Without federal disaster funding, LASER reaches out to the community for help.


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Like much of Lake County, Groveland is known for its picturesque lakes. But nature took a deadlier turn on Jan. 25 when a storm packing heavy winds damaged 30 homes in the city's downtown neighborhood.

GROVELAND –When storms came through Central Florida on Jan. 25, for most residents it meant heavy rain, strong winds, and slow, messy traffic on the highways. Some of the less fortunate lost power.
But for 30 homeowners in the town of Groveland, it turned out to be much worse.
The fast moving storm, packing winds of up to 70 miles per hour, proved particularly destructive on a 1.5 mile stretch of the town that included Ashley Street, Catherine Lane and Stina Avenue. The heavy winds torn up some roofs and toppled trees, forcing the American Red Cross Mid-Florida Region to find local hotels to put up three families whose homes were destroyed.
“There’s a few streets that got hit, but the major damage was done on Ashley Street,” said Michael Tart. “The majority of the damage was done there, on the street right behind the Ace Hardware store. It’s a little dead end street, right in downtown, and there’s around $600,000 worth of damage that’s been estimated. That could be anything from some shingles blown off to the house being destroyed.”
Tart is the executive director LASER, or the Lake And Sumter Emergency Recovery program. As the residents of Ashley Street struggle to cope with the damage done to their homes, LASER is calling on the general public to assist them. The agency is asking for donations from the community for families who sustained damage to their homes during the Jan. 25 storm.
LASER is a not-for-profit agency based in Eustis, and partners with the United Way of Lake & Sumter Counties to help raise money. One hundred percent of funds received will go toward facilitating the repair and rebuilding of damaged homes.
“We are a 501c agency, designated by the county,” Tart said. “During a declared disaster, we can apply to receive funds to help people who are uninsured or underinsured – the elderly, disabled, single parents, some type of special need. We do not have any funds at this time, so we have solicited the public for donations. There are some families down there that have seen their homes destroyed by this storm, and we want them to be able to put their lives back together as it was before the storm.”
Because the Jan. 25 storm wasn’t a declared disaster at the state or federal level, no monetary assistance is available for these families. Some of them, he added, didn’t have homeowners insurance.
“Our goal is to help these residents get back on their feet, and the only way we can do this is through the help of the community,” he said.
To make a donation, people can send a check made payable to Lake And Sumter Emergency Recovery, Inc. (LASER) to 27 E. Pinehurst Blvd. Suite B, Eustis, FL 32726. Another option is to stop by any Lake County SunTrust branch and drop off a check made payable to United Way of Lake & Sumter Counties Disaster Account.
“The bad part about it is you could have insurance, but just not have enough insurance to cover it if you’re affected,” he said. “If you don’t have enough coverage on your home, it may not be a declared disaster, but it’s still a disaster to you and your family.”
Lake County has been hard hit by storms and natural disasters in the past seven years. In September 2004, Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne struck the region. In February 2007, a tornado struck northern Lake County, causing considerable damage to some communities there. In September 2009 a small tornado went through downtown Eustis, then this recent storm hit Groveland.
“We‘ve not had much luck with natural disasters,” Tart said.
The Lake County commissioners created LASER shortly after the 2004 hurricanes to strengthen recovery efforts from any future disasters in Lake and Sumter counties.
For more information about LASER, log on to www.laserfl.com.
“They are welcome to visit our Web site, or they can call us on our phone number at 352-385-2525 if they want to sign up for some volunteer opportunities,” Tart said. “If we have something happen in the future, that volunteer work could be putting tarps on roofs, or helping skilled labor repair homes, or cleaning debris out of yards. The other thing is we also facilitate the Medical Reserve Corp and we’ll be looking for volunteers for that. We have a lot of volunteer activities.”

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Former Osceola County commission candidate alleges election fraud.


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Armando Ramirez says fraud cost him the office of Osceola County commissioner last November.

