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Meredith Linley


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Judge Howard’s long-held felony docket to be transferred to Judge Fritton Sept. 12

Citrus County Circuit Court Judge Richard “Ric” Howard looked at the docket of felony cases he was presiding over in February, and noticed he didn’t recognize a lot of the defendants.

At first the local judge, who’s dealt with the county’s most diabolical criminals for 21 of his 22 years on the bench, thought his observation was a positive sign his backlogged caseload from COVID-19 was normalizing.

“And that’s when it kind of sank in – that maybe it’s time to do something else,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of jury trials, and I’ve done ‘em all; I’ve done all kinds of different ones, from felony petit thefts to first-degree murders ... and, frankly, I’m tired.”

Howard’s epiphany becomes a reality Sept. 12, when his entire felony docket – except for around a dozen ongoing cases – is transferred to fellow Circuit Court Judge Joel Fritton, who will have no other cases.

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle Photo Editor 

Circuit Court Judge Joel D. Fritton

Howard will take over Fritton’s family, dependency and delinquency cases up until the longtime judge, who turns 70 in January, retires at the end of 2026, when he reaches Florida’s retirement age for judges of 75 years old.

“That’s the plan – that just means I’m going to retire, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working,” Howard said. “I’ve still got a lot to do, and I’d like to think I can do something to help people understand their problems better, and maybe help some families.”

Fritton, who’s “had every docket assigned to me in a little over a year” since his June 2021 appointment, said he’s ready for his upcoming duty.

“I think I’ve developed a well-roundedness to anything that’s in front of me,” he said. “It’s an incredibly important assignment that impacts people on both sides of the aisle ... society in general, and taxpayers in certain cases.”

Fritton has been sharing Howard’s felonies since February, and currently has more than a third of the whole docket already.

“I’ve done this kind of work before from the other side of the bench so it’s not like I’m new at it,” the former state prosecutor and Hernando County Sheriff’s Office attorney said. “I’m not a stranger to it, and I’m not worried about it.”

“Fortunately, Joel Fritton was a quick study, and he knows what he’s doing,” Howard said, “I’m confident in him. ... He’s got the smarts to get through it.”

Fritton said there won’t be, and hasn’t been, too much difference between his courtroom style and Howard’s.

“You don’t have a docket assigned to you for two decades, and not have things sorted out or ironed out,” he said. “I’m not here to reinvent the wheel, I’m here to fix a spoke or two.”

Gradually changing the dockets for Howard and Fritton was planned by the county’s administrative judge, Circuit Court Judge Carol Falvey, to have an established, well-versed judge succeed Howard before his term ends, instead of waiting until Howard’s retirement.

Special to the Chronicle 

Falvey

“With Judge Fritton, we’ve got a judge who is interested, hardworking, experienced in criminal law,” Falvey said. “He was the best equipped who could handle it. In terms of having stability and experience on that docket, we were lucky to have him.”

Fritton still has to become qualified in May to preside over death-penalty cases, which Howard will judge until then.

Having one judge handle the large felony docket, Falvey said, also makes it easier for prosecutors, defense attorneys and courtroom clerks to attend and manage.

“I think it’s going to work out for everybody,” Howard said. “I’m very honored, but I thank Judge Falvey for her leadership. ... As the admin judge, she’s the best.”

Howard has impaneled 561 jury trials since he was assigned the criminal docket in November 2001, but concedes that around five of those juries were sworn in for other judges.

“I don’t know of a judge in the state of Florida who has that many; I would like to find out.” he said. “I’ve done four trials in one week, twice.”

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

In this photo from Aug. 2, 2021, Circuit Court Judge Richard “Ric” Howard looks at Assistant Public Defender Ed Spaight during a murder trial.

“That is probably pretty close to unprecedented, and should be highlighted,” Fritton said of Howard’s trial count. “That’s good work on behalf of the people, and I plan to continue that work ethic and mantra going forward.”

Asked if he anticipates either keeping or dividing the felony docket during his term, Fritton said he’ll “take each day as it comes.”

