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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Emails show how tempers flared over viral barbecue video

They came from as near as Clearwater and as far as Canada. Some had creative subject lines like," Black Mark on Your County" and "Better Homes and Gardens Gestapo," but most just referenced barbecue smoke.

After a video of a Pinellas County inspector warning a homeowner about offensive barbecue smoke went viral last week, emails began to pile up in county commissioner inboxes. Armchair activists fired off searing missives to lampoon what they saw as a county campaign to douse a cherished pastime with a big bucket of bureaucratic buzzkill.

"Are you all freaking kidding me!" wrote one Dexter Lawley, who didn't give an address. "What type of tyranny do you have growing there in your town. What have we become when a taxpaying citizen of the U.S. is threatened and cited for having a BBQ on their own property."

And so they went, some 16 emails (and counting), plus about a dozen phone calls to the commission offices.

It's easy to see how the nearly six minute video might be misinterpreted.

"I'm only here because of the odor," environmental specialist Joe Graham tells Chris Mattt, who lives with his brother Dwayne on Alcola Way in southern St. Petersburg. "I'm only here because of the smells." …

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Neighbor in viral barbecue dispute says focus on smoker

Focus on the smoker.

That's the message in a statement released Tuesday by Sue Godfirnon, the Pinellas County elementary school teacher embroiled in a now viral dispute with her neighbor over barbecue smoke. Godfirnon has lodged more than a dozen complaints with Pinellas County and a video recording of an exchange between a county air quality inspector and one of Godfirnon's neighbors, Chris Matt, has racked up more than 4 million views since it was posted on Facebook last week. (Read a full report here.)

Godfirnon emphasizes the evidence that Matt and his brother Dwayne are using a smoker, not a typical backyard barbecue grill, which produces thick plumes of smoke for hours on end. She notes that the Matts wouldn't allow reporters to see their grill, and she points out a troubling comment by Chris Matt at the end of the video. (Here's a story by Times reporter Katie Mettler quoting culinary experts who say excessive smoke is a sign of a culinary faux pax). 

Here's Godfirnon's entire statement:  …

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Video of Pinellas County barbecue smoke dispute goes viral

A home in south St. Petersburg has been the target of more than a dozen complaints this year about smoke and odor from an open barbecue grill.

In the past few days, it blew into a fiery internet controversy after a video was posted online showing a confrontation between the resident and a Pinellas County environmental specialist.

“I’m only here because of the odor. I’m only here because of the smoke,” the jeans-wearing county employee says on the tape.

He and two men banter back and forth about where the smell of barbecue is allowed (on private property: yes; on the public street: no), with the county worker at one point pulling out a folder and reading the ordinance verbatim.

“Everybody else cooks out around here, and nobody harasses them,” the resident replies.

Since the video was posted last week, it has been shared and viewed millions of times. And the incident has become a rallying cry for both conservative bloggers who see government bureaucracy run amok, and African-American activists denouncing the confrontation as harassment.

It all began as a fairly typical and mundane example of local government responding to a citizen complaint. Or, 15 complaints. …

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Kathleen Peters responds to Dems' dig on her ALEC trip

The Pinellas Democratic Party have seized on Rep. Kathleen Peters' plans to travel to San Diego this week for the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, more commonly called ALEC. (Read more here on the Buzz about the other House members who planned to attend.)

The party included a tidbit about the trip in its regular email update to supporters Tuesday. 

"This ultra-conservative organization has lost support because the group has been caught lying about climate change," the email said. "Local environmental activists are concerned that Rep. Peters, who represents some of Florida’s most vulnerable coastline, would attend ALEC trainings. Additionally, other companies have withdrawn support for the organization because of ALEC’s advocacy of Stand Your Ground Laws. In total, more than 100 companies have stopped participating in ALEC, including Google, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and General Electric."

We sent that to Peters, R-South Pasadena, and asked her to respond. Here's what she said in an email: …

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St. Pete council asks for Trop site study -- but will it get one?

ST. PETERSBURG | The city council voted Thursday night to ask the administration to conduct a study of redevelopment opportunities on the Tropicana Field site.

Whether anyone will take up the task remains to be seen.

"We'll take it under consideration," City Administrator Gary Cornwell said minutes after the council's 4-1 vote. "I'll leave it up to the mayor."

