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Police still seeking answers to Saturday shooting

SEBRING — Answers to what happened at Saturday’s early-morning shooting have remained elusive for Sebring police, for now.

Police Cmdr. Curtis Hart said Tuesday that officers have tried to learn more from victims and witnesses about a multiple-firearm incident shortly after midnight Saturday in the vicinity of Lemon Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. All four victims survived their wounds, but getting conclusive information has proven difficult from victims, witnesses and the community.

One victim had wounds to the upper torso and leg, Hart said, and underwent surgery on Saturday. Of the two others scheduled for surgery that day, one had a wound in an upper shoulder and the other had wounds to the leg and arm.

The fourth, JoMichalle Mack, was treated for a lower leg wound, Hart said, then arrested for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Arrest reports state that one witness identified him as having a handgun while on MLK Jr. Boulevard and of using that gun to shoot in her direction.

Evidence at the scene corroborates a witness statement that several guns were fired during the altercation. Hart said the police investigation is still open, and anyone with information may contact Det. Stephen Williams at the Sebring Police Department, 863-471-5108.

People may also contact Heartland Crime Stoppers at 1-800-226-TIPS (8477) or www.heartlandcrimestoppers.com. Anonymity is guaranteed.

County honors 39 volunteer firefighters for 545 combined years

SEBRING — Local volunteer firefighters’ years of service went without formal recognition last year during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Highlands County Fire Rescue officials and the Board of County Commissioners made up for that Tuesday night with an awards ceremony and reception, complete with a cake shaped like a fire helmet and rolled hose. All told, 39 volunteers received honors for a combined 545 years of service, the longest being 41 years from Leisure Lakes Volunteer Fire Department Chief Daniel Holmes Sr. Leisure Lakes Assistant Chief Douglas Pugh has 40 years.

HCFR Chief Marc Bashoor noted the commitment people have made to answer several calls per month, unwavering, for several years, missing family events and memories to see to the protection of other’s homes, property and lives. He told commissioners that he hopes they and future commissions will continue to support the Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP), enacted to help Highlands County Fire Rescue reward volunteers through recognition, gas allowances and monthly stipends based on years of consistent service.

With it, Bashoor said, the county might be able to retain and attract volunteers, saving the need to hire large numbers of paid staff for as long as possible. HCFR has 101 paid positions and 105 volunteer firefighters. Of volunteers, 60 run less than two calls per month, 20 run two to four calls a month, 17 run four to 10 calls and eight run 10 calls or more. “Active” participation depends on how many calls a department runs per month.

“It takes a very special person to be a volunteer,” Commission Chair Scott Kirouac said. Leisure Lakes Volunteer Firefighter Warren “Brad” Eddington and his wife, Rachel Eddington, agreed.

“It’s a commitment,” said Brad Eddington, who has put in 10 years, so far. “It’s very rewarding, that they’re willing to come to my house. I’m willing to do the same [for others], as long as I am able.”

“It’s a family, basically,” Rachel Eddington said.

Those honored, present or not Tuesday, are listed below by years of service, then by name:

30-plus years

- Earl Gray of Highlands Lakes Volunteer Fire Department — 31 years

- Ralph Meyers of West Sebring Volunteer Fire Department — 30 years.

25-29 years

- Joseph DeBree III of DeSoto City Volunteer Fire Department — 26 years.

- Michael Deery of West Sebring VFD — 26 years.

- Clifford Henry of DeSoto City VFD — 26 years.

- Christopher Kelley of West Sebring VFD — 25 years.

- Michael Morse of Highlands Lakes VFD — 25 years.

- Joseph Romanik of West Sebring VFD — 25 years.

20-24 years

- Noah Connell of Leisure Lakes VFD — 21 years.

- Rene Jolliff of DeSoto City VFD — 21 years.

- Mitchell Romine of Leisure Lakes VFD — 21 years.

- Joseph DeBree Jr. of DeSoto City VFD — 20 years.

- Adam Hess of Highlands Lakes VFD — 20 years.

10-19 years

- Jeffrey Bannister of Lorida Volunteer Fire Department — 11 years.