KISSIMMEE – For years, Armando Ramirez worked in the New York City Police Department, where he was assigned to the New York Attorney’s Office. His job was to help root out corruption in high places.
“We locked up judges,” he said. “I did a lot of undercover work.”
Now retired and a resident of Kissimmee, Ramirez is working on an entirely new investigation – only it’s one much closer to home. He’s put together a team made up of family members and supporters to root out what he considers corruption within the halls of Osceola County’s municipal government. His main target: election fraud, particularly the election he lost last November when he challenged Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones. It turned out to be a race thin result: Ramirez got 4,213 votes to Quinones’ 4,269 votes — a margin of just 56 votes.
Ramirez said he went on bed on election night believing he had won.
“That night, I was getting good results from the TV networks,” he said. “By 11 o’clock, they had declared me the winner.”
But the next day, it was Quinones who was declared the winner by the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Office.
“This is the reason why I was so shocked,” Ramirez said. “They claimed they found additional absentee ballots. I was astonished.”
Ramirez has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging fraud and irregularities in that election, and is asking the court to void the results and order a new election for Osceola County Commission District 2.
“My lawsuit claims lots of irregularities occurred,” he said. “It is like camouflaging fraud and outrageous conduct perpetrated by the Supervisor of Elections office. I know they had stolen my election.”
Ramirez said he now plans to fight back.
“I focus on finding justice to regain the seat I lost through fraudulent conduct,” he said.
Amber Smith, spokeswoman for the office of Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington, said her office does not comment on pending litigation.
“At this point, because it’s an ongoing lawsuit, the office does not have a comment,” Smith said. “When everything is cleared up, we will definitely have a comment.”
Ramirez, who moved to Florida in 1989, is known as a community activist. He’s run for public office numerous times, including local offices in Kissimmee. Last year’s bid for the Osceola County commission seat was the closest race he ever ran.
“My platform was to be able to restore integrity for the county,” Ramirez said. “A lot of the small business owners came to me and said the commissioners were outsourcing contracts to outside vendors,” thus cutting local businesses out of the picture. Ramirez said he wanted to shake up what he considered to be a good old boy network operating county government.
He knew he was an underdog, having just $3,000 to spend on the campaign. Instead, he did an intensive door to door campaign, getting out and meeting the voters directly.
“The people were very receptive,” he said. “I never had to carry water with me. They gave me water. Occasionally they fed me. The people were very, very happy to see me. They were surprised I was knocking on their door.”
Although 2010 was a very bad year for his fellow Democrats, Ramirez said he had reason to believe he would win, although he believed the county’s top political leaders badly wanted him to lose.
“I’m dedicated to serving the people, I’m not doing this just for myself,” he said. “This is the reason why I am not a popular person in Osceola County. They accused me of being pro-Hispanic, and the rest of the people could go to hell, and that’s not true.”
After losing by a razor thin margin, Ramirez requested a recount, but four years ago the Florida Legislature overhauled the state’s elections law, making it harder to argue for a recount. That was a result of the 2000 presidential election, in which Democrat Al Gore lost this state to Republican George W. Bush by just 500 votes, leading to a lengthy recount battle.
“They said that ever since the great fiasco in the state of Florida in 2000, they made it more difficult for candidates to challenge election results,” Ramirez said. “I knew they had stolen my election, and I was trying to get an automatic recount that would resolve everything. They didn’t want to comply with my request.”
Ramirez also believes 304 votes didn’t get counted, possibly because election officials challenged the right of voters from the county’s minority-majority precincts, questioning whether they were legally registered at the right address.
“Usually the politicians who are in power target neighborhoods where they see minorities – it could be Hispanics, Haitians, whatever – and this is done very maliciously,” Ramirez said. “They look for ways to change their house numbers so they have a problem voting.
“This is so complex, I have been compelled to form a special team,” Ramirez added. “This is a team of volunteers using my son, my wife, and some of my supporters who have volunteered their time to help me.”
Ramirez said this isn’t a matter of being a sore loser in such a close election.
“I have never been a sore loser,” he said. “Winning is not everything, and failure is not the end of the road.
“I only want justice to be done,” Ramirez added. “I want a judge to give me a fair trial. A judge could examine my claims and be able to throw out those absentee ballots that were the culprit. I have the proof. I have the evidence. Believe me, this is not just empty talking.”

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Expressway Authority invites public feedback, and gets plenty.


