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Waterlogged vultures rescued from bay. 3A

Islamorada Sunshine Law case resolved

ISLAMORADA — The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office has dismissed a case against former Village Councilman David Webb for a suspected public open meeting law violation in lieu of Webb paying what he called an “administrative fee” and what prosecutors are calling a “fine.”

Webb was issued a civil citation on Oct. 4 and was formally arraigned on the charge in November, the same day he lost his Islamorada Village Council seat to challenger Sharon Mahoney. Webb came in third place in a three-way race in the general election.

The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office charged Webb with a civil violation of violating Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, which provides the public right-of-access to governmental proceedings at both the state and local levels. The charge followed a split vote on the village’s garbage contract in August, which increased annual trash rates by roughly 10%.

The case stemmed from a heated meeting in which the council eventually voted to increase the solid waste contract held by Waste Management, according to the State Attorney’s Office investigative report. The council initially voted 2-2, with Mayor Pete Bacheler absent from the meeting while recovering in a Miami hospital from an operation.

Following the tie vote, the council went on break. After the break, Bacheler joined the meeting virtually via Zoom from his hospital bed, wearing hospital garments, and voted to break the tie.

“I don’t like 2-2 votes, guys. I had a little discussion with John Quick (the village attorney). I can participate in the meeting and vote officially,” Bacheler said during the meeting.

Bacheler, Webb and Councilman Mark Gregg voted in favor of the rate increase and Henry Rosenthal and Buddy Pinder voted no.

During the break, Webb attempted to speak with Rosenthal, a simulcast of the meeting showed. Elected officials are not allowed to discuss privately with each other any matter up for a vote.

Rosenthal could not recall what Webb said to him, telling the Florida Keys Free Press on Friday, “I really don’t remember.” Webb declined to say what he told Rosenthal, because he said he did not want “embarrass” Rosenthal. Webb conceded that he could have “conducted himself with more measure,” he said.

Webb had faced a $500 fine if convicted of the Sunshine Law violation. Webb paid $200, and prosecutors dismissed the case. Webb called the $200 an “administrative fee,” and said he did not want to “drag it out” and require possible witnesses in the case to give sworn statements and be interviewed.

State Attorney Dennis Ward called it a “fine,” citing Florida Statute 286.011, which dictates the laws regarding public open meeting laws.

Glades project to improve flow

HOMESTEAD — State and federal officials gathered last Thursday to celebrate the latest joint Everglades restoration project to uncork freshwater flow bottled up by a road.

The South Florida Water Management District, in cooperation with the National Park Service, will make modifications to the Old Ingraham Highway inside Everglades National Park to reduce impediments blocking the flow of freshwater through Taylor Slough and into Florida Bay, where it is needed to balance salinity levels and promote ecological health.

The roadbed, which once carried the park’s main road, now serves as a hiking trail with wilderness campgrounds.

“Old roads plague this park,” said Drew Bartlett, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. “We got the bridges up on Tamiami Trail. We’re working on Tamiami Trail. And then there was an older road, Old Tamiami Trail, that was right there in the way, and we took that out. And now there’s another road, Old Ingraham Highway, that used to be the road going out to Flamingo. That’s the road we are working on this time.”

The flow of freshwater into Everglades National Park from huge Water Conservation Areas to the north has increased since the construction of a 1-mile bridge on Tamiami Trail in 2013 and 2.3 miles of additional bridging in 2019. That road bisects the historic Everglades ecosystem, acting as a dam that blocks freshwater sheet flow into the park.

The clean out of nearly 6 miles of roadbed from the Old Tamiami Trail followed a few years later. A second phase of improvements to a 6.7-mile segment of the Tamiami Trail, expected to be completed in 2024, includes six more bridges and improved culverts to increase water flow into the park.

The Taylor Slough Flow Improvement Project announced last week calls for up to 18 culverts at nine locations along a 3.2-mile section of Old Ingraham Highway to increase the distribution of freshwater and restore natural plant communities and wetlands. Additionally, borrow canal spoil material and mounds on the western/northern side of the Homestead canal will be removed and used as plugs to reduce water flow down the canal and away from Taylor Slough.

The project, which is expected to be completed this summer, supports the overall restoration goals of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. CERP is led by the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and implementing CERP involves partners at the local, state, federal and tribal levels.

“The South Florida Water Management District remains focused on expediting Everglades restoration and water quality projects to protect Florida’s natural resources for future generations,” district Governing Board member Cheryl Meads said about the Taylor Slough project. “As we work to reconnect the water flow in the historic Everglades and send more water south, we celebrate this groundbreaking — another step forward for Florida Bay and the greater Everglades ecosystem.

“In the Florida Keys, our economies and communities are built around Florida Bay. Each additional drop of water that moves south nourishes the bay and supports our community.”