Council member Jim Kennedy, who voted against Mayor Rick Kriseman's deal to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to start looking outside the city for a new stadium site, said he believes that a study conducted by an outfit like the Urban Land Institute is a logical next step in the process.

"I start with a premise that these studies are speculative in nature ... not exactly a predictor of what will happen," Kennedy said. "If we do this type of ULI study we have an opportunity to show the Rays what advantages exist within Tropicana Field."

The council can't force the city to do the study, which would ask for potential uses for the 80-acre site with and without a baseball stadium. …

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St. Pete ccouncil approves $663K deal to buy black history museum

ST. PETERSBURG | The city is one step closer to buying the building that houses the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum.

Council members, in a 6-0 vote Thursday, approved a purchase agreement that calls for the city to pay $663,000 to the St. Petersburg Housing Authority for the museum at 2240 Ninth Ave. S. (Click here to see background on how the two agreed on the price)

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Kriseman pulls back on charter amendment that would affect city council elections

ST. PETERSBURG | Mayor Rick Kriseman has pulled back on a proposed charter change that would mean future council members, in some circumstances, would be elected solely by voters from a particular district. 

Right now, council members represent one of eight districts but are elected city-wide. If more than two people want the same district seat, they have to compete in a primary; the top two vote-getters then compete again (city-wide) in the general election.

Kriseman called that setup "antiquated." 

An administration-backed charter amendment would instead say that any candidate who won a majority of votes in the district primary wins the seat automatically, with no citywide runoff. 

The issue was to be discussed at Thursday's city council meeting. But at the start of the meeting, the mayor asked to table the matter and pull it from the agenda. He noted that two council members -- Darden Rice and Steve Kornell -- were absent and said everyone deserved to give input on the issue. 

"I believe our system needs to be modernized," Kriseman said. "I think it probably merits a committee of the whole discussion. " …

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Rice nixes idea to spend BP money on smaller recycling trucks

Remember St. Petersburg Council member Darden Rice's idea to spend part of the city's BP settlement money on a smaller recycling truck?


Rice recently submitted a new business item for the Aug. 6 council meeting asking her colleagues to consider a few ideas for the $6.5 million the city is expected to net to settle its claim against BP and other defendants for the Deepwater Horizon spill. In addition to filling in funding gaps for the proposed bike sharing program and helping pay for improved bike lanes, Rice also suggested the city consider "buying smaller hybrid-electric recycling trucks for the sanitation fleet that can fit in alleyways."

Rice said that idea got a cool reception from Mayor Rick Kriseman's office, so she has submitted an amended item without the truck suggestion.

"It was admittedly a poke to nudge (the administration) into talking about a solution," Rice said. "I want the recycling program to be extremely successful but I also want the city to demonstrate that it listens to our residents.  …

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Pinellas transit board headed toward tax hike

The tax rate for transit in Pinellas County is almost certainly going up in 2016, but not by much.  

The Pinellas Suncoast Suncoast Transit Authority board of directors voted 7-4 Wednesday to advertise a tax rate of .75 mils, the maximum allowed by law and an increase of .15 mills from the current rate.

For a $150,000 property with a $50,000 homestead exemption, the PSTA portion of the tax bill would increase $1.50, from $73.50 to $75. 

The board could still adopt a lower rate before the budget is finalized, but a majority of board members seemed inclined to stick with the higher levy.

"We have an obligation not to run this agency out of money and in just a few years that's going to be the scenario if we don't take steps to keep this agency solvent," said board member Joseph Barkley III. "Postponing the inevitable merely means the present value we'd receive from having this money now is going to be deferred." …

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BP settlement money for new recycling trucks in St. Pete? Rice wants to talk about it

Could some of St. Petersburg's Deepwater Horizon settlement money be spent on smaller recycling trucks? City Council member Darden Rice wants to talk about it.

St. Pete was among several local governments that recently approved settlements with BP and other defendants to end lawsuits stemming from the 2010 oil spill. The money could arrive within a few months, and there are few restrictions for how to spend it. In a new business item submitted for the Aug. 6 council meeting, Rice is asking the City Council to consider using a "significant portion" of the $6.5 million that the city will net (after paying attorney fees) for "purposes and projects that lessen our dependency on oil." 