- Scott Kaplan of DeSoto City VFD — 11 years.

- Thomas Moran of Leisure Lakes VFD — 11 years.

- John Muha of West Sebring VFD — 11 years.

- Colt Renfro of Highlands Lakes VFD — 11 years.

- Giovanni Zanetti of Highlands Lakes VFD — 11 years.

- Vincent Cavarra of Leisure Lakes VFD — 10 years.

- Warren Eddington of Leisure Lakes VFD — 10 years.

- James Stuever of Lorida VFD — 10 years.

- Jason Wilkins of Leisure Lakes VFD — 10 years.

5-9 years

- Andrew Alley of Leisure Lakes VFD — 6 years.

- Cory Compton of West Sebring VFD — 6 years.

- Jordan Kinsey of Highlands Park Volunteer Fire Department — 6 years.

- Mark Kinsey of Highlands Park VFD — 6 years.

- Romeo Wanya Dunn of Highlands Lakes VFD — 6 years.

- Zachary Campbell of West Sebring VFD — 5 years.

- Daniel Cole of Leisure Lakes VFD — 5 years.

- Jason Hernandez of Lorida VFD — 5 years.

- Grady Laird of West Sebring VFD — 5 years.

- Logan Morris of Leisure Lakes VFD — 5 years.

- Francisco Olivero of West Sebring VFD — 5 years.

- Vincent Petruzzelli of Placid Lakes Volunteer Fire Department — 5 years.

- Jeffery Wyatt of Highlands Lakes VFD — 5 years.

Each firefighter received a certificate for their service and will receive years-of-service lapel pins once they are available. Bashoor said they were ordered from a vendor in April, and now in June they had still not arrived.

Court blocks controversial pesticide

TALLAHASSEE — In a victory for environmental and farmworker groups, an appeals court has overturned federal approval of a controversial pesticide that supporters say could help fight a disease that has caused heavy damage in Florida’s citrus industry.

The decision this week by a panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia came amid federal and state legal battles about the use of the pesticide aldicarb on citrus crops.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January approved the use of aldicarb in the production of Florida oranges and grapefruit. That drew a court challenge from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Environmental Working Group and the Farmworker Association of Florida, which argue, in part, that the pesticide threatens the health of workers and wildlife.

In April, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services denied an application to use aldicarb, spurring a separate state challenge from the pesticide company AgLogic Chemical, LLC.

This week’s decision by the federal appeals court came after the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged that it had not made a required “effects determination” under the Endangered Species Act before giving approval in January, shortly before former President Donald Trump left office.

The court approved a motion by the environmental and farmworker groups to vacate approval, or “registration,” of the pesticide.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried issued a statement late Tuesday praising the decision.

“This ruling acknowledges that the Trump administration’s registration of aldicarb violated federal law and that the pesticide’s environmental effects would remain unconsidered for years to come,” Fried said. “I remain fully committed to working with Florida’s proud citrus growers to support solutions for our state’s signature crop without risking human, animal and environmental health.”

But key players in Florida’s citrus industry have backed the use of aldicarb as the disease citrus greening has caused widespread damage. Florida Citrus Mutual and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in April on behalf of the EPA and said “the iconic Florida orange and its cousin the Florida grapefruit are being quickly annihilated” by citrus greening, which is transmitted by a type of insect.

“Florida’s citrus sector stands at the deadly brink. (The EPA’s) conditional registration of aldicarb is a scientifically valid means of saving much of what remains of Florida’s citrus production,” the brief filed in the federal appeals court said.

The EPA in April asked the federal appeals court to send the issue back to the agency to address the Endangered Species Act determination – but argued that approval should not be overturned.

“EPA acknowledges that it did not make an ESA (Endangered Species Act) effects determination prior to conditionally approving the use of aldicarb on oranges and grapefruit in Florida,” the agency said in a filing. “Accordingly, EPA respectfully requests that this court remand the challenged conditional registration approval to allow EPA to make an ‘effects determination’ and take any additional follow-up actions as appropriate.”

