By Madi Spector and Clarisa Melendez (TV)
Feb. 8, 2019
OCALA, FLORIDA -- The proposal of a new highway interchange in northwest Ocala is in the second phase of its development.
The Florida Department of Transportation has proposed it be located between U.S. 27 and State Road 326 near NW 49th Street, and a public meeting was held Wednesday at the Ocala Police Department — the second of three FDOT presentations. The first was a project kickoff back in July 2017 and the next will be a public hearing anticipated toward the end of 2019.
Wednesday’s meeting was an “alternatives workshop” where the public could observe the design options for the interchange. They were also able to use an interactive touch-screen presentation to view the map at different angles with each alternative.
FDOT spokeswoman Jessica Ottaviano said the interchange was proposed due to heavy truck traffic on the two current interchanges.
“We’re proposing this because traffic is very heavily congested on the adjacent interchanges,” Ottaviano said. “This project would help relieve congestion at these two interchanges as well as improve operations.”
In 2017, the project had 10 alternative designs, but has since been narrowed to four options.
Steve Rothenburg, 59, of southeast Ocala, said he thinks the new interchange is a great idea and will help as the state continues to grow.
“I-75 needs all the help it can get,” he said “It’s overcrowded. It seems like it has way more traffic than it was designed to have. Half the time it seems like a parking lot. I think it’ll benefit anybody in the area and anybody coming up and down I-75.”
Rothenburg also considered the large commercial companies using I-75 such as Chewy, AutoZone and FedEx.
FDOT is currently in the study phase of the project  — determining the location and alternative designs for roadway projects and their social, environmental and economic effects, according to FDOT’S website. There is no estimated finish date or cost available — Ottoviano said both are unlikely until the design phase is finished and FDOT has initial funding for construction.
April Adams, 41, worries for her daughter’s commute from their home to where she works, where traffic is heavy.
“My daughter works on that side of town where it’s going to be. When she drives to and from our house, there’s always additional traffic that she gets backed up in,” she said. “Traffic is a concern, so I definitely have to give myself more time to get to and from my appointments or meetings.”
Other purposes of this project are to promote job creation and improve the area’s economic prospects, according to FDOT, which says the road will support continued development of the Ocala 489 Commerce Park.
In FDOT’s presentation, it is predicted that 26,500 people will use this new interchange by the year 2045. It is also noted that this project will support a vision for a new east-west corridor parallel and is needed in order to improve regional mobility within Marion County.
By Madi Spector
Feb. 6, 2019
OCALA, FLORIDA -- At its second public policy discussion on conversion therapy, the Alachua County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday morning to continue development of an ordinance that will ban the practice in the county.
The ordinance is specific to conversion therapy for minors and sexual orientation.
Mike Durham and Jackie Chung from the county’s Office of Equal Opportunity presented the draft ordinance at the meeting. Chung said the ordinance will stand on its own, rather than being used to amend the county’s human rights ordinance, because conversion therapy is not a discrimination issue.
As currently worded, the ordinance would impose a $125 fine on therapists engaging in conversion therapy. However, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Gainesville have recommended raising the fine to $250.
The commissioners and staff also will consider how to word the ordinance to ensure that it does not violate free speech rights.
On Feb. 1, According to the Tampa Bay Times, Amanda Arnold Sansone, a Tampa magistrate judge, issued a limited injunction allowing verbal communication about conversion therapy between counselor and client, which had been prohibited under a Tampa city ordinance. However, Sansone upheld the Tampa ordinance’s ban on use of electric shock in conversion therapy.
During public comment on Alachua County’s proposed ordinance, six people spoke. Four were for the ban, one was for a modification, and the last person spoke against the ban.
Doug Russell, a youth pastor at Union Baptist Church, 6259 SE 75th Ave in Newberry, said some students he works with do not know where they are in life. He agreed with Sansone that a conversion therapy ban would interfere with his ability to question young people about their sexual orientation decisions.
“My biggest concern is not being able to have the opportunity to have the conversation,” he said. “Not pushing my will on a student because I would never do that. But not being able to say, ‘Have you thought this out?’”
He said counselors should have the chance to give an opinion, a thought or an encouraging word on the matter.
Terry Fleming, co-president of the Gainesville Pride Community Center, thanks the county commission for taking conversion therapy seriously. (Madi Spector/WUFT News)

