the original violation. The daily fines totaled more than $26,000.

“Naturally this was a devastating loss for my client. They are trying to do something aggressively with the parcel,” he said. “We are asking you to reduce the fine to the amount the city actually expended so my client can move forward with his plans.”

Mayor Garrett Anderson noted that according to the city clerk the city’s costs were $55.44.

Councilwoman Maria Sutherland said about five or six years ago there was a non-compliant property that the city charged 2.5% of the lien in addition to the city’s cost when that property tried to sell. The city does not have any steadfast rules on how to approach these situations.

Interim City Manager Kim Gay said the settlement percentage was 2%.

Addressing Davis, Sutherland said everyone has a circumstance that shows a trail of happenings “and it seems every time you get cited for something you remedy the issue right away, so it is not like you are a derelict property owner that just lets it go for five or six years like the previous ones that we had that we did fine. So, I am OK with the lien reduction in this particular case.”

Gay and City Attorney Gerald Buhr said there are many steps and notifications before the code enforcement fines start.

Council vote 4-1, with Deputy Mayor Stanley Spurlock voting “no,” to approve reducing the fine to 2% plus the hard costs, which totals about $584.

Xaver case slowly moving forward

SEBRING — While the wheels of justice turn slowly, none seem to move more slowly for county residents as the trial of Zephen Xaver, who has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder of five women in the Midtown SunTrust Bank on Jan. 23, 2019. The wheels can turn even slower when a suspect waives their right to a speedy trial, as Xaver did on March 25, 2019 in his death penalty case.

More than one year has passed since the tragic shooting and Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin said he would not even venture a guess as to when the trail could begin.

Xaver has had multiple attorneys, who all work in Rex Dimmig II’s Public Defender’s Office in the Tenth Judicial Circuit. On Jan. 24, Pete Mills appeared for Xaver, who has waived his right to appear for every pretrial conference so far. Mills is an Assistant Public Defender who worked on Xaver’s case until March 11, 2019 when Blair Allen took over. Just three months later on June 11, 2019, Assistant Public Defender Jane Allie McNeill was assigned to the case.

Mills was granted a 60-day continuance for the scheduled pre-trial conference and Houchin said that time would probably be used to conduct interviews and taking depositions.

Mills is Chair of the Death Penalty Steering Committee for the Florida Public Defender’s Association and a frequent speaker at the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ annual “Death is Different” seminars. His biography for the 2018 seminar states he is a “frequent speaker at death penalty conferences. Prior to his work with the Office of the Public Defender, he worked at the Office of the Capital Collateral Representative, where he represented Florida death row inmates in postconviction litigation.”

Mills is scheduled to speak on case law update during the 2020 seminar, which takes place Feb. 20-21.

McNeill has also been a speaker at the Florida Public Defender’s Association “Life Over Death” seminar, speaking on “Jury Instruction Update & Challenges” at the 2019 event. The seminar “gives defense attorneys an opportunity to learn from experienced litigators and to those handling their first capital case to learn from experts, share ideas, and develop important contacts.”

Xaver was scheduled to have a PET scan in late November or early December. The motion to transport the suspect to the imaging center was made on Nov. 22, 2019. The date and time of the appointment was sealed but read “Exparte Order to Transport Defendant.”

In December, Houchin said the results of the test(s) would not be shared unless the defense brought it up at trial because of the attorney/client privileged and HIPPA.

Houchin said he has not been told if the defense would try an insanity plea yet.

The Discovery Exhibit/Demand for Reciprocal Discovery documents show a long “list of persons known to have information.”

The list includes dozens of law enforcement officers from Indiana where the suspect grew up and attended school as well as FBI members, local law enforcement and even an officer of the law in Norwich, Connecticut.

As expected, there are relatives from Indiana and co-workers from Duke of Oil in Plymouth, Indiana and coworkers from Avon Park Correctional Facility, where the suspect worked for a short time. Other witnesses are old classmates and a nurse from the institution that Xaver was taken to on at least one occasion.

A few surprises on the list were a man who was found dead in December 2016 in a Plymouth, Indiana hotel and a sexual offender from Arizona, who was wanted for failure to register, and was arrested while with his ex-wife in Williston, Florida. He was returned to Arizona to face jail time.

Fight refueled over gas pump stickers

TALLAHASSEE — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s office would have to replace stickers that display her smiling face on gas pumps by mid-September under a House budget proposal.

The directive is tied to the House’s proposed $91.37 billion budget that was released Thursday. The budget also would require placing in reserves more than $19.7 million for other programs until plans are offered to replace the stickers, a process that Fried’s spokesman said is already underway.

The issue, which isn’t in the Senate’s budget outline, comes after a decision last year by the Republican-dominated Legislature to limit what could be shown on gas-pump inspection stickers posted by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Fried is the only Democrat elected statewide, and stickers placed on pumps after she took office last year included a picture of her.

The House’s new budget proposal includes a provision that says a portion of money for the department would be put in “reserve until the department submits a plan to the Legislative Budget Commission for removing stickers affixed by the department to petroleum fuel tanks.”

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said the House is taking the steps because Fried didn’t carry out the Legislature’s directive last year to replace the stickers that included her picture.

“The Legislature made it clear last session that the placing of a likeness of oneself on official inspection materials was unseemly, self-promoting and contrary to taxpayer interests,” Piccolo said in an email. “Commissioner (Fried) chose to ignore that directive. The House in 2020 is reiterating last year’s requirement and exercising our constitutional prerogative to decide what is and is not funded.”

But Franco Ripple, a spokesman for the Fried, called the House proposal “outrageous” and contended that shifting money to reserves over the issue would endanger a variety of consumer protections.

“It jeopardizes active criminal investigations, 61,000 lab analyses, almost 9,000 fair ride inspections, and the handling of nearly 400,000 consumer inquiries and complaints, over gas pump stickers that are already being replaced,” Ripple said. “Because of this (budget) proviso language, the jobs of 284 hardworking state employees could be at risk — — perhaps indefinitely.”

Franco estimated the reserve proposal would impact about $9.45 million for the department’s Bureau of Standards, $4.3 million for the Bureau of Compliance, $2.35 million for the Bureau of Mediation and Enforcement, $1.8 million for the Bureau of Fair Rides, $1.3 million for the Outreach Section and $490,733 for the Board of Surveyors and Mappers.

The clash came days after Fried decried as a partisan “power grab” an effort backed by all but one member of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations to relocate the Office of Energy from her department to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.

The fight over the stickers has festered for more than a year, since her office started to replace stickers that had been placed on pumps when Republican Adam Putnam was the agriculture commissioner.

The new stickers went up as pumps were checked for illegal “skimmer” devices intended to steal credit card information.

At least part of the concern was that the stickers with Fried’s picture were being used to gain free political exposure for a re-election bid or a run for higher office in 2022.

Under Putnam, the stickers featured the department logo, along with a code intended to direct consumers to an online help site to express concerns about fraud.

While the budget last year dictated changes that would remove her picture, Fried’s office took that as a prohibition on buying more of the bright yellow, green and blue stickers, but not to stop using them.

Her office had spent $5,000 for 120,000 inspection stickers. Most were in place by the time the budget for the current fiscal year went into effect on July 1.

Last year, Fried said the stickers were about accountability. In addition to Fried’s face, the stickers say, “inspected and approved for accuracy,” along with her name and a consumer assistance web address and phone number.

Franco said new stickers are already being attached to pumps across the state.

The new design includes the department’s logo.