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HIGH SPRINGS – A mediation hearing is scheduled for Feb. 22 in the legal case filed by Christian Popoli, the former City Planner who alleges he was wrongfully fired from the City of High Springs.

Popoli, who had chiefly been the City’s planner, was hired in 2006, but fired amid the shuffle of employees during the politically tumultuous spring of 2012.

On Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, the City filed a motion to dismiss the case citing statute of limitations. The motion was denied by the court after a hearing on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.

On Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, a new City Commission was seated in High Springs and a new mayor and vice mayor were elected. In addition, since the case began, a new city attorney and city manager have been hired.

Linda Rice Chapman, attorney for Popoli said, “It seemed after that change, all parties wanted the case to be resolved.” Chapman petitioned the judge to order mediation and in January 2013 the court issued an order to have all parties participate in mediation within 60 days. The mediation date of Feb. 22 falls within that 60-day period.

“What we are looking for in this case is compensation to Mr. Popoli for monetary damages for wrongful termination,” explained Chapman. “That would include lost salary and benefits, other related damages and attorney fees,” she said.

Chapman continued by saying, “Because of the way the City has responded to this lawsuit and their failure to make records available, attorney fees are higher than the norm in this case.” Citing records requests filed by Popoli beginning in March 2012, which to date have not been made available to him for litigation; Chapman explained Popoli has been greatly hampered in his ability to prepare for trial. “[Popoli] continues to ask for documents that are being denied him. We have had to find other ways in which to prepare for trial,” she explained.

Chapman said, “I believe the case will be resolved on Feb. 22. I think everybody involved wants to find a resolution that is acceptable to both sides.”

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ARCHER – The City of Archer is taking steps to move the time of its municipal elections. With a 5-0 vote, commissioners agreed for the city attorney to draft an ordinance moving municipal elections to the spring.

During Monday’s city commission meeting, Mayor Frank Ogborn agreed that moving the city’s municipal elections would make national and state elections less overwhelming for voters.

Ogborn said he liked the idea when it was brought up during the Alachua County League of City meetings. He said that during the last election, because there were so many amendments voters had to read, Archer’s elections got “lost in the shuffle.”

“Voters don’t want to read all that stuff,” Ogborn said at the commission meeting. “I thought it was a good idea to move it to the spring.”

City Manager Al Grieshaber, Jr. said in an interview that moving the municipal elections to the spring would allow electors to concentrate on them.

“When they have national and state elections...it’s a voluminous amount of information to be digested in a short period of time and unless the electors have looked at sample ballots prior to entering the voting booth, it’s an overload of information.

Commissioners are legally authorized to make the change through a City ordinance. Assistant City Attorney Tasha Fernandez said during the meeting that according to Florida Statue 100.3605, there is no need for a voter referendum.

Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Pam Carpenter said Gainesville, Newberry, Alachua, Hawthorne and the towns of LaCrosse and Micanopy have their municipal elections during the spring. However, Waldo and High Springs still hold their elections in November.

Alachua and Newberry have their elections on the same day, April 9.

Carpenter said she is working with cities to have their municipal elections on the same day in the spring in order to have public awareness of their municipal voting day. This has been an on-going process for the last eight years.

“[It would] provide voters with another annual election day,” she said.

Archer is still in the process of drafting the ordinance so an election date has not been set, yet.

Grieshaber said in an interview that once the ordinance is drafted, which he hopes will be by March, a decision to pass the change of the election will be decided no later than June.

If the change is enacted, commission seats held by Gabe Green and Ogborn would be extended until spring 2015 instead of November 2014, Grieshaber said.

While commission terms are for four years, the positions of mayor and vice mayor, which will continue to be elected in January, last one year.

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W - RTI - DSCF7543 copyAlachua Mayor Gib Coerper joins an RTI executive in breaking ground on an expansion of the biotechnology facility.
              

ALACHUA – A groundbreaking celebration was held by RTI Biologics Inc. for its new 41,165-square-foot Logistics and Technology Center located in Progress Corporate Park on Monday, Jan. 7.

RTI is a provider of orthopedic and other biological implants headquartered in Alachua, Fla. The center, a $14 million investment, will house the company’s research and development offices and laboratories. The facility will also be used to produce RTI’s upcoming map3 cellular allogeneic bone grafts, which provide the three elements necessary for bone repair – osteoconductive, osteoinductive and osteogenic potential. The bone grafts are made using bone marrow from organ and tissue donors.

City of Alachua mayor Gib Coerper ceremoniously dug into dirt using a golden shovel alongside RTI businessmen.

