Clay County, a Year in Review

Eric Cravey
Posted 1/3/18

FLEMING ISLAND – Happy New Year! As we welcome 2018, Clay Today takes a look back at the Top 10 stories of 2017. Presented as a countdown, the Year in Review looks back at some of the …

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Clay County, a Year in Review


FLEMING ISLAND – Happy New Year! As we welcome 2018, Clay Today takes a look back at the Top 10 stories of 2017. Presented as a countdown, the Year in Review looks back at some of the significant events that touched our community in 2017.

No. 10

Airport plan causes tension

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay County Board of County Commissioners gave Clay County Port President Ted McGowan the go ahead to continue the fact-finding process of establishing a commercial airport on the property at Reynolds Industrial Park despite objections from four members of the Green Cove City Council.

City council members attended the July 25 BCC meeting to express their opposition to the plan that was resurrected last year after more than 30 years in the mulling.

“That’s what I don’t understand, why are you all are engaging in this conversation?” said Van Royal, Green Cove Springs council member. “Maybe the county wants to own the airport or whatever, but the reality of that is it’s a taking. It’s a flat taking of the property tax rolls.”

The process to turn the airport into a regional airport would mean converting the private property into a public aviation authority, effectively stripping tax dollars from the city.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to making this happen, if it ever does, but Clay County would then have a facility with an expressway… an airport, a gas line and a railway all in one place. From an industrial outlook it doesn’t get any better,” said Wayne Bolla, then-chairman of the BCC. “Especially if we have a willing partner to work with.”

Currently, Reynolds Airpark’s 5,000-foot runway services only Reynold’s Industrial Park tenants, and was formerly constrained by limitations placed on it by the Federal General Service Administration that limited the number of takeoffs and landings at the location.

Last September, those restrictions were removed, leaving the underutilized Airpark in a prime position to create a regional airport in a centralized location nearest to the proposed construction route of the First Coast Expressway.

At the Green Cove City Council meeting that same evening after the BCC meeting, the council directed the town attorney to draft a cease and desist notice to the BCC to halt proceedings between the county and McGowan.

Council members want McGowan to talk the process over with city officials before going to the county.

No. 9

Civil citations for youth

JACKSONVILLE – Northeast Florida justice and law enforcement officials signed new landmark sentencing rules May 10 to expand the list of misdemeanors covered under a program, experts say, could lead to a lower recidivism rate among juvenile offenders.

The new rules – long awaited by juvenile justice advocates – expand the use of civil citations for certain juvenile infractions in the 4th Judicial Circuit – Clay, Duval and Nassau counties – and gives law enforcement the discretion on whether to issue citations for battery.

The Juvenile Civil Citation Program ensures that qualifying offenders – children who have no more than two citations, no felonies on their record and are not a gang affiliate – can bypass incarceration through diversion.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson joined regional law enforcement, education and other justice officials’ signatures on a Memorandum of Understanding affirming their commitment to the program’s expansion.

So long as the minor did not possess a firearm and did not commit certain traffic offenses among other exceptions, prosecutors will shuttle the child to a diversionary program without a review of their citation.

Some juveniles can wait in jail for weeks without bond while a judge reviews their case for entry into a diversionary program. This program seeks to streamline that process and save money.

Nelson called the transition a triumph for “smart justice,” one of the key facets of her 2016 election campaign.

“We know that the data shows that issuing youth an opportunity to take accountability for their actions while staying out of the criminal justice system leads to lower recidivism rates,” she said.

Instead of the traditional court process, children will receive community service hours, counseling or other similar punishments and pay restitutions when required.

In Clay County, these cases will move to the Clay County Teen Court, where their peers can argue over appropriate punishments exclusive of state intervention.

“They understand it was bad behavior, but they don’t always understand it was criminal,” said Deborah Mueller, director of Clay County Teen Court. “I believe in giving kids a second chance and not hurting their record in the future. Once you explain the situation and give them a chance to understand and see things from a different point of view, they’ll understand.”

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice data shows only four percent of children who received sanctions instead of jail time became repeat offenders.

No. 8

Greyhounds test positive for cocaine

TALLAHASSEE – A Jacksonville greyhound trainer who raced at bestbet of Orange Park received an emergency suspension notice of his operating license after a state investigation found 12 of his greyhounds tested positive for a primary cocaine metabolite.

