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Government
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FEISTY FORUM
Monroe candidates shine in final Lower Keys meeting

Candidates for a variety of local, state and federal offices made their last pitch to Key West and Lower Keys voters on Monday night at the final Hometown! debate.

The debate showed the clear difference between Miami and Monroe counties politics in terms of temperament and civility. State House District 120 candidates Jim Mooney, a Republican, and Clinton Barras, a Democrat, might be separate but the two kept the debate to the issues and actually found common ground on such issues as gun laws and state unemployment benefits.

Hometown! moderator Todd German commended the two for their discourse on Monday.

Even Monroe County State Attorney candidates Dennis Ward and Don Barrett, who have heavily criticized each other, remained mostly civil. The two were not shy about voicing their opinions on each other’s abilities as a prosecutor.

By contrast, Miami-based candidates lofted personal attacks at each other and took on more partisan positions in their statements on Monday night.

U.S. House of Representatives District 26 candidates Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Carlos Gimenez showed their differences on major national political issues such as immigration, the COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery, and the Affordable Care Act.

The two addressed recent complaints by Florida Keys commercial fishermen, who met last week with the U.S. Coast Guard to address the Coast Guard boarding their vessels and removing illegal migrant workers.

Both agreed that the immigration policies had to be changed to accommodate much-needed guest workers, but disagreed on what those changes would be.

Gimenez said policies are needed to bring workers “out of the shadows” and give them a process and system to legally work in the country.

Incumbent Mucarsel-Powell charged that Gimenez’s party has opposed such changes in the past, which included the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act. She added that Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, has opposed attempts to make that county a sanctuary city or county and his party has opposed attempts to reform immigration policies, or at the very least can’t agree on immigration reform.

When it came to the Affordable Care Act, Mucarsel-Powell called the debate the “fight of our lives” and the ACA needs to be protected to keep insurance coverage for millions who would lose it. She accused President Donald Trump and the Republicans of attempting to “dismantle the Affordable Care Act.”

Gimenez contended he would “not scrap it” but wanted to improve it with public and private partnerships and called for lowering prices through competition.

Both state House and Senate candidate addressed Florida’s unemployment system and its failings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democrat House candidates Barras and Mooney and Democrat Senate candidate Javier Fernandez agreed that Gov. Ron DeSantis should have continued the agreement with the federal government to extend the extra $600 per-week per-person benefit.

Fernandez called the state unemployment system “not just broken, but busted.”

State Senate Republican candidate Ana Maria Rodriguez argued that the governor “did the responsible thing,” calling the money “not a blank check.”

However, Rodriguez did agree with Fernandez, Mooney and Barras that the state needs to revamp benefits in the future and look at increasing the amount it pays unemployed workers.

Barras and Mooney found common ground on another issue that Democrats and Republicans have vastly differed on in the past — gun laws. They agreed that a law that allows people to openly carry guns in public and in within 1,000 feet of school should be changed, at least to prohibit open carry of a gun near schools.

The discussion comes less than a month after a Key West man openly carried a handgun modified to look like an assault rifle as he walked down Truman Avenue and White Street and to the Edward B. Knight Pier to reportedly fish. The man passed within several feet of two schools.

State law allows such open carry if a person is transiting to and from a fishing or hunting excursion. The man, John Weaver, appeared to be promoting the state law, as he was videotaping his march through Key West and to the pier, frequently speaking of his right to publicly bear arms.

The man was questioned by police but not charged with a crime.

Barras said the state rule allowing Weaver to carry the gun near two schools did not give him “a sense of security,” he said. Barras, who grew up with guns and supports responsible ownership, called for “sensible gun reform.”

Mooney was “appalled” by Weaver’s actions and said “it is not acceptable.” Mooney called the state law that allows such behavior as “archaic.” Such open-carry activities should be allowed in rural settings where hunting is conducted.

State Attorney candidates Ward, the incumbent Republican candidate, and Barrett, a Democrat, have agreed on very little during their campaigns, but did find some common ground.

Both agreed work needs to be done with children who have been charged with crimes as a result of behavioral issues at school, especially dealing with special needs children.