“It’s a pretty amazing place if you think about what they do and how many people they help,” Coerper said.

RTI has expanded organ and tissue donation and has made donation more important, he said.

Two-thirds of the more than 30 businesses in Progress Corporate Park, located next to San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, are bioscience or technology companies. Approximately 1,200 employees work in the park.

RTI employs more than 700 people globally, with international offices in Germany and France. More than 500 employees are in the Alachua location. The addition of the center and the production of the map3 will create approximately 15 jobs.

The Logistics and Technology Center, in addition to the company’s acquisition of a 15,425-square-foot office building in Progress Corporate Park, will expand the company’s total occupied space to 200,000 square feet.

“This new facility represents the continued growth and expansion of our company and allows us room for future growth,” said Brian K. Hutchison, RTI president and CEO.

RTI spun off from the University of Florida Tissue Bank in April 1998 as Regeneration Technologies, Inc. and went public on the NASADAQ stock exchange in August 2000. A merger with Tutogen Medical Inc. in February 2008 made the company what it is today.

RTI was named Business of the Year twice by the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce in 2005 for innovation and 2009 for expansion.

“At RTI, we are committed to supporting the communities in which we operate and participating in the economic development of our regions,” Hutchison said. “We are excited to expand our facilities in Alachua, Fla., and are glad to be a part of a community that is focused on fostering innovation and success.”

Construction is expected to be finished in early 2014.

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A venue for local artisans

 W - 27th Annual Hoggetowne Medieval FaireLocal artisans joined performers in celebrating the 27th annual Hoggetowne Medieval Faire in Gainesville.

HIGH SPRINGS – While some artisans, actors, dancers, acrobats and performers traveled from locations throughout the United States to participate in the production of the 27th Annual Hoggetowne Medieval Faire, others only made a short commute from local communities.

The event, produced by the City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department and sponsored by several local businesses, converged at the Alachua County Fairgrounds in Gainesville, for what is touted as “Two Magical Weekends,” Jan. 26-27 and Feb. 1-3, 2013, to bring to life characters, games, entertainment and garb from the days of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable to educate and entertain visitors.

And visitors there were aplenty. The Alachua County Fairgrounds was transformed into a bustling medieval marketplace as troupes of actors, street performers and musicians journeyed back in time. Faire Coordinator Linda Piper said “the event is one of the largest in this county.”

While many participants were from elsewhere, some were local. One such artisan was Alachua resident Kristin Thorson, who offered her Bronze Age copper sculptures and fountains for sale at her booth, Bronze Age Studios. A former jewelry designer with a critical eye for detail, Thorson learned to work with larger metal pieces and has not looked back since. The sound of trickling water from various sized fountain sculptures, butterfly garden stakes and copper roses helped create one of the most tranquil relaxing booths at the faire.

Hawthorne based Jeff and Cindy Kruger of Spotted Pony Traders offered a variety of items from leather and frontier clothing to buckskin dresses, beads, leather-working tools, hand painted feathers, small animal skulls and buffalo robes.

Providing human powered, non-mechanical rides was ride designer/builder, Ray St. Louis of Alachua-based Flying Dragon Attractions. Since the 1980s, he and a small crew of workers have participated in renaissance and medieval faires. “We do about seven or eight events per year,” he said, “and travel as far north as upstate New York and as far west as Louisiana.”

All participants were decked out in period clothing and spoke in the manner of ladies and gentlemen of yore. It was a feast for the eyes, ears and taste buds as a number of local food vendors and entertainers joined in the merriment of the eclectic marketplace.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Thursday, Jan. 10 will mark the first meeting this year of the High Springs City Commission. One item on the list of issues is the City’s roll forward funds. These funds are those not spent during the previous year’s budget and are available for other possible uses or as contingency funds. Several options for the money have been discussed in the past, but no action has been taken.

One housekeeping issue about to be resolved during this meeting is the likely approval of the final 26 sets of official meeting minutes from 2012. City Clerk Jenny Parham served as interim city manager frequently during the past year as well as city clerk and was unable to keep up with the increased workload.

Now that this issue is about to be resolved, City Manager Edwin Booth says staff will concentrate on updating the cemetery records. “It’s the next step in updating our paperwork,” Booth said in a recent interview. “I like to take one task at a time and complete it,” he said.

Another issue likely to be discussed briefly is employee evaluations. City Manager Booth says they are due by Feb. 15, 2013. “This is something that should be done on a yearly basis,” he said, “if for no other reason than to establish a baseline with employees. They should know if they are progressing or not,” he said. Department heads will evaluate their employees and Booth will evaluate the department heads.

