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Colby: Watchdog, cat-lover, diver
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SEBRING — If you worked with or followed issues with local government, public safety or lakes, you knew or knew of Preston Henry Colby.

A steely-eyed man with Hemingway whiskers and his own collection of cats, Colby had a question for every answer and always made an impression as he followed paper trails in pursuit of transparency. Colby died this past week at the age of 78.

Born May 31, 1942, originally from Albuquerque, N.M., Colby was one of Highlands County’s citizen watch dogs, not afraid to make noise or ruffle feathers, whom some still liked even as he irritated them. Tom Dettman, former Sebring police chief, visited Colby a few weeks ago in intensive care at Highlands Regional Medical Center and got a big “belly laugh” from remembering how he’d thrown Colby out of the police station, twice.

“He thanked me for our friendship,” Dettman said. “He was a tough old bird, but his bark was greater than his bite. Sometimes, he just needed someone with a different perspective who was more insistent than he was.”

Alvin Walters, retired Highlands County sheriff’s deputy, remembers a “unique guy” who gave mutual understanding and respect.

“Preston was a type of guy that believed in what he believed in, he always spoke his mind, and a lot of people did not understand that,” Walters said. “I think Preston was just a little ahead of his time. He had a lot of great ideas and some of those ideas that he put in the place are still standing.”

Walters said Colby had been instrumental in getting generators installed at various buildings in the county, as well as giving classes to Walters and other deputies on boating safety. Colby had once objected to the logistics involved for an in-person multi-agency mass-casualty exercise in May 2001. Four months later, however, it had prepared the county to go on alert after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Often, Colby drove deeper inquiry. In December 2017, he insisted county commissioners explain why they fired then-administrator June Fisher but didn’t say why.

“Tell the public. It’s not some state secret, is it?” Colby asked.

Commissioners said they’d told Fisher, face-to-face, of several issues over several months that she didn’t resolve. Colby asked about those issues, but was told the board could fire without cause and had no legal obligation to reveal them. The Highlands News-Sun then questioned a commissioner who said one issue was Fisher’s unavailability at the Emergency Operations Center during Hurricane Irma.

When Colby could not get answers at a meeting, he’d seek public records. Public Information Officer Gloria Rybinski said interactions with him were “always interesting” and that he was “not shy” when expressing his opinion.

“Some of our interactions were fueled by his curiosity and some by distrust,” Rybinski said. “Many times, we found ourselves on the opposite side of a legal battle, but I have always appreciated the fact that he pushed me to be better prepared and have a good knowledge of the records law.”

Rybinski said Colby’s frequent challenges helped the county develop a strong public records policy, charging for staff time to fill requests, an action the Second District Court of Appeals upheld.

Colby kept records for use later. In June 2017, after a young man drowned at H.L. Bishop Park, Colby produced copies of a study from 1997 showing eight drownings in six years after the park opened in 1991 — five in the swimming area — because of steep drop-offs just beyond the swimming buoys.

He also helped the city of Sebring reset swim buoys in 2012 on Lake Jackson after a 2008 drowning in a 12-foot-deep dredge hole claimed another young man.

An avid scuba diver, Colby pushed to maintain public access to clear-water spring-fed lakes like Lake Denton and held interest in keeping such lakes clear of debris.

Walters said Colby always stayed up with what was happening in Highlands County so that everybody was aware of the issues, and for that, he would truly be missed.

In October 2020, Colby posted on social media how he was willing to help people “peel the onion” with regard to local government access.

“It sure needs some correcting by somebody, but I’m just worn out with medical issues,” Colby wrote.

Stray animals; 'It's not finders keepers'
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SEBRING — It happens every day, someone finds a stray animal and rescues it. They take it into their home, clean them up, feed and water them and — if needed — take them to the veterinarian for care. Some will post the lost pet on social media to help reunite Fido with its owner. That’s what a good Samaritan would do. Some people may fall in love with the rescued animal and plan to keep it when the owner doesn’t show up. Good intentions aside, that may not be the best approach in the eyes of the law.

