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ALACHUA ‒ The COVID-19 pandemic is having a dramatic effect on the methods Americans are using to vote. Due to concerns about social distancing and the spread of the virus, records numbers are choosing to either vote by mail or early voting to avoid long lines on Nov. 3. The election is expected to produce record turnout in the number of Americans that are participating in the election process and has already set records for both mail-in and early voting with more than 29 million voting early by Monday, Oct. 19, according to the US Election Project. In contrast, only 6 million had voted by this time in 2016.

A number of states, including Florida, are breaking previous records. Texas and Georgia have already set records, and in Ohio, a crucial swing state, more than 2.3 million postal ballots have been requested, double the figure in 2016. Despite claims of voter fraud by mail in-ballots there is little evidence that it exists. According to a 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, the rate of voting fraud overall in the U.S. is between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. Reports indicate that registered Democrats have so far outvoted registered Republicans—casting more than double the number of ballots.

Florida counties have mailed out more than 5.6 million ballots for the Nov. 3 general election and nearly 1.8 million have already been returned, according to the Division of Elections website. That’s more than 12 percent of registered voters in the state. Two factors help explain the massive spike. Several states changed laws from four years ago to either offer or expand early voting, and more people are taking advantage of it, particularly voting by mail, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, Oct. 19, early voting in person opened in Florida with long lines forming at all six polling places in Alachua County. Each voter maintained a 6-foot social distancing in line and most wore masks as an extra precaution to not catch or spread the virus. It is expected that the pace will continue up to Oct. 31 when early voting closes.

Early voting is required in any election that contains a state or federal office race. The early voting period must start at least on the 10th day before the election and end on the 3rd day before the election. In addition, supervisors of elections have the option to offer more early voting on the 15th, 14th, 13th, 12th, 11th, or 2nd day before an election. Early voting hours must be at least eight hours, but no more than 12 hours per day at each site during the applicable period.

There are six locations for early voting in Alachua County. The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office at 515 N. Main St., Suite 100, Gainesville; Tower Road Branch Library at 3020 S.W. 75th St., Gainesville; Millhopper Branch Library at 3145 N.W. 43rd St., Gainesville; Orange Heights Baptist Church at 16700 N.E. SR 26, Hawthorne; J. Wayne Reitz Union on the University of Florida Campus at 655 Reitz Union Drive, and Legacy Park Multipurpose Center at 15400 Peggy Road in the city of Alachua. Early voting sites will be open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

A number of people who planned to vote by mail are delivering their ballots in person at drop boxes to ensure their timely delivery. The drop boxes are located outside the polling sites, so people delivering their filled in mail ballots do not have to stand in line. Polling locations have drop boxes Oct. 19 through Saturday, Oct. 31. However due to concerns about COVID-19, record numbers are still using the mail-in option. For people interested in voting by mail, the deadline to request a ballot is Saturday, Oct. 24.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Ross Ambrose, Sharon Decker and Janet Evans are running for High Springs City Commission Seat #1 on Nov. 3. Statements from each candidate, in their owns words, are presented in alphabetical order to help voters learn more about each contender.

Voters are also invited to attend the 2020 High Springs Candidates’ Forum on Oct. 20. This event is hosted by the GFWC High Springs New Century Woman’s Club and will be held at the High Springs Farmers’ Market Pavilion, located on Railroad Avenue, east of High Springs Main Street.

A Meet-and-Greet will be held from 5:30 – 6 p.m. The Forum will begin at 6 p.m. Face masks are required. Social distancing will be followed. Seating is limited.

Ross Ambrose

I am running for City Commissioner because I understand a great deal about the history we love and the realities of change, growth, and the need to act with a long-term vision. I understand how important the City’s services are to residents as well as the importance of tourism and the need to nurture our small-town feel. High Springs is a unique community that has strong roots. Our community roots can continue to nourish an amazing future. If elected, I am ready to help make choices that protect our identity as a small town while managing growth.

Sharon Decker

I am a problem solver. For the past 20 years I have been invited into towns and organizations to help smooth out the rough edges and restructure organizations to enable them run smoother. I am an experienced grant researcher/ writer. I have worked to successfully increase economic development opportunities and worked with state, federal and local organizations to get things done that many thought couldn’t be done. I have a history of developing water resources, road financing and every type of infrastructure opportunity a town faces. My degree and experience is in business and business development, as well as in short- and long-term planning. My goal, if I become your commissioner, is to help bring jobs and economic opportunities to High Springs.