When asked if employees could expect a raise this year for a good evaluation, Booth responded, “I can’t make promises I can’t keep. The budget was approved before I came onboard this year. At least they would know if it can’t be done this year, it would certainly be considered for the next budget year.”

A presentation by Marlie Sanderson of the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO) is expected to revolve around additional funding available to the MTPO from state and federal transportation sources based on the expansion of their planning capabilities throughout Alachua County. The 2010 Census appears to be the impetus for their ability to expand into the remainder of Alachua County.

Another item not listed on the agenda, but part of the city manager’s report will be details of his meeting in Tallahassee on Jan. 9 with Carol Westmoreland, who assists the State in the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) program for the League of Cities. The meeting was scheduled by Booth with the intention of discussing future plans for the High Springs CRA. “I expect to strategize with her and see if High Springs might have grounds to extend CRA funding a bit longer.” Booth will also present the results of that meeting to the CRA Board members.

Booth said he would like to request a letter to proceed from USDA regarding the completion of the portion of the sewer project that the City is intending to complete.

A report on possible uses for the old school house building will be presented to commissioners for consideration during this meeting. Booth is hopeful the commission will approve a public hearing to receive input from citizens prior to making any final decisions on the building’s use.

Consideration of a Mutual Aid Agreement with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office for combined operational assistance and voluntary cooperation, a relatively routine item, is also slated for discussion. This agreement allows sheriff deputies and City of High Springs officers to work together in situations where it is warranted. A car chase across City lines might be one case where the two agencies might work together to apprehend a fugitive.

Other items to be discussed include a request for commissioners to submit a list of their goals by Jan. 16, a proclamation declaring Jan. 18 as “Arbor Day” in High Springs, a report on the status of the Ambrose lawsuit, which the Commission decided to settle in December, and approval of an amended legal services agreement with City Attorney Scott Walker.

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Clovis Watson, Jr. keynote speakerW - MLK alachua Watson DSC 0008 copy

 Florida State House District 20 Representative Clovis Watson, Jr. was the keynote speaker and received a rousing welcome from the hometown crowd at the City of Alachua Eighth Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration.

ALACHUA – Alachua residents of all ages and skin tones gathered together to dig into home style comfort food, listen to speeches and watch performances honoring civil rights legend Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The City of Alachua held its eighth annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at the Cleather Hathcock, Sr. community center on Monday, Jan. 21.

Newly elected State of Florida Representative Clovis Watson, Jr. was the keynote speaker for the ceremony and received a rousing welcome from the hometown crowd. Watson currently serves District 20 in the Florida House of Representatives in Tallahassee. He was Alachua’s first African American city manager, serving from 2002-2009. He also served in the Alachua Police Department as an officer and as Deputy Chief. Watson still resides in the city.

Addressing a crowd of about 150 at the center, he stressed the importance of tolerance and optimism for the future.

“We all know Rev. King had a dream, but if we don’t have a dream we won’t go far,” Watson said. “It takes teamwork to make the dream work.”

Watson closed his remarks by asking the audience to put the “united” in America.

Traci Cain, Watson’s successor as Alachua City Manager also spoke.

“We look forward to this annual event as a time to reflect on the deep sacrifices made by so many in the area of civil rights,” Cain said. “Our nation is stronger because of these sacrifices and it’s wonderful to be able to honor all that Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others stood for.”

Cain emphasized community service and volunteering, commending Mayor Gib Coerper and Vice Mayor Robert Wilford along with other city commissioner and Alachua community members for their dedication to the city of Alachua and its residents.

But Jan. 21 was not only a day to honor the past in remembrance of Dr. King. More than 750 miles away in Washington D.C., President Barak Obama’s inaugural celebration was also underway. President Obama was sworn in for his second term as president of the United States of America on two bibles: one from President Abraham Lincoln and one from Rev. King.

This resonated with Alachua’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration, for King and other civil rights leaders paved the way for today’s leaders.

Gainesville-based group The Actors’ Warehouse performed “I Feel the Spirit” – a short play honoring President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and King and his wife Coretta Scott King. The performance concept was – “What if the Obamas met the Kings?”

The nonprofessional community theater group was founded in 2011 by Rhonda Wilson, who is the artistic director for The Actors’ Warehouse.

The Music and Arts Program for Youth and Alachua’s Senior Cha Cha Chas also performed at the center in honor of King and his legacy.

