Pensacola, Florida
Friday October 19th 2018


The Buzz 1/11/18

Panhandling Price Tag The homeless and panhandling have been problems for Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward since he took office. Several times, he attempted ordinances to deal with them. Each time he and city officials have walked away with political black-eyes.

In May 2017, the mayor pushed through the city council another set of anti-panhandling ordinances, over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union, Councilwoman Sherri Myers and this newspaper. The mayor privately told his supporters that he was willing to fight for ordinances. City Attorney Lysia Bowling defended them during the council deliberations.

The ACLU almost immediately filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the laws. The mayor caved in, and the council rescinded them in September. According to ACLU attorney Benjamin Stevenson, the mayor paid the ACLU’s legal fees of about $10,000 as part of the settlement agreement.

When interviewed last summer, Stevenson said the council’s decisions baffled him. The ACLU warned the city before it voted in May that the ordinance would be struck down.

“They could have saved a lot of time and effort,” he said. “We told them there were constitutional problems.”

Valentines for WSRE Do you have a heart for public television? If so, you might consider supporting WSRE this month during its “Get Sweet on WSRE” promotion when you can receive a Valentine’s Day gift package with two WSRE Passport-level memberships.

With a gift to the WSRE-TV Foundation of $120 or more by Jan. 31, donors receive WSRE Passport activation-for-two, along with a T-shirt, bumper sticker and 1.5 lbs. of homemade fudge from Bubba’s Sweet Spot sent to someone special in time for Valentine’s Day.

The “Get Sweet on WSRE” promotion launches the station’s new “I Love WSRE” membership campaign, an initiative designed to promote WSRE’s programming and educational outreach.

“Along with fan swag like shirts and stickers, we’re introducing a new social media hashtag — #ILoveWSRE — so that viewers and local fans of public television can show their love for our programs, events and community resources whenever they retweet and share our posts,” said Mary McClellan, WSRE donor services manager.

Members who give $60 annually gain access to WSRE Passport for expanded on-demand streaming of more than 1,000 public television shows via the PBS Video app and at

NRA Appeal to Latvala In an open letter last week, National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer asked former State Sen. Jack Latvala to consider giving his leftover campaign funds to children with disabilities.

Latvala resigned after two separate Senate investigations concluded he sexually harassed women in the state capitol and may have traded votes for sexual favors. He has several political action committees and was seeking the GOP nomination for governor.

“In view of the massive amount of campaign funds in your possession, which can be disbursed for qualified charitable purposes at your discretion, I ask for your consideration on behalf of children with learning disabilities,” wrote Hammer.

Hammer and Latvala have been at odds for years. In 2014, he fought an NRA measure that would allow concealed weapons during evacuations. Two years ago, he opposed Hammer’s effort to abolish the Southwest Florida Water Management District because of a dispute between the water agency and a Pinellas Park shooting club.

Hammer does volunteer work with Dyslexia Research Institute, Inc. and its laboratory school, Woodland Hall Academy where her grandson attended. She asked Latvala to donate $1 million to Dyslexia Research Institute’s scholarship fund to help pay tuition for children with dyslexia and associated learning disabilities.

Gonzalez Hearing Stalled The new sentencing hearing for the man convicted murdering Bud and Melanie Billings has been delayed while the Florida Supreme Court hears his latest appeal.

Last year, Escambia County Circuit Court Judge Nikolas Geeker ordered a new penalty phase for Patrick Gonzalez on the two counts of murder. In 2010, a jury voted 10-2 for the death penalty.

In early 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida’s capital sentencing process—which had the jury make recommendations on the death penalty but the judge decided the facts—violated the Sixth Amendment requirement that a jury find the aggravating factors necessary for imposing the death penalty.

The case, Hurst v. Florida, was also an Escambia County murder case. In 1998, Timothy Hurst killed Cynthia Harrison, a co-worker at Popeye’s Chicken, during a botched robbery attempt.

The Florida legislature passed a new statute to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court judgment and changed the sentencing method to require a 10-juror supermajority for a sentence of death with a life sentence as the alternative. This new sentencing scheme was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in a 5-2 ruling in October 2016. The court held that a death sentence must be issued by a unanimous jury.

Gonzalez filed an appeal of his death sentence. Judge Geeker cited the Florida Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida as grounds to set aside the sentences imposed and ordered a new penalty phase.

Gonzalez and four other men—Frederick Thornton, Rakeem Florence, Donnie Stallworth and Wayne Coldiron—busted into the Billings home at dusk on July 9, 2009. The men intended to steal a safe that they believed contained millions of dollars.

Because the family had special needs children, the premises had several cameras that recorded the break-in and the shooting of Bud Billings. The actual murders of the couple took place in the master bedroom, the only room without surveillance. All the men wore masks.

In less than a week, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office arrested the five men and their accomplices—Pamela Long Wiggins, Leonard Gonzalez and Gary Sumner. All were eventually convicted. Thornton and Florence provided testimony against the others. Pam Wiggins and Leonard Gonzalez died in prison. Patrick Gonzalez received the only death sentence.

The new sentence hearing for Gonzalez has been tied up as the Florida Supreme Court hears the appeal he filed in June. His attorneys are appealing Claim One and Two of his Motion for Postconviction Relief that were denied in May 2017.