Terry Fleming, co-president of the Gainesville Pride Community Center, commended commissioners for considering the conversion therapy ban.
“Obviously this is an important issue for the LGBTQ community,” Fleming, , said during public comment at the commission meeting. “And we really appreciate the county commission having a serious discussion about what this means.”
After reviewing the Tampa judgment, Fleming asked the commission to compile evidence that the coercive nature of conversion therapy harms minors and can constitute child abuse. Evidence of that sort would demonstrate a compelling government interest and would pass the strict scrutiny standard, which many ordinances fail. The standard checks for the constitutionality of an ordinance. It also determines whether the principle or the government’s interest against that principle is more important.
County Attorney Sylvia Torres recommended that commissioners make some changes to the ordinance to clarify that it would ban the conduct of conversion therapy, not conversation about it.
During public comment, Phil Coursen, senior pastor of Abundant Grace Community Church, said he had seen minors being helped by conversion therapy.
“I want to ask that you seriously take it into consideration that there are parents out there and young people who struggle – who may not want these desires and want help,” Coursen said. “And to limit therapists and whoever else… I don’t see any justice in that. How can you limit the speech of a therapist on a child who doesn’t want these desires?”
Coursen said he feels sorry for those who have had negative experiences with conversion therapy, but was adamant that he believes the therapy helps some people.
Larry Green, pastor of Westminster Church, said he is ethically prohibited from practicing conversion therapy. (Madi Spector/WUFT News)

Larry Green, pastor of Westminster Church and a marriage and family counselor who specializes in sex therapy, said he receives calls every week from parents asking him to begin practicing conversion therapy.
“I am ethically prohibited, as is just about every mental health practitioner, from practicing conversion therapy,” Green said. “What we know happens is that for these people, when they go through this practice, it is not a voluntary thing in most cases.
“It is mom and dad bringing their kid because they want their kid to be a certain way. It is not the child saying, ‘I have a problem with my sexuality.’ It is the parent saying, ‘I have a problem with you.’”
Green described conversion therapy as a form of child abuse, linking it to the depression, emotional harm and suicidality patients have said they experienced during or after conversion therapy.
According to the a January 2016 article in the Journal of Medical Regulation, professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists have stated that there is no evidence that conversion therapy changes a patient’s sexual orientation. They say evidence shows that the practice is harmful.
County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler, a retired middle school teacher, said she has seen the difference between engaging in conversation with her students rather than what conversion therapy would do.
Wheeler said she has an issue with the practice of teaching a child to feel as if there’s something wrong with them.
“I draw the distinction between a caring relationship, an adult and a child, and a professional direction that would make someone feel like something about them is not normal.”

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Andrea Arredondo, a cashier at La Tienda, said being more sustainable will be great for the restaurant. (Madi Spector/WUFT News)