In under two months, the greyhounds trained by Charles McClellan tested positive 17 times for a substance called benzoylecgonine, the main cocaine metabolite screened for in drug tests, according to the June 9 suspension order.

According to the emergency notice from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, between March 1 and April 29, one female dog, “WW’s Flicka,” tested positive six times and in two of those races came in first place. The dogs were housed at Steve M. Serras Kennels at the time of testing. By law, the winning dog in a race and a separate, random dog are tested for foreign substances.

The state has never issued an emergency order such as this according to GREY2K USA, a national nonprofit organization that lobbies against greyhound racing.

“This is the biggest greyhound drug case in American history,” said Carey Theil, GREY2K executive director. “I’ve never seen an emergency order like we saw in this case – as far as I know, this is unprecedented.”

A bestbet spokesperson said trainers are independent contractors and the business does not directly employ them. The spokesperson added that McClellan was removed from the premises as soon as bestbet was notified of the state’s order.

“Bestbet Orange Park completely supports the swift action taken by the state in this matter and as always, fully cooperated with state officials as they conducted their random and routine tests. Bestbet Orange Park maintains a zero-tolerance policy for any trainer or staff member that does anything [that] puts one of the dog’s health at risk. In this instance, the process carried out by the state of Florida and the regulators was carefully followed under state law,” a bestbet spokesperson stated in a prepared statement.

No. 7

Alcohol sales at county fairgrounds

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay County Board of County Commissioners Aug. 8 voted 3-2 to advance an unprecedented measure allowing beer and wine sales at the Clay County Fairgrounds.

In its first of two readings before approval, the ordinance establishes a permitting process that allows vendors to setup secure “alcohol zones” where patrons of legal age could purchase alcoholic beverages.

Consumers could not leave the premises of the “alcohol zone” with their beverage and would be limited in the amount they could purchase to prevent alcohol fueled public safety incidents.

Since its establishment more than 30 years ago, the Clay County Fairgrounds has never had an event that sold alcohol.

The annual Clay County Agricultural Fair will not be one of the events where alcohol is permitted.

“It is our position that we remain an alcohol-free fair, regardless of the county’s decision to allow alcohol on the fairgrounds or not, we have no desire to allow for the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages at the fair,” read a statement from the Clay County Fair Board. “We will continue to be a family affair.”

The Clay County Agricultural Fair, a weeklong springtime draw to the area, is not the only event hosted at the Clay County Fairgrounds, however. Commissioners who support the ordinance hope that by loosening restrictions on the sale of beer and wine, that the fairgrounds could attract more events and see an uptick in use and revenue.

They already have one event ready and willing to sell alcohol. The coordinators of the annual Northeast Florida Scottish Games and Festival at the fairgrounds has advocated for the sale of alcohol since the event moved there from the University of North Florida 16 years ago.

“We are a family-oriented group,” said Audie Gibson, president of the Scottish Games Board. “But, we’re Scots also.”

“We would like to be able to give more back to the county through more money coming into us, we are a weather-dominated organization or an event – one year, we almost lost it…this would help us with seed money to keep presenting our event in Clay County,” he said.

Organizations seeking to sell alcohol at any fairgrounds event will be required to obtain a permit, set up the alcohol zone with a physical barrier and secure an adequate police presence and medical personnel to ensure the event goes smoothly.

No. 6

County’s first charter school closes

ORANGE PARK – After receiving its second consecutive “F” school grade, the State Board of Education said the Clay County School District is required to end its contract with Orange Park Performing Arts Academy, the county’s first-ever charter school.

OPPAA was two points shy of making a “D” letter grade based on its 2017 scores on the annual Florida Standards Assessment. The school received an “F” in 2016 as well.

“A school subject to this level of accountability may request from the State Board of Education a waiver from automatic termination if it can show that the learning gains of its students on statewide assessments are comparable to or better than the learning gains of similarly situated students enrolled in nearby district public schools,” stated Audrey Walden, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education in a prepared statement. “Such a waiver is valid for one year and may only be granted once, and may only be granted to charter schools that have been in operation for fewer than five years.”

OPPAA had spent the last year on a state-mandated turnaround plan and now, Walden said, it is up to the Clay County School District to monitor progress of the second appeal before terminating its contract with the privately-operated school.

“OPPAA was eligible to seek this waiver, but they were unable to demonstrate that their learning gains were comparable to or better than the learning gains of similarly situated students enrolled in nearby district public schools. Therefore, the State Board denied this waiver request,” Walden stated. “The school district of Clay County must terminate the contract for OPPAA.”