Janet Evans

I am Janet Evans, running for Seat #1, High Springs City Commission. I would be honored to have your vote on November 3. My pledge, as your elected official is to first hear your concerns and needs, and then act on your behalf. I stand for limited government, fiscally smart leadership, and a free market that encourages job growth.

Three primary focus areas (and others as they arise) will best serve our community: 1) government that represents and responds to all residents; 2) understand and protect our local geology for better aquifer systems, and; 3) assess, maintain, and upgrade infrastructure as needed.

To learn more, and reach out with your questions and comments, please visit my campaign's Facebook page (Search FB: @ElectJanetEvans).

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NEWBERRY ‒ During the Sept. 28 meeting, the Newberry City Commission voted unanimously to terminate the existing contract with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) for provision of law enforcement services to the City.

Commissioners originally approved a contract agreement for law enforcement services with Sheriff Sadie Darnell and ACSO in 2017, for a three-year period, expiring Sept. 30, 2020.

The contract was extended another two years in Aug. 2019. Under the agreement the Sheriff’s Office would provide one full-time deputy within the City on a full-time basis, three school resource deputies for each of Newberry’s schools, four crossing guards for public schools, increased patrols within the City limits when the call load allowed, extra deputies for the Homecoming and Christmas Parades, the Watermelon Festival and to provide county dispatch services.

City Manager Mike New was asked to put this contract on the agenda by Commissioners. Noting that the contract amount in Oct. 2017 was $777,000 per year and now is more than $1 million per year, plus the added cost of health insurance and retirement increases, Commissioners expressed concern. New confirmed that the contract stipulates that the City pay the County monthly. “For this year, the monthly payment is nearly $84,000,” said New.

Commissioners asked if New had spoken with Sheriff-elect Clovis Watson, Jr., about the issue. He said he had. “The Sheriff-elect said he didn’t believe it was appropriate for him to enter into negotiations when he hadn’t yet taken office, which I understand,” said New.

“Although our current deal isn’t favorable to Newberry, I am hopeful that we can come to some kind of agreement once Sheriff-elect Watson has been sworn in, has had an opportunity to look at his budget and has time to assess the needs of his department,” New said. “We can enter into negotiations to put some sort of contract back in place whenever he [Watson] feels it is appropriate.”

Commissioners decided to avail themselves of the option in the agreement to terminate the contract without cause by providing 270 days’ notice of their intent to do so.

Following discussion, Commissioner Rick Coleman moved and Commissioner Marty Farnsworth seconded a motion to send a letter to the County to notify them that the City intends to terminate the agreement.

The measure passed unanimously.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Incumbent Gloria James and opponents Zachary Walters and Katherine Weitz are running for High Springs City Commission Seat #2 on Nov. 3. Statements from each candidate, in their owns words, are presented in alphabetical order to help voters learn more about each contender.

Voters are also invited to attend the 2020 High Springs Candidates’ Forum on Oct. 20. This event is hosted by the GFWC High Springs New Century Woman’s Club and will be held at the High Springs Farmers’ Market Pavilion, located on Railroad Avenue, east of High Springs Main Street.

A Meet-and-Greet will be held from 5:30 – 6 p.m. The Forum will begin at 6 p.m. Face masks are required. Social distancing will be followed. Seating is limited.

Gloria James

Gloria was born in High Springs and moved away to pursue higher education. After retirement, she moved back home to care for her mother and has been an active part of this growing community ever since. She realizes that this city’s quaint atmosphere encourages enduring friendships among its citizens, something she wants to make sure is maintained even through growth. She has been on the city commission and presently serves as vice mayor. Gloria serves on the Chamber of Commerce, the New Century Woman’s Club and AARP. After learning about the challenges facing the city, she ran for a seat on the city commission and won. She continues to work hard to better the city and wants to continue to serve the citizens for another term.

Zachary Walters

I’m running for a seat on the Commission because I love High Springs. I’ve been here since middle school and I love what we have to offer, but I know we can do so much more for our citizens when it comes to jobs, housing, infrastructure, etc. Envision being minutes away from your place of work or business instead of driving to another city, or being able to find quality affordable housing. That is possible with the right leadership. I want us to be prepared for the future and fulfill our untapped potential. I will bring the vision and energy needed to make that happen if I am elected.