But the appeals court in a two-page order Monday granted the request of the environmental and farmworker groups for what is known legally as “vacatur.”

“Vacatur is further warranted in light of the seriousness of the admitted error and the error’s direct impact on the merits of the EPA’s registration decision given the agency’s finding as to the acute toxicity of aldicarb,” the order said. “In addition, vacatur would not result in material disruption because aldicarb has not been authorized for use on oranges and grapefruit in Florida for nearly a decade, and because at present the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has denied intervenor’s (AgLogic’s) application for state registration for the use of aldicarb on oranges and grapefruit.”

Aldicarb was approved for use on Florida oranges in 1978, but then-manufacturer Bayer CropScience canceled a registration for its use in 2010, according to a document filed in the state Division of Administrative Hearings. In 2017, however, AgLogic’s brand of aldicarb was approved by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for the production of cotton and peanuts.

The January approval for use in the citrus industry included conditions such as limiting the use of aldicarb to 100,000 acres of oranges and grapefruit in Florida and monitoring drinking-water wells near sites where the pesticide was applied. While the EPA gave approval, the use of aldicarb also needed a sign-off from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Change coming to Washington Heights

SEBRING — It would be ideal if a side-by-side display of a historical photograph of the Washington Heights community but unfortunately, we have been unable to locate one.

Just a short walk from the “City on the Circle” is the community of Washington Heights. As with many older neighborhoods, Washington Heights needs both aesthetic and infrastructure improvements. Recognizing these needs, a group of local community leaders, current and former residents, as well as business owners, have come together to form a non-profit organization to promote increased public participation in local government, and work towards making local government more responsive to the community’s needs.

The newly formed Washington Heights Community Action Network (WHeCAN) will be a 501©3 organization with a vision for the future of the businesses and families of Washington Heights. WHeCAN’s vision is “to foster a vibrant, prosperous and growing Washington Heights neighborhood through extraordinary community engagement, empowerment, and development.”

The Washington Heights Community Action Network’s (WHeCAN) Board of Directors are: founding member Angel Wiggins, president and CEO; founding member Megan Toney, vice president; Winnie George McGhee, treasurer; Aisha Alayande, communications director; Robert Olds, chair of large projects; LaVaar Scott and Teresa Hall, both members at large.

Speaking of the goals of WHeCAN, Wiggins said, “WHeCAN is a grassroots organization of community stakeholders who have come together to act as the voice of the Washington Heights community seeking to influence governmental decisions that affect us within our neighborhoods ... where we live, work, play, shop, study and raise our families.”

Wiggins further stated that she and Toney have attended CRA public meetings, made presentations, as well as worked alongside Kristie Vasquez, executive director of the City of Sebring’s CRA, for the past three months to identify, prioritize and coordinate improvements in Washington Heights.

“It’s important to see Washington Heights succeed. This is a partnership that we look forward to growing in the near future” Vasquez stated.

David Liedel, chair of the Sebring CRA, said, “I have had many ideas about improving the CRA district, which includes Washington Heights, for a number of years. My ideas are grandiose, and I’m pleased that there is someone that we can now begin to make these ideas come to fruition.”

The City of Sebring and Highlands County commissioners have approved several immediate and future projects to improve roads and sidewalks. In addition, improvements to Mary Toney Park will include a water fountain and seating for the current pavilion.

WHeCAN’s Board of Directors has requested of the CRA that $1 million be allocated to improvements in Washington Heights over the next three to five years.

One of the many goals to better serve the families of the Washington Heights community is addressing access to healthy food choices.

Wiggins shared, “We are excited to announce that the CRA and the county has been so gracious to donate land for the creation of a community garden in Washington Heights.”

With much hope for the future of Washington Heights, WHeCAN has begun research to identify available grants for the revitalization of the community’s only grocery store, Olds Family Grocery.

If you live, work, own property or a business in Washington Heights, you are a stakeholder in the community. You are invited to be part of this neighborhood organization, and help to change and empower your community. For more information about WHeCAN, contact Wiggins at angelhwiggins@gmail.com.