“Later on, if the chief judge or the administrative judge decides it’s best to split it, then I have no objection whatsoever to splitting it with another judge,” he said. “Sometimes that’s necessary, and that’s fine ... but that’s not really my goal or desire at all.”

Howard’s advice to Fritton: “Listen to the people, make a decision, move on.”

“And don’t reserve rulings – make your call and then move on,” he added. “If you let the trials back up, it will kill you.”

Howard’s court has been the scene of a few nationally-televised cases, including the February 2005 abduction and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by John Couey in Homosassa.

Couey’s trial from February to March 2007 was Howard’s most memorable proceeding.

“I’m very proud of the work we did on that case, I really am,” he said. “John thanked me after I gave him the death penalty.”

mattbeck / Matthew Beck Chronicle Photo Editor 

Circuit Court Judge Richard “Ric” Howard balls his fist during the June 2016 sentencing of Claudia Scarbrough for the death of her 2-year-old son, Christopher Joaquin Camejo, who was mauled to death in December 2014 by four, 100-pound Rottweilers. “Have you ever seen a Rottweiler?” Howard said to Scarbrough. “It’s like a fist with four legs — all shoulders, neck and teeth.”

Howard was also the judge who ratified William Happ’s plea to be executed Oct. 15, 2013, for the May 24, 1986, kidnapping, rape and murder of 21-year-old Angie Crowley near Crystal River.

“I did the job for the people of the State of Florida,” Howard said, “and I’m proud of that.”

Howard said he’s coped with the publicity by keeping his distance from the media.

“I don’t usually respond to anything other than what’s said in the courtroom,” he said before recalling how national outlets asked him for interviews about Couey’s case. “You know how much I wanted to say something but didn’t, especially when he passed away.”

While pleased with the efforts he’s put in his more high-profile and heinous cases, Howard gets more emotional from the letters and handshakes of those he’s given life-saving sentences to.

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle Photo Editor 

During an April 2018 sentencing hearing, Citrus County Circuit Court Judge Richard “Ric” Howard holds the knife Akeem Jackson used in 2017 to rob an internet cafe in Dunnellon.

“Ninety percent of the people I deal with are not hardcore criminals but 10 percent are; my goal is to know the difference ... and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it.” he said. “I’ve seen some of those people several times, I’ve put some of them in prison several times, and now I’d like to be in a position to help families instead of punishing them.”

Howard’s judgeship didn’t start in felony court after then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him in December 2000. He was first assigned the family law docket before he took over criminal cases in November 2001.

“I’ve always liked dependency, delinquency and child support,” the judge said. “Maybe I can finish off my career doing something I started my career with. ... Maybe I’ll have a chance to save some people.”

At the start of his legal career in 1978, Howard was assigned then to the Child Support Enforcement Unit in south St. Petersburg for the State Attorney’s Office in Pasco and Pinellas.

Howard said handling those cases wasn’t considered the most sought-after job by prosecutors, but he took on the challenge to be rewarded later on by working his way up.

“Don’t laugh at me now; I’m working hard and I’ve paid some dues all the way,” said Howard, who was the first in his family to get a college degree. “I’m trying to do that for my family, to honor them, not to honor me ... I’ve worked very hard, I haven’t taken a vacation in three years.”

Howard’s steadfast work ethic got the better of him in 1997, when, at 44, he had a heart attack, motivating him to tell lawyers in his courtroom to put their health and families first.

“I didn’t put myself first,” he said.

If there wasn’t a mandatory retirement age for Florida’s judges, Howard would probably stay on the bench.

“I feel good, I feel good ... I want to keep doing this at some point; I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “I hope God continues to gives me the strength to do it.”

Howard said he might find himself teaching at either his alma mater, Stetson University College of Law, or Central High School in Brooksville, teaching lessons about what he and his colleagues in Citrus County’s courthouse have done.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done here,” he said. “I just hope that Joel, Carol or somebody else can continue what I think is a good plan: to focus on people who can be rehabilitated – give them a chance, a second chance, and, yes, I’ve given them a third chance.”


Local
Affordable housing project proposed for Homosassa

Of all the concerns Citrus County residents have for their community and its most critical needs, affordable housing tops the list.