Katherine Weitz

As a technically educated person with experience in science and business, I am uniquely qualified to understand the critical issues facing High Springs’ water and wastewater. Hands-on experience in a laboratory coupled with many years working in engineering, makes me the best choice to help lead High Springs to a more solid utility to serve the community. I am committed to resuming long-term budget planning for the city to help better manage the growth of our community. I am connected to High Springs through schools, civic organizations, and faith groups, and am dedicated to improving the city’s operations.

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ALACHUA ‒ The Alachua County Public Schools Board (ACPS) attended the Oct. 12 City of Alachua Commission meeting to inform and advocate for renewal of the One Mill for Schools initiative, which gives $1 per $1,000 of a property's taxable value to Alachua County Public Schools. The initiative is not a new tax and won’t mean an additional tax for property owners. The tax was initially passed in 2008 and is up for renewal every four years.

A school board spokesperson said state funding cuts due to COVID-19 have created a potential loss of $16 million this year in the county school budget. Unbudgeted COVID-19 expenses such as PPE, training, outfitting classes for in-person lessons and technology purchases for online learning have diverted funds to expenses that were not needed previously.

Unfunded and underfunded state mandates such as busing and safety/security have to be covered by the schools by law. While costs have increased and COVID-19 has added numerous unexpected expenses, there has been little change in state and national funding. Also there has been no discretionary lottery funding this year. Combined with state funding, especially after the Great Recession, there has only been a $33 increase per student since 2007-08, leaving county school boards scrambling for funds.

The One Mill tax initiative costs the average Alachua County homeowner less than $7 a month. Property owners will pay less in school property taxes this year than last year, even with the renewal of the One Mill.

The total One Mill spending in Alachua area schools in 2019-20 was $971,924. The funds are allocated to each school as needed. Much of the fund is used to fund teachers and technology. At Irby Elementary, the One Mill helps fund the salaries of five teachers and the purchase of 101 laptops and hotspots distributed for online learning.

At Alachua Elementary it funded the salaries of four teachers and the purchase of 82 laptops. Mebane Middle School covered the salaries of three teachers and the purchase of 114 laptops. At Santa Fe High School it helped fund the salaries of nine teachers and 115 laptops distributed to Santa Fe High School families this year.

In other business, Mayor Gib Coerper read a proclamation naming October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month & Alachua Goes Pink! Each year, October is recognized as National Breast Cancer Awareness month to honor those who have lost lives to breast cancer, and recognize the survivors who still engage in the battle. Each year, the City of Alachua launches its annual "Alachua Goes Pink!" campaign, putting pink ribbons on fleet vehicles, the Alachua Police Department (APD) decaling one of its traffic units, and staff members wearing commemorative bracelets and pins to honor all those who have suffered from the disease.

The commission also proclaimed October as National Community Planning Month. While many people may not realize it, planning has a significant impact on their day-to-day life. From where they live, to how they commute, to the type of home they live in, planning plays a vital role in a person’s life and well-being. Through planning, strategic investments in innovation and infrastructure can boost economic growth and strengthen communities. Planning helps leverage public and private funds that lead to economically stable communities. This year, the theme is “Planning Is Essential to Recovery” and highlights how planning can lead communities to equitable, resilient, and long-lasting recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

October is also White Cane Month. Since 1964, by a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress, Oct. 15 of each year has been designated White Cane Safety Day. The month of October each year is also designated as White Cane Safety Month to bring more awareness to the dangers faced by the blind or visually impaired in dealing with navigating public streets and traffic.

The Commission proclaimed October as White Cane Safety Month and Oct. 15 as White Cane Safety Day to show the City's commitment to making the public aware of the "White Cane Law" and to the safety of the blind and visually impaired on Alachua's public streets.

The City also dedicated Oct. 19-25 as Florida City Government Week to help residents understand how their city operates, the services it provides, and the importance of their active involvement in city affairs. In the past, the City has sponsored activities and events for people to interact with City government. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions and keeping the health and safety of residents in mind, they have canceled all in-person activities.

In other city business, the Commission approved three new members to the Youth Advisory Council (YAC). The purpose of the Council is to stimulate and foster the active participation of youth in addressing issues impacting the youth of the community. Members of the Council are required to be enrolled in a public school, private school or a home education program within the city of Alachua in grades nine through 12e or be a resident of the City of Alachua enrolled in such a school/program. The newly appointed members are Aidan Grosz and Jamie Morris, both 11th graders, and Laura Kleckner, a senior.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ During the Oct. 8 High Springs City Commission meeting, the Commission adopted an ordinance on first reading authorizing the use of public funds for litigating and advertising to educate and inform the public about Alachua County Charter Amendment 2 that is on the Nov. 3 ballot.