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ORLANDO – Meeting for the first time with its new membership – including Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs – on board, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority opened itself up for feedback from the public on Wednesday — and got plenty.

Those comments included calls for an end to both the tolls on roads the Expressway Authority has built, and an end to the board itself, as well a call for higher ethical standards and a major push for the construction of the Wekiva Parkway.

As Walter A. Ketcham Jr., the authority’s chairman, noted at the beginning of the public hearing, the board welcomes feedback from the public as long as people stayed within a three minute presentation.  While several of the speakers quickly surpassed that short time limit, they nevertheless brought along strong opinions on the region’s highways, tolls, construction jobs and economic future.

State Road 408 was completed by the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority in 1973, but the tolls never disappeared.

Charles Lee, representing the Florida Audubon, urged the board to move aggressively on the construction of the Wekiva Parkway, a 21-mile stretch of road connecting from where State Road 429 ends in Apopka to the 417/Interstate 4 interchange in Seminole County, connecting parts of Lake, Orange and Seminole counties.  It would essentially create a beltway around Orlando.

Seminole County officials signed on to the project last August, while Lake County commissioners gave the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority permission to build it last October.

“I believe that it is incumbent on this organization and the members who serve on this board to place the Wekiva Parkway at the top of its priorities list,” Lee said.  “We have a golden moment here.”

It’s been estimated, he said, that the project would create up to 11,000 construction jobs, much needed at a time when the region’s unemployment rate remains mired in double digits.

He also said the Expressway Authority could save even more money by moving quickly to purchase the land needed for the roadway, since the real estate market remains in a serious slump.

“We have an opportunity to save the toll payers of this region hundreds of millions of dollars by moving quickly to acquire the right of way while real estate prices are down,” Lee said. “We have the opportunity to save many millions of dollars turning dirt.”

Charlie Williams, the volunteer president of the League of Women Voters, noted that his organization supports the expansion of a multi-modal transportation system in Central Florida, which includes both a high speed train and the Wekiva Parkway.

“We all know and love our Orlando area airport,” he said.  “But when it comes to our land port, what do you think of?”

The region needs to invest in improved transportation systems, and to move quickly to get them built, he said.

“When it comes to transportation, what you need to remind the average citizen is it can take seven years to build a road,” Williams said.

But Doug Guetzloe, chairman of the anti-tax group Ax The tax, countered that the Expressway Authority should instead pursue a very different agenda: abolishing itself.

“The issue is not whether or not there should be toll increases,” Guetzloe said.  “The issue is whether this board should exist.”

Guetzloe noted that the Expressway Authority was created by the state Legislature back in the 1960s to build a limited access roadway from Orange to Brevard County, and then to build State Road 408, which was completed in 1973.  But rather than disband and remove the tolls from this highway, the authority stayed around and continued building new roads – and adding new tolls, Guetzloe said.

“I believe – and I think a lot of citizens believe – that your mission is really completed,” he said.  “What you continue to do is build more roads and pass more tolls … and build more roads and pass more tolls.”

Guetzloe noted that the authority’s executive director, Michael Synder, has successfully carried out their mission of creating a highway network that gets local residents to other locations across Central Florida, and quickly.

“Mike Synder has done exactly what you’ve asked him to do, which is build roads,” Guetzloe said.  “You guys do build great roads. But it’s time that they become freeways.”

That would mean ending the toll system, rather than look at future toll hikes. He noted that local motorists are still angry at the toll hikes approved by the authority in 2009, and said the board risked angering them even further by going along with a scheduled hike in 2012.

“There is a simmering discontent among a lot of toll payers,” Guetzloe said.  “I would urge you to consider declaring your mission is over. This can be done.”

Tom Powell of Windermere took the view that the Expressway Authority would be around for a long time, and should consider establishing a system of internal auditing to ensure public money is being spent wisely.

“I searched the web site to see if there was a charter for the internal audit function, and I couldn’t find it,” Powell said. “What makes an organization function properly? One of them was to establish an internal audit function with a charter. When you have certain things in place, you contribute to the ethical soundness of the organization. When I see millions of dollars flow through this organization, as a citizen I am concerned. I’m just eager to see a strong ethical climate play out.”

 Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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