A viral video of an 8-year-old Gerald Adams Elementary School student nearly being handcuffed and arrested and charged with a felony for punching a gym teacher in the chest has raised questions about the role of police on campus. The incident occurred two years ago but only recently became public.

The incident resonated with Barrett, the father of two boys, who said that such matters should be handled as school disciplinary issues, not criminal matters and the “State Attorney’s Office can be instrumental in making changes in that area.”

Ward and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office have been working with the school district on the issue since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 and established a school safety committee with the Department of Children and Families and the Guidance Care Center to provide more psychological services.

Ward said he was shocked by the lack of “social workers and psychologists in the school system” and said there is a “great need for that,” he said.

The State Attorney’s Office became involved in order to facilitate psychological services for some of the students, Ward said.

They also found common ground on Barrett’s term as a prosecutor under Ward, joking that Barrett’s 18-month term was 17 months too long.

A recording of Monday’s debate can be found at Hometown!’s web site at http://www.hometownkeywest.com.

tohara@keysnews.com


Local
featured
New food pantry builds on idea of helping community

With the coronavirus entrenched and many residents still not able to work, Key West city officials have opened a free food pantry in Bahama Village.

The pantry is located at the Frederick Douglass Gym complex, 111 Olivia St., and will be open six days a week from 1:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. A food and donation drive at City Hall provided the first filling of the pantry, and Key West Business Guild Director Kevin Theriault volunteered to stock the shelves.

Key West Assistant City Manager Patti McLauchlin led the effort to get the pantry up and running. Going forward, the pantry will depend on food and other items donated by city residents. Continued donations will be accepted at the pantry and in drop boxes located at both the front and back entrance of City Hall.

“We’re doing a lot of roundtable [meetings], 26, I think, for COVID-19 recovery. One of the things we kept hearing was, ‘feed our people,’ ” McLauchlin said about the genesis of the new pantry.

While located in Bahama Village, McLauchlin emphasized that the pantry is open to anyone.

“This is for the community as a whole, anyone who needs help. It’s for all of us,” she said.

Beginning this week, Star of the Sea Foundation (SOS) will be distributing pre-assembled boxes and bags of food every Tuesday at the pantry from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tom Callahan, SOS executive director, said this week’s first food distribution is hopefully the beginning of a larger SOS meal program connected to the Bahama Village pantry, eventually providing hot meals to seniors and citizens.

“I applaud them,” Callahan said about the effort by city staffers to open the new pantry. “We’ve always wanted to have a presence there [in Bahama Village]. Now, we do.”

While supporting the new city-sponsored food pantry, the operators of the “Little Pantry,” a neighborhood-supported pantry at the corner of Geraldine and Fort streets that opened before the coronavirus hit, are a little miffed they weren’t consulted about the new project. Jim Hale, who helps maintain the Little Pantry, was concerned about the limited hours at the Douglass Gym pantry, pointing out that the Little Pantry is open 24 hours a day.

“I’m not trying to discourage a good deed,” he said about the new pantry. “But they could have at least asked what food items are being used the most [at the Little Pantry].”

City Manager Greg Veliz wrote a letter publicly praising the Little Pantry in the hopes any ruffled feathers would be smoothed.

“I would like to personally thank all of the original contributors to the first pantry. I would also like to emphasize that the new pantry in no way replaces the original pantry. I prefer to think that the city recognized the value of the original structure and has seen an opportunity to expand upon the services still provided by the Little Pantry,” Veliz wrote.

McLaughlin said a city employee goes to the pantry every day to check inventory. And the location of the new pantry was based solely on the fact the city had space available in the gym complex, which is undergoing an extensive renovation.

“We have an empty little space in Bahama Village. I don’t have many empty spaces in the city,” she said, “We wanted to do something quickly.”

The need for more and larger food pantries in Key West continues, even though local businesses have begun to reopen and hire back their staff. Callahan said the number of visits to SOS pantries in Key West is still about double what it was pre-COVID. At one point, it was triple the usual number of visits, he said.