“It is disappointing whenever you hear that a school is struggling and failing to meet the needs of our community and the students they serve. OPPAA is currently reviewing their options in terms of filing any appeals with the state but at this point, the state is automatically revoking their charter for receiving two consecutive F grades,” said Janice Kerekes, then-chairman of the Clay County School Board.

“We feel very strongly we have a good chance in this appeals process because we have students who performed very well on pre-tests but we saw they didn’t have the same values in the testing process. So, we are pursuing the appeals process,” said Alesia Ford-Burse, who spearheaded the creation of the school in 2012.

The school re-opened as a private school in August.

No. 5

Judge: trauma center should have not been permitted

TALLAHASSEE – Judge W. David Watkins of the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings ruled that the Florida Department of Health should deny Orange Park Medical Center’s provisional Level II trauma center.

Watkins filed the 57-page ruling Jan. 27 after sifting over testimony from a final hearing held Oct. 17-19 of 2016. Both OPMC and UF Health Jacksonville – which challenged the trauma center’s application and provisional approval – were given until Nov. 3 to file final comments after the hearing.

In operation since May 1, 2016, the ruling states there is “a need for only one trauma center” in Trauma Service Area 5, Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties. The state currently caps the number of trauma centers in Florida at 44.

In the hearing, Leah Colston, bureau chief, for emergency medical oversight at the Florida Department of Health justified why the department approved OPMC’s trauma center application. However, Watkins characterized her testimony as “inconsistent and lacked credibility.”

“Not only is the Department’s new policy of accepting letters of intent and ensuing applications in the absence of an available slot contrary to statute and its existing rule, it also unreasonable and nonsensical,” Watkins writes in his ruling.

Watkins questioned how DOH could have allotted OPMC a trauma center when there was not “a slot” available.

Chad Patrick, chief executive officer of Orange Park Medical Center, said the hospital will continue to offer trauma services.

“We are disappointed in Administrative Law Judge Watkins’ recommendation, however it is simply that – a recommendation for the Department of Health’s consideration,” Patrick said in a prepared statement. “UF Health Jacksonville appealed to protect their financial interests, not the health interests of this community.

“Our goal remains to serve our community and in their greatest time of need – when a major trauma or emergency strikes – to have skilled professionals easily accessible and close by. It is well documented that in trauma situations, minutes matter.”

Patrick said the long travel time from Orange Park to Eighth Street in Jacksonville is one reason the DOH granted the trauma center permit.

Watkins said DOH “relied on an unadopted rule” to approve OPMC’s trauma center application.

“Agencies may not rely upon unadopted rules to justify agency action,” Watkins writes.

UF Health officials testified that the Orange Park trauma center has caused a 17 percent drop in trauma cases going to the Northside hospital. UF officials also claim that this sharp drop in trauma cases has “reduced educational opportunities” for the hospital’s nurses to treat, therefore, lowering the quality of teaching medicine at the UF teaching hospital.

“UF Health Jacksonville projects that a contribution margin loss of approximately $3.5 million to $5.9 million annually will be caused by Orange Park’s operation of a trauma center,” states the Watkins ruling.

No. 4

Green Cove Dragway closes

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – A long-running dispute between the Green Cove Dragway and its opponents in town came to an end March 11.

Peter Scalzo, dragway owner, said the lease for the dragway was not renewed by Reynolds Industrial Park. According to Scalzo, the decision to not renew the lease for the dragway was strictly financial.

“We’ve always been here on a year-to-year lease, so we knew that something like this could happen,” Scalzo said. “[McGowan] was offered an amount and a deal that they absolutely could not turn down.”

“We have another tenant that wants the space,” said McGowan, declining to give details.

For more than a year, the dragway and some residents of Green Cove Springs have been at odds due to the noise the dragway generates.

Peter Swanson, a vocal opponent of the dragway, believed the dragway should have never been allowed.

“It is a shame that the track has to close, but it’s been obvious for a while that it never should have been allowed to locate in Green Cove Springs to begin with,” Swanson said.

Swanson, on multiple occasions, has called for the dragway to be closed, saying it has an overall negative impact on the city.

“Had they been clever and diligent, the track’s owner may well have moved on to another, more suitable location where his business could thrive,” Swanson said.