It supersedes health care, food security, reliable transportation, access and knowledge of public services, and being able to pay for basics of living.

When people call local charities, help for housing and shelter are the most often requested.

That’s according to the 2021 Community Needs Assessment, which reports on the needs of Citrus County and neighboring counties, based on surveys of residents and other public and private social service providers.

Developers, along with the potential help of hefty tax credits, and local governments, are trying to address the need for affordable housing by encouraging their construction.

The latest is a proposed 160-unit apartment complex with reduced rents in southwest Citrus County between Homosassa Springs and Sugarmill Woods. The 19.3-acre project is proposed three miles west of the Suncoast Parkway/Cardinal Street interchange.

The Tampa-based Invictus Development, the developer of the proposed project, is making headway in hopes of getting tax credits to build the $19.4 million project.

Invictus received county zoning changes necessary for the property and it will receive Local Government Area of Opportunity funding from the county’s Housing Services, which is a signal to state housing authorities, who decide which developer gets tax credits, of community buy in with the project.

fredhiers / Fred Hiers Chronicle Reporter 

Cavalieri

Rick Cavalieri, executive vice president and one of the founders of Invictus, said the county has no affordable housing in the Homosassa area and his proposed project would help address that problem.

“I feel like we are serving a segment of society that needs it,” Cavalieri said,

Affordable housing provides a family with “stability,” he said, and allows people to focus on other things, such as jobs and improving their lives. It provides stability to children knowing they live a good and safe place.

According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,290.

Without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing – a household must earn $4,302 monthly or $51,619 annually, to afford that, according to the 2021 coalition report. That’s more than the median household income of $45,700 in Citrus County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Despite there being ample need for affordable housing, getting tax credits which pay for about 85 percent of these kinds of projects, is still difficult.

“In this business you really have to have perseverance,” Cavalieri told the Chronicle.

Even with local financial buy-in and a clear need for affordable housing in the county, Cavalieri estimates a developer has about a one in five chance of getting the tax credits.

That’s important because developers sell those tax credits for about 90 cents on the dollar for cash to fund their developments.

Cavalieri will apply for the tax credits in December and hear in about January if he’s been selected.

While, it’s free money to the developer in one way, there is a cost.

That’s because state housing agencies regulate how much they can charge for each apartment.

Special to the Chronicle 

An artist’s rendering of a proposed Homosassa affordable housing project.

To make matters more difficult, Cavalieri said the builder develops plans for the housing project more than a year before beginning to submit them to state officials who decide on the credits. That means costs could significantly rise during those many months.

Cavalieri said dozens of proposed Florida affordable housing projects recently were scrapped because of rising construction costs.

If he gets the tax credits, Cavalieri said Invictus could begin construction of the first of two phases in June 2023 and finish that first phase in the Fall of 2024.

The plan is to build one, two, and three bedroom apartments for a variety of renters such as seniors, couples, and young families.

The project will include a pool, gazebo, picnic area, a children’s playground, walking trail, clubhouse and fitness center, business center with computers, and a community laundry. But apartments will also have laundry hook ups if residents want their own washer and dryers.

Cavalieri expects to have at least 90 percent occupancy once the apartments are built.

The proposed site is ideal, Cavalieri said because it’s close to retail stores, bus routes, and there is no residential community next door that might oppose the project.

Cavalieri said that often area residents oppose affordable housing, fearing it will become rundown, attract crime and noise. One of Invictus’ projects was shut down recently in Alabama and another in South Carolina because neighbors opposed them.

But Cavalieri said the development is obligated to maintain the complex and state inspectors visit to ensure it’s done. Not being in compliance could cost a developer two years of no tax credits.

Along with opposing neighbors, Cavalieri said inflation is now a big factor.

One recent affordable housing project for a mix of people that included the mentally disabled was expected in November 2021 to cost $6.3 million. Now it will cost $10.6 million, he said.

The problem is that despite rising costs, rents are determined solely on county median incomes, he said.

“But that’s the nature of the business,” he said.

Meanwhile, Citrus County is trying to attract developers as best it can.