By Madi Spector
Jan. 18, 2019
Gainesville City Commission’s final approval of the single-use plastic bags and expanded polystyrene ban took place Thursday night.
For the last year, Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos has spearheaded the movement.
“We need to protect our environment for future generations,” he said.
Small businesses around Gainesville have both mentally and literally prepared for this change.
Andrea Arredondo, a 23-year-old cashier at La Tienda, said she thinks the change will be great for the Mexican restaurant. She suggested that the restaurant could start using organic bags or ceramic plates for their customers to be more sustainable.
“We give a lot of plastic every day,” she said. “So, I think reducing in here will really make a difference.”
However, the ban on Styrofoam might prove to be more difficult than that on plastic.
“As far as the plastic bags, I think that’s going to be a pretty easy transition,” said Danielle Ward, the store manager of Ward’s Supermarket. “It’s an easy fix for us.”
“I don’t know what we’re going to use as something different than Styrofoam,” she said. “But we’ll definitely look into that and see what alternatives there are out there.”
Ward encouraged her customers to start becoming used to not using plastic for shopping. She said it would be wise for her them to start to transition now.
Her cousin, Milan Mixton, the assistant manager of the Natural Foods Department, said the family-owned business is excited for this change. They will have to do research on new alternatives, but their produce section is already using decomposable, cardboard-based materials for their organic products.
Last December, Commissioners Gigi Simmons and Helen Warren spoke in defense of small businesses finding it difficult to transition to new materials.
In the original draft of the ordinance, Commissioner Hayes-Santos introduced a hardship exemption that would allow businesses who make less than $500,000 annually to opt out of the ban. In December, he claimed that he didn’t think it was still necessary.
A separate vote to keep the exemption in the ordinance has been set to the first meeting in March.
In regards to Ward’s Supermarket, Mixton said it’s possible there will be a small price increase for their supplies, but she’s sure it’s something they will be able to absorb.
“It’s not like we’re the only store that will be dealing with that increase,” she said. “I think it will be minimal because alternate materials have been on the market for quite a while now, nationally. So, I think prices are starting to come down on those things.”
She predicts it will not financially impact the supermarket’s customers.
Both plastic newspaper holders and grocery story bags for fruits and vegetables are two exemptions from the ban.
According to Hayes-Santos, the city will be partnering with multiple nonprofit groups to help educate citizens and consumers. These will include the Chamber of Commerce, Zero Waste Gainesville, Keep Alachua Beautiful and the local Girl Scouts Troop.
The city commission unanimously passed the ordinance to ban. Gainesville is now the second city in Florida to do this — the first being Coral Gables. Gainesville’s ban takes effect Aug. 1.
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Loosey’s Downtown has been prepared for the change since 2017 when it stopped using plastic bags and straws. (Madi Spector/WUFT News)
Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola speaking about public transportation and energy conservation during the Clean Energy Campaign kickoff event Monday night. MadI Spector / Contributing Writer

By Madi Spector
Jan. 15, 2019
GAINESVILLE -- Gainesville residents made it clear Monday night that they want cleaner energy.
The Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club, a non profit organizational group, hosted its campaign kickoff at 7 p.m. Monday at the Civic Media Center, at 433 Main St. The hour-and-a-half event promoted the “Ready for 100” resolution, which was passed in October, and aims for 100 percent renewable energy in Gainesville by 2045.
Patrick Gilmartin, a 19-year-old UF finance sophomore, debuted his 15-minute film to a room of about 30 on how using renewable energy will help Gainesville. An open discussion followed the movie on topics such as renewable energy, renters’ rights and public transportation. The open discussion was lively and civil with no disagreements.
“This community is precious, and it needs all the help it can get,” Gilmartin said.
People are eager to know how the city plans to conserve energy and deal with the climate crisis, said Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola. Irreversible changes have already been made to our environment, so it’s vital that people alter the way they deal with energy.
“This is not a debate,” Arreola said. “We’re at the brink and if we don’t do something to turn this around immediately, life as we know it will end.”
The Utility Advisory Board, an advisor to the Gainesville City Commission on utility service policy, was asked by the City Commission to write an energy policy in the next six weeks, said Mary Alford, a chairwoman of the board. It will be a guide for future city commissions to base their decisions on rental efficiency standards, utility bill management and Gainesville Regional Utilities.
“The No. 1 thing we have to do is address conservation,” Alford said. “The policy can’t be written by the UAB or the commission but by the citizens of Gainesville.”
Having UF become free of fossil fuels should be a goal when it comes to being waste free by 2045, said Alyssa Guariniello, a 19-year-old UF environmental engineering sophomore and a member of DivestUF, an environmental organization.
“Climate change is real, it’s happening quickly and we’re running out of time,” Guariniello said. “It’s up to everybody. It’s human responsibility.”
Roberta Gastmeyer, the treasurer for the Sierra Club, said that she felt the video presentation was the highlight of the night and that it generated interest from new people. The turnout exceeded her expectations.
The biggest goal is to get the Alachua County Commission to get on board with the Ready for 100 plan, Gastmeyer said. Their second goal is to work with UF students and faculty to get the university involved with energy provided by Gainesville Regional Utilities in the future.
There are no more events scheduled for the 2019 Clean Energy Campaign as of right now, Gastmeyer said. There will potentially be more events later this year.
“We need to nail down our 2019 goals,” she said. “I’m looking forward to raising more awareness for the Ready 100 plan.”
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Voices Rising Community Chorus rehearses "Masters in This Hall" during a rehearsal Thursday at First United Methodist Church in Gainesville. (Devoun Cetoute/WUFT News)