Individuals should educate themselves before keeping a stray and proceed with caution. In Florida, lost animals are considered property under Florida State Statute 705.102. The original owner has rights. Yes, even if it appears they were abandoned.

“It’s not finders keepers,” Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Clay Kinslow of Animal Services said.

According to the law, the “finder” of Fido has no rights until 90 days after the animal is found. After the 90 days, the finder only has partial ownership. The original owner still has their full rights. Kinslow explained that the finder should only provide emergency care for the animal because he/she is not your property. For instance, do not neuter the animal or re-home it because the owner could sue you.

Because the owner still has rights, he could take the dog back, even after 90 days. This could lead to heartbreak after getting attached and a civil law suit.

Kinslow said anyone who sees a stray should notify animal services. He also said the person who found the animal should do everything to find the owner to strengthen their case, should the need arise.

If you plan on keeping the animal, after attempting to find the owner, a shorter route to legally owning is to take it to Highlands County Animal Services.

“We will check the dog for a microchip to try and reunite the dog with its owner,” Kinslow said. “If the owner did not register the chip we track the chip back to the facility that put the chip in to see if they have the contact information.”

Kinslow explained there is a five-day hold on animals so they can try to find the owner. After the five-day hold, if the owner has not been found, the person who found the animal will be asked if they want to adopt the animal first.

“Then they are legally adopted,” he said.

The adoption fee will include the neutering/spaying and microchipping the animal, along with the knowledge the animal is legally yours. Kinslow is a big proponent of microchipping. He has seen first-hand many dogs reunited with their owners, sometimes even after a significant time. Animal services will microchip your pet for $10.

Call HCSO Animal Services for more information on microchipping or to report a lost or found animal at 863-402-6730.

County COVID numbers improve
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Highlands County saw better results with the release of Saturday’s COVID-19 numbers by the Florida Department of Health. There were 16 new virus cases in the county, raising the total to 8,457. Of those, there have been 8,363 resident cases and 94 non-resident cases.

There was one new death reported, bringing the total to 351.

The county processed 328 resident tests on Friday, which resulted in a 4.88% positivity rate for the day, making it just the second time the county has seen a rate under 5% in the last eight days.

There were two additional hospitalizations, raising the overall total to 657. According to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, the county had 31 people in the hospital with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 as of Saturday at 5 p.m. That’s a decrease of three from the previous day.

FDOH shows there were 97 vaccines given in the county on Friday, as numbers have dropped drastically in the past seven days compared to the previous seven days. In the last seven days there have been 1,834 vaccines given. In the seven-day period prior to that there were 3,613 vaccines given.

The state saw 5,419 new cases, which raises the total to 2,238,937. There have been a total of 2,197,023 resident cases and 41,914 non-resident cases.

There were an additional 78 resident deaths reported. There have now been 35,239 resident deaths. There were 697 non-resident deaths reported as of Friday and a website glitch prevented the number from being updated on Saturday, so there have been at least 35,936 deaths in the state.

Florida has been consistent with its positivity rate the past four days, with the number reported Saturday at 5.70%. The last four days have seen rates of 5.64% to 5.75%.

There were 53,720 new cases reported in the United States on Friday. While that number is higher than the seven-day average, it was lower than the previous Friday and as a result lowered the country’s seven-day average to 49,422. It’s the first time the seven-day average has been below 50,000 since Oct. 12.

There were 846 deaths reported, which is a fair amount higher than the seven-day average of 681.

The nation’s positivity rate continued to inch downward and is averaging 3.39% over the last seven days. Deaths are down 2% from the previous week, although with significant lag times on death reporting by some states, it’s the one metric that may take the longest to show major improvement. New cases, positivity rate and hospitalizations all show a decrease of 6% or more from the previous week.

According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the United States has seen a total of 32.37 million cases and had 576,606 deaths.

Globally, there have been 151.6 million cases and 3.18 million deaths.