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Exclusive interview to Alachua County Today Newspaper

W - Carousel Horses Newtown 2013Gentle Carousel Miniature Horses left their home in the Alachua/High Springs area to spend nearly two weeks in Newtown, Conn., at the request of the town and families to work directly with those most affected by the December tragedy.

NEWTOWN, CONN. – In the quaint New England town of Newtown, Conn., a town small enough that everyone knows everyone, the community came together once again with their financial resources, contacts and hearts to help heal their residents following the killing of 26 adults and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

Then they invited the Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses of High Springs and Alachua to help them.

While a variety of other groups have gone to Newtown in hopes of helping the community deal with the aftermath of the shootings, Gentle Carousel was the only group invited by the town and families to work directly with those most affected by the tragedy.

Following several days of private visits with family members, first responders and others, the group was asked to stay a few days longer to participate in additional community and private events with their horses.

The trip, which was originally planned for 7-10 days, was expanded by a few more days to provide family members of those slain to have more personal time with the Gentle Carousel horses.

“With travel and all, we will be away from Florida a little more than two weeks,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. She also spoke about the warm welcome they received from residents of the small town. “We have been very fortunate,” she said. “Despite the snow and one of the coldest weeks they have had here, these people have warmly welcomed us into their family,” she said.

“The community has been arranging everything for us,” explained Garcia-Bengochea who, with her husband Jorge, founded Gentle Carousel, an all volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity, in 2002.

“The town loves the horses,” she said. The City of Newtown set up a library visit this past Saturday, Jan. 5 for the tiny horses. And because there had been no prior publicity about the event, the librarian cautioned that many people might not show up as there had been little traffic at the library since the shootings. With scant lead time, the town sent out an email notice that the horses were going to be at the library. More than 600 people with their children showed up. “We had to limit each group allowed into the library at one time to 150,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

They performed a modified version of their usual show with the horses as part of the story and in costumes, “which thoroughly delighted the children,” she said. The children had time after each show to visit with the horses, hug and pet them.

They did four shows that day. “The horses have been really amazing. Magic is at the top of her game. She is so good with the children. The kids have read her book and know about her. For some it’s a dream come true to actually hug the horses.”

This past Monday, the horses and their handlers set up in a large gym, and Sandy Hook families filed in to visit. “We were there for four hours, meeting with those families,” said Garcia-Begochea. Hundreds of people with their children as well as family members who had lost a loved one were there, seeking the comfort that the gentle horses bring.

“In a town as small as this, everyone knew someone who had been killed,” she said. “The kids shared some really intense things about where they were, how they survived and information about their friends who were shot. Everyone’s got a friend, relative, sibling or neighbor who was involved. Everybody is just so affected,” she said sadly.

An area for people to express their heart-felt grief and support for the survivors has attracted signs, children’s toys, flowers, plants, messages and more. “We took the horses to visit the memorial site,” she said. “We have been very careful to be respectful of people’s privacy. Most of our photos do not show the faces of the citizens and children, but do reflect what was going on at the time.”

She also observed that the first responders were all volunteers with families of their own, who are used to accidents and heart attacks. “The last murder they had here was 26 years ago,” she said. “It [the shootings] deeply affected them.”

Newtown representatives raised funds from individuals and groups and also obtained in-kind donations from large corporations including American Airlines, Avis Car Rental and Hampton Inn, among others. “We certainly couldn’t have made this trip without the help of the heated horse ambulances,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “It has been nine degrees here. Florida horses have shorter coats in the winter and could not have stood these temperatures otherwise.”

At the same time Newtown was raising money, local Florida and international donations were received in the High Springs office of Gentle Carousel. “The Lake City Council sent a donation and the people in their office also sent a separate donation to help us make this trip,” she said. Donations from school children in Brazil, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Afghanistan came in. “Our horses are better known internationally than locally,” she said. “The Daily Mail, a large newspaper in the UK, runs stories about us all the time.”

“We have had a tremendous amount of press coverage,” said Garcia-Bengochea. Stories about the trip to Connecticut and what the horses are doing there ran in USA Today on Jan. 8. CNN ran stories about the trip prior to the group’s departure from Florida. “We’ve been featured on CNN Headline News as well,” she said. “

“While we have been in Newtown, children with their allowance money have come up to us to donate to the horses being there,” she said. “It is inspiring. They are very gracious and grateful people in Newtown.”

“Under the worst of circumstances, the people of Newtown, Conn., have shown themselves to be the best of people,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

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