High Springs joins Newberry, Archer and Alachua in opposing the amendment based, in part, on the County’s infringement on municipalities’ right to Home Rule. Many of the other Alachua County municipalities have also passed resolutions noting that the amendment is harmful to their communities and their ability to govern as state statutes authorize.

The specific Charter Amendment of concern is referred to on the ballot as the “County Charter Amendment Establishing County Growth Management Area.” The issue centers on the concern that the amendment, if approved by the voters, will restrict the ability of municipalities to determine the appropriate uses for property within their jurisdiction after annexing property from the County into their cities.

The Florida Constitution provides for Home Rule. The governing article reads “Municipalities shall have governmental, corporate and proprietary powers to enable them to conduct municipal government, perform municipal functions and render municipal services, and may exercise power for municipal purposes except as otherwise provided by law.”

The ordinance, if approved on second reading, which is scheduled for Oct. 22, will allow the City of High Springs to expend public funds for an electioneering communication that is limited to factual information and does not expressly advocate for an issue.

However, the City opposes the passage of the proposed amendment and opposes its application within their city as they stated in a resolution previously passed by the City Commission.

In addition, the City opposes the passage of the proposed amendment for the reasons spelled out in a suit filed by the City of Alachua, v. Alachua County, Florida, et al. in which that City is seeking injunctive relief from the Circuit Court.

While the City of Alachua has filed suit against the County on this issue, at least two additional Alachua County municipalities are preparing to do so as well.

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WALDO ‒ On Tuesday, Oct. 13, Erika Smith received an Eagle commemorating her 20 years as Waldo’s Recreation Director, Babe Ruth Softball District 3 Commissioner, Babe Ruth Softball Florida State Assistant Commissioner and softball/baseball tournament expert. Smith is also the longest standing Alachua County Task Force of Recreation (A.C.T.F.O.R.) representative.

Smith received accolades honoring her years of dedication to the youth of Waldo and Alachua County during the City of Waldo’s Council meeting at Waldo City Square Auditorium, 14450 N.E. 148th Avenue, Waldo.

In addition to High Springs Parks and Recreation Director Damon Messina, others honoring Smith included retired physical education coach of 40 years, Babe Ruth Official and umpire for more than 30 years, and A.C.T.F.O.R. member Coach Ray Crone, and past Micanopy Parks and Recreation Director and current City of Gainesville Recreation Coordinator Jimmy Goachee.

“Erika Smith is by far one of the best tournament directors in the state,” said Babe Ruth Softball Florida State Commissioner Doug Robinson.

"When the City of Waldo was going through some tough times (losing the school) she was the strength that kept them moving forward. She always finds hope in a brutal situation," said former City of Alachua Recreation Director Hal Brady.

Brady also said, “Erika, for over 20 years put her blood, sweat and tears into Parks and Recreation. She continues to produce the biggest and best district tournament in the country. Erika put her own city of Waldo on the map nationally.”

Vice President/Commissioner of Babe Ruth League, Inc. Robert A. Connor, sent a letter commending Smith. In it he wrote, “She never fails to go above and beyond, even when personal and other commitments prevail. Her sincere devotion to youth and the game of softball has been witnessed repeatedly during her involvement at the Babe Ruth Softball local league and World Series levels.”

In addition, Connor went on to comment, “I cannot say enough about Erika’s untiring efforts as a top-notch youth enthusiast and community leader. We applaud her for being an exceptional human being and for helping give all kids the hope for a better future.”

“Erika and I have hosted tournaments together for more than 20 years. Jimmy Goachee said. “Erika always championed for Waldo to be a part of all the recreation activities in Alachua County.”

Messina called Smith, “The Godmother of Recreation in North Central Florida.” He described her as a natural leader. Listing some of Smith’s accomplishments as Waldo’s Recreation Director and Babe Ruth League Softball District Commissioner in this area, Messina remarked about the numbers of teams, which increased year after year under her direction.

“Each year she broke the record for Babe Ruth National throughout the country for both baseball and softball. She even crushed our competitor (Little League) for the number of teams participating in District Play.”

Remarking on the economic impact Smith has had, Messina said, “She’s developed a method on hosting softball in communities where money will be put directly back into their own local economy. It’s a formula now used throughout the country.”

Crone added, “Erika, first and foremost, does what is right for the kids, even if it’s not the popular decision.”

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