In April, total visits to SOS’s Key West pantries were 11,000. In May, that fell to 7,500 and 8,400 in July. To give a comparison, in pre-COVID January this year, there were just under 6,000 visits.

But those numbers jumped significantly after July, Callahan said. August saw 13,500 visits to Key West pantries, while there were 14,035 visits in September.

“Something happened,” Callahan said about the higher numbers in August and September. “When the $600 [federal unemployment supplement] ran out at the end of July, that’s when they started to come back to us.”

SOS will have another food box distribution at Bernstein Park on Stock Island this Thursday, Oct. 8, from 9 a.m. to noon.

psowers@keysnews.com


Crime
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Quarantine violator gets jail time

A Key West resident who violated a COVID-19 quarantine order agreed Tuesday to a plea deal in which he will spend 120 days in jail.

Joses Freire Interian also pleaded guilty to an unrelated felony charge of aggravated assault from a separate incident and was sentenced to 120 days on that charge as well, according to the Monroe County State Attorney’s Office. The sentence in both cases will run concurrently so he will serve a maximum of 120 days, according to Chief Assistant State Attorney Val Winter.

The case against Interian’s girlfriend, Yohana Anahi Gonzalez, who is also accused of violating the quarantine order, is still pending, Winter said.

In July, Key West Police Department officers arrested Gonzalez and Interian, who live in the 1800 block of Harris Avenue, on one count each of violating a quarantine order and another charge each of violating an emergency preparedness directive, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office web site.

Neighbors had alerted authorities that Gonzalez and Interian were not abiding by mandatory quarantine orders, City Manager Greg Veliz said. A neighbor of the owner of the home videotaped the pair leaving their property, he said.

“This was a flagrant violation,” Veliz said after the arrest. “We received multiple calls about them. We don’t want a police state, but we need to keep people safe.”

The arrests came as the Florida Keys were experiencing some of its most dramatic increases in the daily number of reported coronavirus cases.

“We are seeking the stiffest penalties for those people who jeopardize the health of our community,” Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward said Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Interian also pleaded guilty to aggravated assault charges from a March 2020 incident at the Big Coppitt Key Circle K, where he called a store employee a snitch and threatened him with a golf club, according to the arrest report.

tohara@keysnews.com


Local
featured
4 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists represent Monroe County high schools

Four local high school students earned the honor of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, with at least one from each of the three high schools. These academically-talented high school seniors have an opportunity to compete for some 7,600 National Merit Scholarships worth more than $30 million that will be offered next spring.

Schools Superintendent Theresa Axford announced Key West High School’s Christina Tong, Marathon High School’s Katerina Nikiforova, and Coral Shores High School’s Alison Woltanski and Emma Kost were selected as semifinalists in the 66th annual National Merit Scholarship Program, sponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. More than 1.5 million juniors in about 21,000 high schools entered the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program by taking the 2019 Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship qualifying test, which served as an initial screening of entrants. The nationwide pool of semifinalists, representing less than 1% of U.S. high school seniors, includes the highest-scoring entrants in each state. One of the Upper Keys semifinalists shared she missed only one question on the PSAT.

Approximately 16,000 semifinalists nationwide were selected for this prestigious honor.

To become a finalist, the semifinalist and a high school official must submit a detailed scholarship application, the semifinalist’s academic record, participation in school and community activities, demonstrated leadership abilities, employment and honors and awards received. A semifinalist must have an outstanding academic record throughout high school, be endorsed and recommended by a high school official, and write an essay.

From the semifinalists, about 15,000 or 90% are expected to advance to the finalist level, and in February they will be notified of this designation. Merit Scholar designees are selected on the basis of their skills, accomplishments and potential for success in rigorous college studies.

Christina Tong of Key West High School is strong across all subject areas. Academically, she is No. 1 out of 300 seniors. She is passionate about writing. She is active in academic honor clubs including National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Academic Challenge and Book Club. Tong is a member of the Books and Books Youth Advisory Board, Young Writers Studio and has written articles and short stories published in multiple publications. With Young Writers Studio, she gets to explore the Hemingway House and the Dry Tortugas, among other adventures, and she described it as “really fun.” To date, Christina has contributed more than 150 hours of community service hours as an instructor at the Key West Community Sailing Center, as well as through volunteering at the Monroe County Library’s Local History department.