Taylor Slough is located in the southeastern part of Everglades National Park and was historically a major contributor of freshwater to Florida Bay. The duration, timing and extent of wetland inundation of Taylor Slough’s interconnected wetlands and freshwater flows through Florida Bay are a critical component of the Everglades ecosystem. The bay’s ideal condition is a brackish mix of fresh and saltwater.

In the early 1920s, surface flow was substantially reduced by the construction of Old Ingraham Highway, which was opened as the first motorway to Flamingo, a small fishing village on the edge of Florida Bay. Old Ingraham Highway cut off and redirected freshwater flow away from Taylor Slough. Additional infrastructure changes, including the building of the regional flood control system known as the Central and Southern Florida Project, have also reduced the flow of water to this key ecological resource.

“Bringing more water to Florida Bay is an essential piece of Everglades restoration efforts,” said Pedro Ramos, superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National parks. “We are grateful for the collaboration and ongoing partnership with the South Florida Water Management District to accomplish this vital project.”

Aquarium to host Groundconch Day

MARATHON — Most people know that Feb. 2 is Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his hole in Pennsylvania and ceremoniously determines whether there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. If Phil sees his shadow and returns to his hole, he has predicted more winter, and if not, an early spring.

The Florida Keys don’t have a world-renowned groundhog, but Aquarium Encounters has its queen conch “mollusk meteorologist,” and on Thursday, Feb. 2, all are invited to see if the conch will see his shadow and there will be six more weeks of winter up north. Aquarium Encounters President Ben Daughtry believes that since the conch represents the Keys for so many, that “Groundconch Day” will be received well in the community.

The event is the brainchild of Daughtry and Andy Newman, media relations director for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. Newman joked that for this event he should be referred to as the “Minister of Propaganda.”

Newman said the idea originated by chance a year ago, when Daughtry was walking the property with him, and they arrived at the tidal pool where the park’s conchs reside. Daughtry picked one up, turned it and they both saw the conch go in and out of shell. “Groundhog Day!” exclaimed Newman.

Newman immediately felt this was a perfectly Keysie answer to the Punxsutawney event. Daughtry shot a 20-second video of the conch’s movement and a TDC post on its Facebook page generated a reach of more than 23 million, all organic, without any paid boosting.

They then sent the video to television stations around the country and it ended up getting coverage on about 100 stations. So, the decision to capitalize on last year’s success was easy. A ceremony, free to the public and featuring refreshments, will take place from 8-9 a.m. Thursday at the attraction, 11710 Overseas Highway.

Newman admitted the two “stumbled on brilliance.” But both said this is also a way to feature one of Aquarium Encounters’ “residents” to educate the public about this protected species.

Daughtry is hoping “the public will see this as a fun take on Groundhog Day before we decide whether it becomes an annual event.”

Man faces death in murder case

MARATHON — A jury last week found Steven Matthew Wolf guilty in the 2018 murder of 51-year-old Michelle Rena Osborne and has recommended he be sentenced to death.

After deliberating Wednesday, Jan. 25, for less than two hours, the jury came back with a recommendation supporting the death penalty after initially finding Wolf guilty on all counts earlier in the week.

Osborne’s body was found in a wooded area near Vaca Cut Bridge in Marathon on Nov. 21, 2018. The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office presented the case to a grand jury in 2019, which found sufficient evidence to indict Wolf on first-degree murder charges.

It is the second first-degree murder conviction for Wolf, who pleaded guilty to the 1976 murder of 77-year-old Enrico Flory of Boise, Idaho. Wolf served a 30-year sentence in that murder.

In that case, prosecutors alleged Wolf led a group of teenagers who robbed and killed Flory.

Wolf is scheduled for final sentencing before Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones on April 6. If Jones carries through the jury’s wishes, Wolf will become the third Monroe County inmate currently serving on Florida’s Death Row.

The Marathon murder case was initially set for trial last September but was postponed during court closures related to Hurricane Ian. Because of an unusually heavy caseload, the case was prosecuted by the father-daughter team of Cass and Christina Castillo. Cass Castillo has earned a nationwide reputation for obtaining convictions in high-profile cases where a body was not recovered. He and his daughter work out of the Tampa Office of Statewide Prosecution, which declined to comment.

Detectives responding to the scene where Osborne’s body was found noticed signs of foul play. They said it appeared the woman had been dragged off a walking trail into a woody area. They found damage to trees and brush along the trail and parts of a vehicle.

Using the pieces found at the scene, detectives located a Dodge van belonging to Wolf in the former Marathon Kmart parking lot.

The parts appeared to match, giving detectives probable cause to arrest Wolf. Detectives then found blood belonging to Osborne in the van.

Autopsy results indicated Osborne was strangled and sexually assaulted.

The Public Defender’s Office represented Wolf.

Youth sailing competition returns to Key Largo. 1B