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County attorney given a week's notice

SEBRING — Highlands County commissioners had prepared Tuesday to approve amendments to County Attorney Joy Carmichael’s contract. Instead, they voted 4-1 to dismiss her and have set a hearing for a week from now, under her contractual seven-day notice.

Commissioner Don Elwell, in dissension, said he wanted to find a better solution. “I’m going to spend the next seven days trying to get better clarification on this,” Elwell said.

After the vote to dismiss, commissioners approved an ordinance that would put Carmichael under County Administrator Randy Vosburg’s supervision, for any future attorneys.

Commissioners cited concerns with whether or not Carmichael and Vosburg can work together, given that the amended contract would have her reporting directly to him and not the board. They also had concerns with the fact that Carmichael had hired an attorney to help her negotiate the proposed changes to her contract, and the fact that they felt compelled not to meet with her individually on the matter because of it.

In turn, Carmichael said Tuesday she hired an attorney when Vosburg told her he had hired an attorney.

She said the two attorneys agreed that the proposed reporting structure could create a conflict of interest whereas having the county’s attorney report directly to the board creates a “check and balance” system on county administration.

Reading from a letter to commissioners that was not included in Tuesday’s agenda packet, Carmichael made suggestions on how to mitigate conflicts of interest under the proposed change. She said she did not oppose the changes, but also felt it was her legal duty to give an opinion on the matter.

She suggested having a commissioner appointed as board liaison for the administrator and attorney, have the administrator and attorney schedule joint meetings with each commissioner to give them opportunity to discuss policy and legal matters at once, and create an ordinance to set forth the role, scope and expectations for the county attorney. She said such changes would help set up a structure for a better joint working relationship.

Vosburg, however, did not show the same optimism.

“I would say that with the current paradigm, I would see issues with Joy going forward,” Vosburg said when asked.

Commission Chair Ron Handley, who sat in on the contract negotiation, said her attorney took an “adversarial approach.”

Carmichael apologized if anything felt that way, but said she and her attorney didn’t receive information on proposed changes and had to draft changes themselves.

Handley said Vosburg didn’t tell commissioners not to meet with her, but when one learns someone has hired an attorney, there’s a tendency to hold back.

“I respected that and that’s why I decided to write a letter to each of you,” Carmichael said.

Elwell pointed out that it had been a month since the decision to have Vosburg become Carmichael’s boss, and said her suggestions sounded like possible revisions to the contract. However, it was Commissioner Arlene Tuck who asked about a conflict of personality.

“I think that we should talk about what is going on here,” Tuck said. “Can the two of them get along by doing this? I see a separation here. If it’s not going to work, we need to fix this.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said Commissioner Jim Brooks, who made the motion to terminate, seconded by Tuck.

“I’ve had no problem with Joy communicating with me,” Commissioner Greg Harris said, who did have a problem with conflict with Vosburg. “If he can’t work with her, that would be a problem.”

Elwell said he didn’t think the situation was as bad as that and wanted to approve the contract changes, noting that Carmichael’s scores had gotten better since her last evaluation. “But this whole situation that has poked its head out of the water is unnecessary,” Elwell said.

If Vosburg has a problem with someone, Elwell said, it should be handled through employee procedure. At the same time, he didn’t want to set up a difficult situation for future failure.

“I think we as a board have lost confidence in her ability to work as county attorney,” Handley said. “There was definitely some real friction between the two of them, and I don’t see it getting any better.”

Both Brooks and Handley said they don’t want new commissioners coming in this fall having to deal with it.

Beth Degnan of Lake Placid took issue with the board’s vote and timing.

”She’s put on display of the people in a public meeting,” Degnan said. “This should have been handled before this.”

County says 'no' to mask mandate; gives decision to businesses

SEBRING — People wearing face masks may feel free to continue, and those who don’t can also do that.

Owners and managers of local businesses may also require masks in their establishments, if they wish, but commissioners stepped away Tuesday morning from making face masks mandatory in Highlands County.

They made a unanimous vote to approve a motion from Commissioner Arlene Tuck to have the county continue to follow the state lead on the matter, which is to recommend people wear masks, wash their hands as much as possible, practice social distancing and leave it up to local businesses as to whether or not they want to require masks.

Immediately after she made her motion, seconded by Commissioner Don Elwell, other commissioners voiced support for it.