Some of the ideas she wants to explore include filling in funding gaps for the proposed bike sharing program, leveraging the money to land federal funds for improved bike lanes and "buying smaller hybrid-electric recycling trucks for the sanitation fleet that can fit in alleyways." She's asking the council to refer the matter to its Energy, Natural Resources, and Sustainability Committee. …

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Welch won't run for Congress if Crist does; Dudley still thinking about it

So what does Charlie Crist's pending entrance into the race for Pinellas County's 13th Congressional District mean for Democrats who were also considering a bid? 

We've reached a couple of them today. Like Crist, state Rep. Dwight Dudley and County Commissioner Pinellas Ken Welch live in the section of St. Petersburg expected to shift to District 13, which Rep. David Jolly will leave open to run for Senate. 

Welch said is sticking to the word he gave Crist after the state Supreme Court's redistricting ruling.

"He's been a longtime supporter of me and I've been a long time supporter of his, and I told him if he ran he'd have my support," Welch said. "I think he'd be an outstanding congressional candidate."

Dudley, who went to high school with Crist, said the former governor is "a person of good moral character and has some vision."

"Having said that, does (his announcement) mean I am automatically disinterested? Not yet," Dudley said. "It's still an open idea."

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Sykes considering bid for state House or Congress

Longtime St. Petersburg pastor Manuel Sykes is considering a bid for office in 2016.

Which one, and with which party? Sykes says he's thinking and praying on both decisions.

Sykes said he might run the state House seat currently held by Rep. Darryl Rouson, who is term-limited, or the soon-to-be redrawn 13th Congressional district.

"I feel like I would be representing a larger group of people I've been trying to help all these years," Sykes said of the congressional seat. "That would give more of an opportunity to really try to bring resources to the area."

The Bethel Community Baptist Church pastor would likely be a contender in either race. Sykes already lives in the Democratic-leaning 70th District district, and observers say the Legislature will likely follow a recent Florida Supreme Court ruling on the state's Congressional map by shifting a heavily Democratic section of southern St. Petersburg into CD 13. The incumbent, Indian Shores Republican David Jolly, is expected to forgo a reelection bid to run for Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate seat. …

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Author of election fraud claim hard to find

Times Staff Writers

ST. PETERSBURG — The mystery began with an election fraud complaint filed this week against Eric Lynn, the only announced Democrat in the closely watched Congressional District 13 race.

Nestor Ojeda-Penaloza filed the complaint with the Florida Division of Elections, alleging that Lynn broke the law by voting as a state resident while claiming homestead exemptions in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Ojeda-Penaloza attached detailed property records and copies of campaign donations that showed Lynn contributed $350 to Democratic candidates Dwight Dudley and Judithanne McLauchlan in 2014 using his Maryland address.
Yet while the complaint is loaded with exhaustive minutia about Lynn, precious little is known about the accuser, Ojeda-Penaloza. …

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Pinellas County agrees to $9.5 million deal with BP to settle Deepwater Horizon claim

We now know much Pinellas County will get to settle its claim against BP and other defendants in a lawsuit stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill: $9,515,923.

The County Commission approved the settlement Monday but county attorney Jim Bennett recommended that the amount be kept under wraps until a federal judge lifted an order stating that "any discussions regarding possible resolution of any state or local governmental claim are strictly confidential." Bennett released the figure Wednesday evening after getting word from the judge that Pinellas could do so because so many other local governments had already announced their settlement amounts.

Pinellas had sued for $9.3 million in damages. It was unclear Wednesday why the county received more than it sought when other local governments are getting about half of what they wanted.

Read more on local settlements here and here

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St. Petersburg approves beefed-up ordinance on door-to-door sales

St. Petersburg----Judy Ellis finally had enough of the door-to-door sales people trying to peddle home-security alarms, magazine, food or offering services like tree-cutting.

The president of the Lakewood Estates Civic Association said groups of sales people would harass residents, spread misinformation and ignore attempts to, well, ignore them.

"Worst of all, NO SOLICITING signs meant nothing to them.  And often when they got you to the door they'd refuse to leave.  They seemed to be routinely rude to women and sickeningly sweet and cooperative with men. Told by at least three women to get off the property, they stood their ground and refused to go - I mean, how do you sell anything doing this," wrote Ellis in an email Wednesday.

Ellis and her neighbors organized and sought the city's help in curbing the excesses.

Council member Steve Kornell got involved and helped update the city's ordinance to include stronger background checks and strengthen rules about salesmans' behavior. 

The City Council unanimously approved the revamped ordinance on July 9. It takes effect Thursday.  …

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