Scalzo said the dragway noise issue was solved, per city regulations in cooperation with the Green Cove Springs Police Department, and that closing had nothing to do with the noise levels generated by hotrod racing.

According to Scalzo, this isn’t necessarily the end either.

“When the new lease is done, we are going to be invited to come back again,” Scalzo said. “McGowan has assured me that if its available, I will have first right of refusal.”

No. 3

Racist comments end in police chief firing

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Green Cove Springs Police Chief Robert Musco retired in late February 2017 after an investigation into racially charged comments he made to a black officer in early January.

Third party investigators hired by the city found that on Jan. 12, while scheduling assignments for upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day festivities, Musco referred to Public Information Officer Kimberly Robinson as his “token,” and that it was therefore necessary for her to be at the festivities. Robinson is black.

He then mocked the day held to honor the work of the slain civil-rights leader by using what was described as a decidedly “African American tone” [of voice] during further conversations on the topic, according to City Manager Danielle Judd.

“To say that I was shocked when all this came out would be an appropriate statement – this was not something I expected to hear,” Judd said. “You don’t want those kinds of comments coming from your chief.”

In public documents, Robinson stated Musco had made a number of inappropriate comments to her in her eight-year career at GCSPD, but this incident “was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she wrote in an email to a co-worker.

“I’m hurt because if he says these things to my face what is he saying behind my back? He obviously feels this way toward African Americans. I thought I knew him but apparently it was a façade,” Robinson wrote.

She said she feared that filing a complaint would jeopardize her job, and as a single mother, she could not afford that to happen.

Investigators with the Tallahassee-based law firm, the Krizner Group, found Musco also “injected” himself into the investigation by asking his subordinates to ask Robinson to rescind her complaint. She did not.

“There were conversations that he had with the assistant chief to have him intervene in some manner,” Judd said.

No. 2

Drug dealer charged with first-degree murder

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – In an unprecedented move, the Clay County Sheriff's Office charged a drug dealer with first-degree murder in the death of a young woman who overdosed on the drugs he allegedly sold her friends.

On May 23, Sheriff Darryl Daniels announced that Trumaine Devone Muller, 32, of Jacksonville had been charged with the murder of Ariel Jade Brundige, 18, who died of a drug overdose on November 10, 2016 in Orange Park. Toxicology reports revealed she had a lethal dose of fentanyl-laced heroin in her system. According to the CCSO, Brundige’s friends – Tyler Hamilton, 26, and Christopher Williams, 32, purchased the drugs from Muller.

Brundige’s boyfriend, Hamilton, and friend Williams were also indicted for manslaughter related to her death. Hamilton was with her during the overdose and called 911 to report the overdose, attempting to save her life.

According to the CCSO, all current and future drug overdose cases will be investigated as homicides.

No. 1

Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma left a lasting mark on Clay County as some 1,300-plus homes were damaged by rising floodwaters along Black Creek and other areas of the county, including the San Robar area inside the town limits of Orange Park.

Homes were not alone in Irma’s wrath. From the Clay County Animal Care and Control shelter on State Road 16 near Penney Farms to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Green Cove Springs to Club Continental and the Safe Animal Shelter, the storm’s floodwaters caused hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in damage and displaced families and animals.

For the most part, Clay County residents took evacuation warnings more seriously than in previous years when the county was threatened by a hurricane. However, the downside was that some families living in rural areas of the county did not evacuate with their animals. Animal control officials reported the drowning of at least one horse due to Black Creek flooding and rescued a second one struggling to swim to safety.

As many as 700 Clay County residents took refuge in a Clay County shelter during the storm whether or not they would find their home in one piece. Residents who did not evacuate ended up on rooftops where they were rescued by crews from various agencies who came here to help, including the Florida National Guard and the U.S Coast Guard.

The county animal shelter had to evacuate more than 100 dogs and cats in short order as Black Creek swelled rapidly into the aging facility the morning of Sept. 11.

“The water wasn’t quite in the cat area, but it was coming in the back door,” said Christina Sutherin, shelter director. “Within 45 minutes, the water rose to a point where we were swimming animals out of our shelter. I’m just thankful that our staff was there – our people risked life and limb to get out there.”

Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency descended on Clay County to begin efforts to help the hardest-hit families who could not return to their flooded homes. Residents began the arduous process of filing damages with their homeowners’ insurance providers and FEMA. Meanwhile, the community also came together to create Recovering Clay, a nonprofit to raise funds to help those without financial means get their lives back on track.


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