By Devoun Cetoute and Madi Spector
Dec. 14, 2018
GAINESVILLE — When Ruth Lewis, a musician in Gainesville for four decades, decided to start an intergenerational chorus in 2013, she hoped for at least 30 people at the first meeting.
Seventy-two singers ages 10 and up joined the Voices Rising Community Chorus that day.
“It just blew us away,” said Lewis, 65, of Gainesville, the group’s artistic director and conductor. “We weren’t prepared for that many.”
Voices Rising, which now has 100 members from Gainesville, Micanopy, Hawthorne, Archer, Dunnellon and elsewhere, recently won a national chorus competition.
Lewis submitted assorted video clips from prior chorus performances to Bridges Together, a nonprofit organization based in Sudbury, Massachusetts, sponsoring the 2018 Kraemer Intergenerational Story Contest. She said chose those that had the most interaction between its oldest and youngest members.
“We always try to feature them in at least one piece – just the kids,” Lewis said.
That was not lost on the judges as they viewed submissions from more than 50 groups, said Andrea J. Fonte Weaver, executive director and founder of Bridges Together.
“We appreciated all of the generations singing together,” Fonte Weaver said of seeing Voices Rising performing “Dry Bones,” a classical spiritual arrangement by Mark Hayes. “Not just standing next to each other but actually interacting and getting to know each other.”

Danny Geis, 75, of Gainesville, who joined Voices Rising three years ago and is now a board member, said the chorus was “very delighted” and “tickled pink” to win the competition.
Lewis is a former director and minister of music at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville. She said a need for community is why so many have joined Voices Rising.
Gail Keeler, 63, of Gainesville, joined after attending its first performance with a friend.
“We sat up in the balcony and we heard them,” Keeler said, “and we were just like, ‘We love this. It sounds so great. They look beautiful.’”
Jai Crane, a 13-year-old student at Alachua Learning Academy, joined Voices Rising when he was 10.
“I stayed with the chorus mostly because of me liking to sing,” Jai said. “It has been pretty good because I have been actually learning how to sing better rather than not singing at all.”
About the intergenerational aspect of the chorus, he said: “I think that’s really cool. I’ve always liked talking to and singing with and just meeting people of all ages. It’s one of those things where you get to learn from people older than you. You also get to talk to people that are younger than you and teach them things that you learn from the older people.”
Voices Rising will have a free holiday concert, at First United Methodist Church on Northeast First Street in Gainesville, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday.
Daina Perez-Fletcher, 10, will sing with the chorus in her first concert this weekend. She attends Boulware Springs Charter School.
“I really like being in the chorus because it is really fun,” Daina said.
Daina Perez-Fletcher, 10, sings “The Peace Carol” with the Voices Rises Community Chorus during rehearsal Thursday. (Devoun Cetoute/WUFT News)