Claim One alleged that counsel for Gonzalez was ineffective for failing to properly argue for a change of venue.

The lower court denied the claim stating that Gonzalez could not establish any prejudice because counsel had presented a motion to change venue with supporting affidavits, and the jurors were asked some questions by the state attorney during voir dire about whether they could set aside what they heard and be able to judge the case from the evidence presented at trial alone.

Since the panel agreed that they could, the lower court found that Gonzalez had not established prejudice. The lower court stated it “had no basis to conclude that had the additional information presented by defense counsel been presented the trial court would have or should have granted a motion for change of venue.”

Claim Two alleged that counsel for Gonzalez was ineffective for failing to challenge the grand jury indictment on the grounds that Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan engaged in outrageous governmental misconduct by improperly influencing members of the grand jury who issued the indictment against Gonzalez.

The lower court’s reasoning in denying the claim was that it was based on “speculation” that Sheriff Morgan actually greeted the members of the grand jury, and even if he did Mr. Gonzalez suffered no prejudice as the evidence was so overwhelming another grand jury would have also indicted Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s attorneys pointed out that no evidentiary hearing was granted as to either claim. They asked the Florida Supreme Court to reverse the summary denials of the two claims and remand the case for evidentiary hearing.

In November 2017, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a Motion to Dismiss Gonzalez’ appeal. In a nutshell, she argued that since the death sentence had been vacated by the lower court and judgment was not final in the case, the Florida Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction.

On Dec. 29, the Florida Supreme Court denied the state’s motion. No word on when the court will make its decision on the appeal.

Vote for Gulf Islands 10Best enlisted a panel of Florida Local Experts and travel writers to nominate their favorite state attractions. Gulf Islands National Seashore is a finalist, and online voting will determine what tops the list.

Vote for the Gulf Islands National Seashore once per day at Voting ends on Monday, Jan. 15 at noon ET, and the winners will be announced on Friday, Jan. 19.

Scenic Highway Cleanup On Saturday, Jan. 13, the Scenic Highway Foundation will have its monthly cleanup at Chimney Park and Bay Bluffs Park with Ocean Hour and Earth Ethics. Sign in is at 8:45; the cleanup begins at 9 a.m. and lasts only an hour. Gloves, buckets, trash grabbers and water are provided. Volunteers also receive breakfast, complements of Apple Market. Bring your own reusable water bottle.

Bubba Watson Drive The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart has a new official address recognizing local professional golfer Bubba Watson—1 Bubba Watson Drive.

In September, Sacred Heart and the Watson family announced a $2.1 million donation to The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart, specifically supporting construction of the new four-story children’s hospital on the Pensacola campus.

To recognize the ongoing support of the Watson family—who will serve as ambassadors for The Children’s Hospital—Sacred Heart named the entrance road to the new Children’s Hospital as Bubba Watson Drive. The City of Pensacola made the name change official in December.

“Bubba and Angie Watson have been generous friends and tireless advocates of The Children’s Hospital,” said Susan Davis, the president and CEO of Sacred Heart Health System. “Their amazing gift to our community will help to ensure that all sick or injured children in our region will have access to the best possible care. We are thrilled to recognize officially the dedication they’ve shown to our children and families.”

The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart is the region’s only children’s hospital, serving families across Northwest Florida, South Alabama and South Georgia. Construction of a new four-story children’s hospital began on Sacred Heart’s Pensacola campus in March 2017 and is expected to be complete in spring 2019.

Sacred Heart has raised $21 million from community donors in support of the new children’s hospital, but an additional $15 million is needed in order to complete all phases of the expansion on time.

To make a donation in support of the new Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart, visit

Standing Challenged In December, the City of Pensacola filed in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by A&J Mugs owner Dan Lindemann and Pensacola resident Jerry Holtzworth that challenged the validity of the lease agreement between the city and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for Bruce Beach in downtown Pensacola.

The attorneys for GrayRobinson PA, the Orlando-based firm hired by Mayor Hayward, wrote in their summary: “Plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the validity of the lease agreement between the City and FWC as they have not suffered any special injury that is different from the injuries to other citizens. Even if Plaintiffs had standing, they have failed to articulate sufficient grounds to invalidate the lease. Plaintiffs inability to state a claim requires dismissal of both claims with prejudice.”

GrayRobinson PA argued that Lindemann and Holtzworth failed to allege how the lack of notice, the failure of the CRA to execute the lease, and the failure to commence construction have caused a special injury to them that is different from the injuries to other citizens.

The claim that their property lies within the CRA is not sufficient to confer standing on them, according to the motion filed.

The attorneys also argued that the city was not required to give public notice before executing the lease because the notice requirements in the Florida Statutes do not apply to properties acquired before the creation of a community redevelopment area.

The lease did have a termination clause if FWC did not commence construction by May 2017. However, only the city can enforce it, according to the mayor’s attorneys: “Plaintiffs are not parties to the lease, and do not have any right to enforce the lease terms. While the city may have certain remedies available to it, nothing in the lease requires the city to enforce it or otherwise seek to compel the FWC to forfeit its rights and property interests under the lease.”