“We as the county are doing what we can to entice developers to come here,” said Michelle Alford, said the county’s housing services director.

Unfortunately, affordable housing is needed across Florida and there are other communities vying to attract a project.

“It’s statewide,” she told the Chronicle. “It’s everywhere.”

It’s competitive, as developers have worthy affordable housing projects but there’s only so much money to go around, Alford said.

To best help developers who decide to build here, Citrus County can continue to provide local money toward those projects to show Tallahassee there’s local support.

The department also helps low income families with rent and mortgage payments, helps seniors remain in their homes, and low income families with Section 8 housing.

As for working on affordable housing and working with developers, “that’s something we’ll continue to do,” Alford said.


Local
County to mull taking public notices away from newspaper

For over 100 years, people have depended on local newspapers nationwide to publish public notices about upcoming government meetings.

The Citrus County Chronicle has been the local go-to source to find those notices.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis in May quietly signed into law a bill that revamps laws about publishing local-government legal notices.

The notice law (HB 7049), in part, will allow local governments to publish legal notices on publicly available websites, including the county government’s, if it would be cheaper than publishing them in newspapers. The law will go into effect Jan. 1.

Citrus County advertises all meetings, special assessments, public hearings, retreats and budget meetings in the Citrus County Chronicle.

But county commissioners Tuesday will discuss whether they will continue to pay the Chronicle to display those notices or have the government do it, probably on the Clerk of the Court’s website.

Vick

County Clerk Angela Vick, whose office also publishes public notices, will provide the board with a breakdown of costs to put them in the Chronicle.

According to county data, it has paid the Chronicle $24,390 in fiscal year 2021; $29,301 in 2020; $34,331 in 2019 and $33,522 in 2018.

So far for the 2022 fiscal year, the county has paid $27,104 to the Chronicle.

“We believe if the board wishes to proceed with electronic public notices that they should all be housed in one location,” County Administrator Randy Oliver wrote in the agenda item. “The Clerk’s Office has agreed to perform that function if the board so desires.”

The county would provide a link from its home page that will direct them to the clerk’s public notice site.

Under the bill, in counties such as Citrus with fewer than 160,000 residents, government agencies that want to publish notices online will have to hold public hearings to determine if residents have sufficient access to broadband service “such that publishing advertisements and public notices on a publicly accessible website will not unreasonably restrict public access.”

Oliver is recommending that the hearing be held Oct. 18 if county commissioners decide to go that new route.

The newspaper industry unsuccessfully tried to block the bill after the Senate, in the final days of this year’s session, took it up following passage by the House. Among the concerns was about rural areas, where many people do not have broadband connections and might have difficulty getting access to legal notices on county websites.

The purpose of public notice is to display information in places where the public is likely to come into notice. The important premise is that information about government activities must be accessible in order for people to make well-informed decisions, according to the Public Notice Resource Center (PNRC).

“Public notices serve as a conduit of information from the government to the public,” according to the PNRC. “They enable citizens to monitor the actions of their local governments, as well as to keep track of events occurring in the local court system.

“Public notices allow citizens to serve as watchdogs for fraud and incompetence by both government officials and private interests,” the PNRC said.

The Chronicle asked folks on its Facebook page to weigh in on the matter. Would allowing the government to take over the role of alerting residents to zoning changes, legal proceedings and other public notices be good for transparency? An overwhelming number of respondents said “no.” Here were their responses:

Helen Emery: “Public notices should be just that. Newspapers are an excellent source. Everyone can pick up a newspaper to read, but not all people use the computer to search.”

Brian Snapp: “No, it is not good. Such a move is clearly designed to be a tool to obscure and/or limit access to public info notices.

Jodi Brantley: “More transparency is better. Should be posted on/in both.”

Tom Ryan: “Would not be a good look even though is legal to do so.”

Alex Reese: “Ridiculous.”

Rebecca Gates Hatten: “Power and control.”

The commission meeting is at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Citrus County Courthouse, 110 N. Apopka Ave., Inverness. The public notices item is scheduled to come up at 1:45 p.m.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.


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