Commissioner Jim Brooks said he flew to North Carolina and had a connection at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta.

”If you fly, you’re in the Atlanta airport or in Nashville airport, or wherever, you’re going to wear a mask,” Brooks said, adding that North Carolina has a mandate, “so I didn’t have any choice.”

He saw it as a personal decision, especially for those with underlying health decisions or businesses that want to require them, but didn’t want to make it mandatory.

Commissioner Greg Harris said he saw it as a personal choice — he wears one — and was OK with businesses requiring it, but not with a public mandate: “We can’t enforce it.”

County Administrator Randy Vosburg said the biggest issue for the county and local law enforcement was how to enforce a mandate.

“All we’re talking about,” Elwell said, noting the varying thickness of mask materials, “are things that lower the odds of spreading it — that makes things better. There is not one thing in our arsenal that is a complete stop to this.”

Elwell, who did not want a mandate, also lamented the fact that the issue has become politicized, “because it need not be.”

“It’s something we choose to do because we choose to be respectful of other people,” he said. “We choose to be concerned about our own health.”

He also talked about how statistics on the numbers of infected and dead, as well as information on how to avoid the virus get questioned every day, but the county and state have large numbers of people in hospitals who truly are sick.

Regardless of the percentages, he said, “(It) doesn’t matter. They’re sick. This is real.”

Penny Pringle, assistant director for the Florida Department of Health for Highlands and DeSoto Counties, said she, as a registered nurse, has used masks constantly, although not every day. She’s not required to wear one at work right now, but said not wearing one during a pandemic is a risk, and suggested employers can require it, if they wish.

“It’s kind of like playing Texas Hold ‘Em,” she said. “It’s the River Card.”

She said water droplets go into the air like soap bubbles, an illustration she often uses to help children understand how a virus can spread.

Her department tracks the numbers of new positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, noting that many people have prior conditions that make them more likely to succumb to the disease.

Michelle Gresham of Avon Park, wearing a mask at the podium, said soldiers wear masks in the desert to protect American lives and suggested people should do the same here.

She also took issue with the governor’s office having left the decision to local governments, and the county consulting Sheriff Paul Blackman on the matter when he wasn’t consulted on the Second Amendment resolution in February.

She said this matter is not political and shouldn’t be, but should be about people protecting each other.

“When our local government can’t be leaders, who do we look to?” Gresham asked, adding “If you can’t do it, where’s the leadership?”

Later on, Elwell said that taking a stance, although not the stance one wants, is leadership.

“If the numbers get worse, we may want to revisit this issue,” he said.

Beth Degnan of Lake Placid agreed that the county can’t force people to wear them.

“I wear it as a precaution,” Degnan said.

She also said that her former home of Charlotte County has provided a voluntary list of businesses that require masks to let residents know where they need to wear one.

“Some stores are giving out the throwaways if (customers) don’t have their own,” Degnan said. “People are saying that they are still not going out.”

Handley said county officials haven’t gathered that information, yet. Degnan said local chambers of commerce could provide those lists.

The Highlands News-Sun contacted local chambers, whose staff were collecting that information as of press time. Those wanting to learn of all local businesses that require masks may contact their local chamber in:

- Avon Park at 863-453-3350 or

- Lake Placid at 863-465-4331 or

- Sebring at 863-385-8448 or

County resident Kenny Snodgrass said he would like to see a mandatory rule and cited Robert Redfield, commissioner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that if everyone in the nation would wear a mask for four to eight weeks when around others, we could get the virus under control.

“I beg to differ with the assertion that scientific date points to not wearing masks,” Snodgrass said.

He added that many people can’t afford the masks for when they need them.

Vosburg said the county has allocated a portion of anticipated Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Stability (CARES) Act funds for personal protection equipment, with plans to distribute it at testing events.

Clerk of Courts Bob Germaine reported that those anticipated funds had arrived — more than $4 million — deposited in county accounts and ready for distribution.

Athletes to sign COVID waivers to participate

SEBRING – Student athletes and their parents will have to sign a COVID-19 waiver in order to play sports this summer and during the 2020-2021 school year. The waiver is not just for athletes, it is also for all extracurricular activities for grades 6-12. The waiver is similar to others from The School Board of Highlands County for field trips and sports, but this waiver is specific to coronavirus.