In her spare time, Tong also enjoys drawing, playing the violin and learning foreign languages, such as French and Mandarin. Christina’s dream schools include Harvard, Princeton and Yale. She plans to pursue a mechanical engineering major in college. As far as Florida goes, she’ll apply to University of Florida. Her brother, Timothy, is a junior at the University of Central Florida studying computer science.

Katerina Nikiforova of Marathon High School is interested in Theoretical Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. She has been coding since 8th grade and, in the past few years, has focused on algorithmic programming, although she is not above making some rather ridiculous and pointless apps just for fun. In her free time, Nikiforova started a tech club at MHS and a web development business where she builds websites using raw code. She also enjoys building/engineering projects and playing around with microcomputers whenever she has free time. Through the tech club, Nikiforova has worked with Stanley Switlik students and at the Marathon Recreation Center to show youngsters cool computer capabilities, such as what circuit boards can do and how to work with them.

Nikiforova is on the school’s varsity cross-country team and plays the saxophone in the marching band, where she also doubles as the drum major. Katerina’s dream would be to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Cal-Tech, because both schools focus on theory and proof-based mathematics. She earned a perfect score on the SAT’s math section.

The senior has back-up schools such as Stanford, where she did a tech camp around her ninth grade year, Berkeley and Carnegie-Mellon.

Nikiforova said she appreciates what Marathon has offered her and its entrepreneurial spirit. “The community is opportunity-rich. I was able to take advantage of that.”

Alison Woltanski of Coral Shores High School is on track to graduate Summa Cum Laude from Coral Shores High School. Currently, her grade point average qualifies her for valedictorian. She is the editor-in-chief of the school’s yearbook, an active member of Mu Alpha Theta, National Honor Society and UNICEF Club. She also serves on a Youth Advisory Council for U.S. Congress Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

Woltanski is the captain of Coral Shores’ varsity track and cross country teams, a member of the weightlifting team and dances year round at On Your Toes Dance Studio. She loves photography and film, and has produced videos for the 2020 graduation, this year’s orientation, community events and various school assemblies. Woltanski has traveled to Africa and hopes to attend Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service next fall, and most likely major in science, technology, and international affairs with the career goal of working to encourage sustainable development in Eastern Africa.

With her family, Woltanski traveled to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Then, with the Experiment in International Living, she traveled to Tanzania for a month and did a homestay with a local family for nine days, and she experienced their sense of community spirit. “If you are by yourself, they’ll come sit with you.” She also got to stay in a tent with Maasai and saw firsthand how changes in land claims are affecting their way of life, especially goat herding. She also saw how they burn plastic bags for fuel, and how it negatively affects breathing due to chemicals. That summer, she said the service components of the trip were most rewarding. Georgetown is a Jesuit-founded school, and it impressed her with its commitment to community service as well as being tops in international relations.

Emma Kost, also of Coral Shores, is a member of the National Honor Society, Math Club, Interact Club and Student Council. She is an officer of the Environmental Club, captain of the varsity cheer squad and a member of the varsity tennis and soccer teams, where she earned “best defender” honors her junior year. On the weekends, Kost volunteers at the Coral Restoration Foundation which helps to restore local reefs. Last summer, she participated in the Yale Young Global Scholars Biological and Biomedical Sciences program which focused on epidemiology. Emma dreams of attending an Ivy League school and will be applying to several out-of-state colleges to major in biology on a pre-med track. Her goal is to become a physician, specializing in neurosurgery or infectious diseases.

More than half of the national finalists will win a National Merit Scholarship in 2021, which will be announced in four nationwide news releases beginning in April and concluding in July.

NMSC, a not-for-profit organization that operates without government assistance, was established in 1955 specifically to conduct the annual National Merit Scholarship Program. Scholarships are underwritten by NMSC with its own funds and by approximately 400 business organizations and higher education institutions that share NMSC’s goals of honoring the nation’s scholastic champions and encouraging the pursuit of academic excellence.

jzima@keysnews.com