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Carmichael resigns as county attorney

SEBRING — Instead of going through a public hearing to defend keeping her job Tuesday, County Attorney Joy Carmichael opted to resign and take a settlement.

County commissioners voted unanimously to accept her resignation and the settlement agreement at a meeting Tuesday morning that was to discuss the future of her job.

One of the terms of that settlement will provide her with four more weeks of severance pay above the 10 weeks that were originally in her contract in exchange for waiving her rights to sue the county under numerous federal and state laws that protect people from unfair firing practices and worker mistreatment.

Sherry Sutphen, of Bell & Roper P.A. in Orlando, said the agreement also removed the ability to require a public hearing on Carmichael’s job.

No allegations specifically were made by Carmichael in her resignation letter, nor were any outlined in the agreement.

In the letter dated July 27, Carmichael thanked the Highlands County Board of County Commission for the opportunity to serve as county attorney. She said that she was pleased to serve the citizens of Highlands County as legal adviser to the board, administration and departments of Highlands County government.

A copy of the agreement, obtained under Florida Public Records Law, states that she would receive, as severance, the equivalent of 14 weeks of her annual salary and the cost of 10 weeks of health insurance coverage, as provided by the county, all to be paid within 30 days with all applicable tax forms forwarded to her.

In the agreement, Carmichael states she has no suits against the county, its elected or appointed officials, or against any staff members.

She also waived all claims that would otherwise be due to her under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act, or any other federal law against discrimination at work, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Florida Civil Rights Act, the Equality Pay Act, the False Claims Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Florida Public Sector Whistle-Blower’s Act or any other federal, state or common law.

According to a presentation Tuesday by Sutphen, the agreement includes a gag clause and non-disparagement clause to prevent Carmichael along with County Administrator Randy Vosburg, other county staff and county commissioners from talking about the settlement or about the other party in the agreement. Specifically, the agreement states that neither party would be allowed to disclose the terms of the agreement to outside parties, although the Florida Public Records Law supersedes such an agreement in the case of those who work in government or for a governmental entity.

Also, the non-disparagement clause states that Carmichael would not disparage any member of Highlands County government and that county officials and representatives would not authorize any official position that is disparaging in any way to her.

Commissioner Arlene Tuck moved to accept the agreement and resignation. Commissioner Jim Brooks seconded it.

Commissioner Don Elwell remarked that he hoped the commission can find a way to handle such matters in the future as professionally as possible.

Commissioner Greg Harris, referring to comments made at last week’s meeting about Carmichael’s performance, said he always found her to be a strong communicator and very professional. “I wish her the best,” Harris said.

For now, Vosburg said, the county has a paralegal in place, and has made an offer of assistant county attorney to a candidate who is lined up to start work on Aug. 10. For now, he said, the county would use outside counsel for pending and emerging legal matters.

“We can talk about it in future meetings,” Vosburg told commissioners.

Brooks asked if the county would put out a request for proposals for new legal counsel, and Vosburg said that’s not usually how the county seeks legal services, but Tuck suggested that it might help now.

“I’ve already heard of a couple of people in Highlands County who are interested,” Tuck said. She suggested doing that, “if we want to get the best — what we think is the best.”

Carmichael started her job as assistant and moved up.

When commissioners agreed to have an assistant attorney for then-county attorney Ross Macbeth in March 2016, the county hired Garrett Roberts, who then left in January 2017 to be staff attorney for Sheriff Paul Blackman.

The board then hired Carmichael, who remained “assistant attorney” after Macbeth resigned on Sept. 29, 2017, in protest over not getting the pay raise he requested.

Carmichael continued to provide full-time legal services as “assistant attorney,” and commissioners hired Carmichael as county attorney in January 2018. Shortly after that, she recruited a colleague in Orlando to help with work overflow from there.

Last month, commissioners voted 3-2 to move Carmichael under Vosburg’s supervision for a year, with the possibility of moving her back into direct supervision by the board, according to a motion by Tuck.

Last week, they approved changes to command structure to do that, but then voted 4-1 to dismiss her, after Brooks made a motion and Tuck seconded it.

Tuesday was to be the hearing on her contract.

Tropical storm not time to panic, prepare

SEBRING – Headlines have been dominated by COVID-19, toilet paper shortages, murder hornets, bubonic plague and more that 2020 has dished up so far. It may be a surprise that we have other concerns such as hurricane season. The season, which started on June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, has been zipping through the named storms like something that, well, only 2020 could do.

On Tuesday, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration upgraded an unorganized tropical disturbance, formerly known as Invest 92-L, to a Potential Tropical Cyclone 9 on the 11 a.m. Monday update. NOAA Meteorologist Stephen Shiveley said the storm is forecast to be named “Isaias” by today. The Potential Tropical Cyclone signifies that the storm is likely to continue to develop and make landfall within 48 hours. NOAA can, with this designation, put a forecast cone in place and issue alerts sooner than before. A sort of warning to the warning.

Shiveley said that in order for a storm to be called a tropical storm, it must have sustained winds of 40 mph and a good rotation. At the 11 a.m. update on Tuesday, the storm had sustained 40 mph winds and was moving quick at 23 mph.

“Right now, there is no organized rotation. It is just a big cluster of clouds,” he said.

“The details of the long-range track and intensity forecasts are more uncertain than usual since the system does not have a well-defined center and could move over portions of the Greater Antilles later this week,” NOAA’s Tuesday morning update said. “However, this system could bring some rainfall and wind impacts to portions of Hispaniola, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Florida by the end of the week.”