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A collection of biodegradable paper to-go plates, bowls and containers that Mi Apa owner Peter Ynigo decided to use for his business. (Joshua Baker/WUFT News
By Tranelle Maner and Madi Spector
Dec. 13, 2018
GAINESVILLE — A Gainesville city commissioner’s yearlong push to reduce waste across the city appears to be nearing an end.
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos has throughout 2018 driven the effort for “zero waste” Gainesville. Hayes-Santos spoke at the Dec. 6 meeting that concluded with a unanimous vote to put a styrofoam and plastic bag ban to the first of two city commission votes on Jan. 3.
The Dec. 6 meeting came a year to the day after WUFT’s original report on Hayes-Santos’ vision.
And back in March, the city commission made its first step toward implementing a citywide zero waste policy. That day, Mayor Lauren Poe took to Facebook to share his excitement and add his insight into the plan.
“This action includes engaging our public and business community, working with our many community stakeholders to better measure and avoid waste streams, working to offer incentives and alternatives to wasteful consumption and to work on an ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam,” he wrote.
By agreeing to the zero-waste initiative, the city made a commitment to improving the environment. One of its most recent actions was the Oct. 24 groundbreaking of the Eco-Industrial Park on Northeast 63rd Avenue.
But it is the ban on single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam that could alter the environment and business landscape in 2019 and beyond.
A section in the ordinance that would have granted a hardship exemption to businesses that earn less than $500,000 annually was struck from Commissioner Hayes-Santos’ draft. He said he was in support of the exemption at first, but didn’t think it’s needed now.
Commissioner Gigi Simmons pushed for the section to be kept in the ordinance, and Commissioner Helen Warren supported it.
“I think zero waste is great,” Simmons said. “But my concern has always been financial hardship of those small businesses that might find it difficult to transition.”
Alyssa Brown, a Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman said smaller members of the business community expressed concern about the overall cost.
“They support the ordinance and they want to make a difference. They just want to solve the problem in a way that doesn’t cause them to have to close,” she said.
The commission agreed to revisit the hardship exemption during the first meeting in March 2019, allowing enough time for businesses to come forward who are concerned about the effect the ban will have on their balance sheets. The ban, if commissioners approve the ordinance during its first and second readings, would take effect in August 2019.
One group that worked closely with the city commission is Zero Waste Gainesville, a community group advocating for zero-waste city policies.
Founder Nina Bhattacharyya created the group in 2017 because of her passion for the environment and education on sustainable resources.
Bhattacharyya said she and the rest of Zero Waste met with the commissioners to discuss what they would like to see take effect in both the city and county.
“When we met with commissioners, we brought ideas to what should be in the plan. We would love to see composting be placed in the ordinances,” she said.
One of the local groups that Zero Waste supports is the Sea Turtle Conservancy, which advocates for the reducing plastic and pollution that affects marine life.
Lexie Beach, 28, Sea Turtle Conservancy spokeswoman, said the organization has been involved in banning or charging for use of single-use plastic bags in local businesses.
She said the initiative could be especially successful because of students who don’t want to pay extra or waste products.

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Humidity has affected the roof of a classroom in Howard W. Bishop Middle School, which also suffers from leaks and broken air conditioners. The school would receive some of the funding from the half-cent sales tax if voters approve it in November 2018. (Christina Morales/WUFT News)

By Madi Spector
Oct. 8, 2018
GAINESVILLE  Gainesville city commissioners Gail Johnson and Gigi Simmons had skeptical questions about the half-cent sales tax on Thursday.
The half-cent sales tax will be a referendum on the ballot in November. The focus of the tax is to modernize and revitalize public schools around Alachua County. If it passes, it will produce about $22 million over the next 12 years starting in January.
Six of the seven commissioners were present for the meeting, and all gave their support for the proposal. Mayor Lauren Poe has previously stated his support for it but was absent from the meeting.
Johnson was concerned about the makeup of a committee overseeing how the $22 million would be spent.
“The piece of this that concerns me is that we have not talked about what that oversight committee… who’s on that, who’s choosing the people that are on that,” she said. “That’s a big question mark and ‘what if’ for me that sometimes can be a red flag when deciding how large pots of money are going to be spent.”
Alachua County School District spokeswoman Jackie Johnson assured her that the school board will be choosing who will be on the committee, but the district is looking to other organizations for help. She said the roles of the committee aren’t to choose the projects, but to oversee how the money will be spent and that the plan for each project is followed.
Gail Johnson is hoping the school board would consider including people from the communities that are affected the most by run-down schools. She stated that equity is important to her. Jackie Johnson said the committee will hold a workshop in the next couple of months.
“How are the priorities assessed?” Gail Johnson also asked.
“That is still to be determined,” Jackie Johnson said, stating the school board will be working with a private consultant to determine which schools receive priority. “Obviously the schools that are in the worst shape will get the first benefit.”
The school board is in the beginning stages of the bidding process for design work at Metcalfe Elementary School, Howard Bishop Middle School and Idylwild Elementary School. They are “probably going to need the most amount of work,” Jackie Johnson said.
Simmons also gave her support for the sales tax. But she made a correlation between the ages and conditions of some lower-grade schools.
“Will those schools be considered a priority?” she asked.
“Not based technically on their grade,” Jackie Johnson said. “It’ll just end up working out that way. But we didn’t intentionally go in and say, ‘OK, let’s do the F and D schools first.’”
If the facilities at lower-grade schools are so poor, Simmons said, she would hope the school board would make them a priority.
“Motivation is key,” Jackie Johnson said. “If they have a wonderful place to come to learn, that’s going to make all the difference.”

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