“One of the primary reasons to require any waiver is for parents/guardians to acknowledge that there is a risk in participation,” said Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge. “In this specific waiver we were asking for specific actions by the parent as well, including monitoring their own child’s health, keeping them home if they were not feeling well or if they had been exposed to someone with COVID-19.”

The measures that parents are agreeing to when they sign the waiver are:

• Perform daily temperature checks on my child(ren) to screen for fever before arrival for the activity.

• Make a visual inspection of my child(ren) for signs of illness.

• Confirm that my child(ren) has not been in contact with someone or has either tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days or is waiting for test results.

• I agree to promptly pick up my child(ren) or arrange for pickup if signs or symptoms of illness are present.

• I understand that children are to remain home until illness-free for at least 72 hours without the use of medicine.

• I also voluntarily assume all risks that I and/or my child(ren) may be exposed to or infected by COVID-19 as a result of participation in the activity, and that such exposure or infection may result in personal injury, illness, sickness, and/or death,” the waiver states. Parents acknowledge the risk of infection to students, staff, volunteers and others if they do not adhere to the safety guidelines above

The neighboring counties of DeSoto, Hardee and Pasco are also asking parents and students to sign waivers to participate in sports or extracurricular activities.

Over 9,000 new cases in Florida with 134 deaths

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Highlands County has reached 809 confirmed as of Tuesday’s update. There is one additional death being reported bringing the total to 16. The number of current hospitalizations is 54. There have been a total of 118 hospitalizations in Highlands County with 117 of those residents and one nonresident. Currently, there are 54 hospitalizations.

At the Avon Park Correctional Institute there are a total of 164 COVID-19 cases with 25 staff members also testing positive. The facility has 903 in medical quarantine and has administered 1,597 tests with 1,227 negative, 164 positive and 206 awaiting results. These cases are not included in the county total.

The first positive case reported in Highlands County was on March 21.

The total number of tests administered in Highlands County is 12,626 with 11,804 negative tests results of which 66 are non-Florida residents. and 13 results areinconclusive. The percent of positive cases is 6.4%.

Of the 809 positive cases in Highlands County, 806 are residents and three are non-residents. The cases include 331 male and 352 females, ranging from ages 0 to 95, with a median age of 48. Of the positive cases, 46 are under the age of 18.

FDOH is releasing details of ethnicity and race regarding the positive cases in each of the state’s 67 counties.

Highlands County’s cases by ethnicity are 241 Hispanic, 425 non-Hispanic and 140 unknown/no data. The cases by race are 438 white, 146 Black, 125 other and 97 unknown/no data.

The total number of positive cases continues to climb in Florida with 9,440 new cases. The state total is now 369,834; 4,590 of those are non-Florida residents. The total number of deaths increased by 134, bringing the total to 5,319 of which 113 are non-Florida residents.

Highlands County has surpassed Okeechobee, Hardee and Glades in positive cases while DeSoto has more cases than Highlands County. Okeechobee has a total of 684 cases with two deaths; Hardee has 717 cases with four deaths; DeSoto County has 1,099 positive cases with 14 deaths and Glades has 287 cases with two deaths. There are many variables that could affect the numbers such as population and testing availability.

Miami-Dade and Broward Counties had a quadruple digit one-day increase. Broward County had an increase of 1,614 new cases for a total of 42,577 positive cases with 2,905 total hospitalizations and 517 deaths. Miami-Dade continues to lead the state in positive cases with 89,557 confirmed, which is a 2,493 increase since Monday. The total number of deaths in Miami-Dade reached 1,325 deaths.

Seventeen counties reported triple digit increases. Brevard had 116; Collier, 142; Duval, 294; Escambia, 156; Hillsborough, 410; Lee, 211; Leon, 123; Manatee, 133; Marion, 167; Orange, 419; Osceola, 209; Palm Beach, 521; Pasco, 109; Pinellas, 227; Polk, 194; Seminole, 111, and Volusia with 236, accounting for 7,884 of the new cases. The only county in the state to not have an increase was Calhoun.

Nationally, the number of positive cases has reached 3,845,680 with the number of deaths reaching 141,118 and 1,160,087 recovered. Worldwide, the number of positive cases has reached 14,763,911 with 611,090 deaths.

For more information on COVID-19, visit

In Highlands County, call 863-402-6800 or text hccovid to 888777.