If mountains and land masses do not cause the storm to dissipate, Isaias could make landfall around Palm Beach County on Sunday. Rain, thunderstorms and tropical storm force winds could be on tap for most of Florida if the cone stays on track. However, Shiveley said it is simply too early to tell.

Shiveley explained there were two probable scenarios: the first is if the storm stays weak (not well organized), it will hug the left side (west) of the cone of error. If the storm strengthens, it will hug the right side (east) side of the cone. A good outcome would be a turn to the east and stay away from Florida.

“It could dissipate and we could have a normal weekend after all,” he said. “Confidence is very low right now. This is the first staff guess. We will know more when we get the hurricane planes out there and start dropping things.”

Shiveley thought the hurricane hunter planes were scheduled for later on Tuesday and today. While it is too soon to panic, this is the time to ensure your emergency plans are in place, said the meteorologist. Make sure water, medications and shelf-stable foods are plentiful. Know where shelters are located, check batteries and flashlights, and keep informed with a weather radio.

Shiveley recommended having masks, hand sanitzers and disinfecting wipes in a “go bag” in case of an evacuation during the COVID pandemic.

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Florida's new cases over 9K again

SEBRING — A slightly smaller single-day increase in COVID-19 infections on Monday, just below 9,000, jumped up over 9,000 again on Tuesday.

Florida saw 9,243 new infections statewide Tuesday, according to the testing numbers. Highlands County now has 1,103 cases, with 54 in the hospital and 24 deaths, two more than Monday's report showed.

Florida now has 441,977 cases statewide, with 436,867 Florida residents and 5,110 non-Florida residents infected.

Highlands’ increase of 34 new cases was just 6.8% of the 497 people tested, which was up from the 4.8% positivity rate reported the previous day, which is now the only day in two weeks when the positivity rate dropped below the 5% rate recommended by the World Health Organization for countries to reopen events, businesses and schools.

However, 6.8% is closer than the county has been in all that time, with average high percentages at 11.3% and the highest percentage at 19.9% on July 20, during a slow day of testing.

The median age for new cases in Florida dropped to 42; in Highlands County, it came up from 37 to 43.

While new cases have been highest in the 25-34 year range, and have been spread mostly throughout age groups from 15 to 64, the highest hospitalization rates have been among those ages 55 to 85 and older and deaths have been highest among those ages 65 and older.

Highlands County has seen a spike of new cases in the 25-34 year age range and the 55-64 year range, with similar spikes in hospitalizations among those 55-64 and 75-84, with deaths highest among those 75-84.

The county has seen eight new cases among those 5-24 years old.

Analysis of the numbers suggests that the younger the median age, the less likely the state and county are to see new deaths.

Meanwhile, with Florida school districts making plans to restart school next month, the state has seen 1,295 new cases among those 15-24 years old, 300 new cases among those 5-14 years old and 152 new cases among children 4 and younger — a total of 18% of the new cases.

The Florida Department of Health's Pediatric Report, which is released weekly, showed an increase from 23,170 to 31,150 cases for the week ending July 24 — an increase of 7,980 cases, while hospitalizations went from 246 to 303.

Florida's new total of 441,977 means the state has nearly added 300,000 cases since the 158,997 confirmed cases reported on July 1, and will likely exceed 450,000 cases by the end of today.

The state saw a record 186 resident deaths, bringing the total up from 5,931 to 6,117. Non-resident deaths climbed five to 123, with 24,917 people hospitalized, according to the Florida Department of Health. The single-day increase of 585 hospitalizations is also a record for the state.

In Highlands County, hospitalizations came back up slightly with 126 residents and one non-resident under care. Highlands County's hospitalization rate of 11.5% is approximately double the state average of 5.6%.

The county death toll came up to 24, approximately 2% of all county cases.

In surrounding counties, DeSoto County saw an increase of 22 cases, bringing its total to 1,227. The positivity rate was 22.4% out of the most recent 98 tests, making now the third time in two weeks that DeSoto’s daily rate has been over 20%.

Glades County had four new cases out of nine tested, for a positivity rate of 44.4%. The county now has 389 total cases, all county residents.

Hardee County has seen six new cases, with a new total of 805 and a positivity rate of 8.3% out of the most recent 192 tested. It was the first time in just over a week that Hardee’s positivity rate dropped to below 10%.

Okeechobee County saw 21 new cases, making for 853 total cases, with four out-of-county residents, and a positivity rate of 17.4% out of 121 tests.

Polk County gained another 176 new cases, which was the first time in a week for less than 200 new cases.

The county of 650,000-700,000 people now has 11,893 cases, with 236 deaths and 1,011 hospitalizations.

Outside the Heartland region, Miami-Dade County saw an increase of 3,030 cases — the sixth time in two weeks for daily increases above 3,000 — with a positivity rate of 17.5% out of more than 17,000 tests.

For the past two weeks, Miami-Dade has seen a positivity rate between 16.7 and 22.8% each day.

Broward County saw 898 new cases, which was the first time since July 6 that it hasn’t had a four-digit increase, while Palm Beach County had an increase of 620, Orange County added 432 cases and Marion added 343.

Other three digit increases between 100-300 cases included Alachua, Bay, Collier, Duval, Lee, Leon, Manatee, Osceola, Pinellas, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Lucie and Volusia.

Together, they account for 7,596 of Florida’s total increase.

Nationally, the count has climbed to 4,309,230, with 148,298 deaths, according to COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

On the global front, Johns Hopkins reports, there have been 16.54 million cases and the death toll has passed 650,000, with the last count at 655,300.