W - Newberry Parade Woodcock 3 Archer Trail BlazersNewberry was humming with activity Saturday starting with the 6th Annual Festival of Lights at 2 p.m. in the downtown area followed by the annual Christmas Parade at 5 p.m. This year’s parade theme of Rocking 50s brought out floats, golf carts and trucks, funny cars, bands, an Elvis look alike and of course, the main event -- Santa.

NEWBERRY – Although the 2012 Newberry Christmas Parade began at 5 p.m. on Saturday, residents began celebrating early as the 6th Annual Festival of Lights kicked off events at 2 p.m. in downtown Newberry. The parade theme this year followed along with the Relay for Life theme, which is Rocking 50s.

And rocking they did with 17 floats, numerous golf carts and trucks, the Lake City Shriners with small funny cars and motorcycles weaving in and out, City commissioners and dignitaries on floats, and dogs dressed up in Christmas attire. Newberry High School was represented by their marching band, the Latin Club members dancing to Latin music and the Newberry High School Explorers.

Participants from Trenton, Alachua, Gainesville and Jacksonville took part in this year’s festivities. The Pit Sisters, a group who rescues pit bulls and rehabilitates them to become service dogs and pets, dressed their dogs in Santa outfits and other Christmas regalia as did the Phoenix Pit Bull Rescue group from Gainesville. “They were great fun,” said parade organizer Kathi Thomas. “They are doing a great service to the dogs and to the community,” she said.

Thomas said she started the Christmas parade after seeing that the other cities had one and thinking that Newberry should have one as well. Although she can’t remember the exact year she started, she believes this year marks the 12th anniversary.

Of course no Christmas parade would be complete without Santa Claus. The Main Street Organization, who hired Santa and Mrs. Claus for their event, loaned them both to the parade. They brought up the rear of the parade riding on the back of Newberry’s antique fire engine. Although Santa and Mrs. Claus, along with other visitors to the Festival, were held up on the east side of the railroad tracks for almost an hour by a train that blocked the entrance to the west side of Newberry Road, they eventually returned to the William Barry, Jr. Pocket Park to continue visiting with children, handing out candy and balloons to any child who visited Santa to tell him what they wanted for Christmas this year.

The train engineer, who was stopped and waiting for another train to pass through a section of track he also needed to run along, was persuaded to back up and open up the roadway into Newberry.

Downtown businesses stayed open late as visitors to the Festival of Lights also toured various shops and restaurants along the downtown area. The Main Street Organization hosted 19 craft vendors and two food vendors as part of their event, along with rides for the children. Redeemed, a Newberry musical group, provided Christmas music and upbeat gospel music to entertain parents and children alike as they visited with Santa and the crafters set up along the road side.

Festival of Lights organizer Barbara Hendrix started the event in conjunction with the Christmas parade in an effort to bring more people out to watch the parade and to hopefully visit some of the downtown businesses to shop. “This is something we do every year as a sort of Christmas present to our business owners and citizens, as well as to our craft vendors,” said Hendrix. This year a jewelry designer from Atlanta ventured down to Newberry to participate as a vendor and did quite well, according to Hendrix. “Charging nothing to the vendors makes it possible for them to make a profit, too,” said Hendrix, who makes sure all businesses benefit from the Festival of Lights.

The Main Street Organization also supports the Firehouse Gallery and Studio in downtown Newberry, which is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, and the Newberry Tourism Center/Visitors Center.

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GAINESVILLE – A jury acquitted an Alachua man on Wednesday, Dec. 12, on charges of child molestation. Lotus Mango Blanchard, was arrested by Alachua police on Aug. 19, 2011, and charged with two counts of lewd or lascivious offenses committed upon or in the presence of persons less than 16 years of age according to an Alachua Police Department (APD) report.

The first charge was for lewd or lascivious battery. The second charge was lewd or lascivious molestation. Both charges are second degree felonies.

The first of the two charges never made it to the jury after the judge in the case determined the Office of the State Attorney didn’t have enough evidence to bring it to trial. Blanchard, who was 30 years old at the time of his arrest, was found not-guilty by a jury of six, which rendered its verdict in the case last week after deliberating for just 25 minutes.

Attorney Nick Zissimopulos, who defended Blanchard, said, “We worked hundreds of hours for [Blanchard], and the system worked.”

He called the verdict a “product of hard work” and the result of “a jury who gave real meaning to the presumption of innocence and burden of proof [placed on the state].”

Blanchard was released from jail on a $50,000 bond shortly after his arrest in August 2011. Now 32 years old, he is not only free from the threat of jail, but from the charges that loomed overhead until last week. If he had been convicted, Blanchard could have faced up to 15 years in prison for each of the charges.

“For people who read the stories, it’s important to understand that an allegation is nothing more than words that have been spoken. It’s not proof,” said Zissimopulos.

“I always believed in my client,” he said, adding, “Now Lotus [Blanchard] can begin rebuilding his life.”

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FORT WHITE – A Fort White man was seriously injured while he was hunting Tuesday evening in Fort White.

Sixty-one-year-old Norberto Mondilio Quinones-Caseres was climbing over a fence when his gun discharged and a bullet hit him in the abdomen, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) investigators. The incident occurred at Bethany Farms on State Road 47.

The man was airlifted to Shands Hospital in Gainesville. He was alert at the time, according to Columbia County Sheriff’s Office deputies, who initially responded to the scene.

The victim told officials he was hunting coyotes.

FWC continues to investigate the incident.

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 GAINESVILLE – In the wake of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut, local law enforcement agencies and Alachua County Public Schools are forming a joint work group on school safety.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones, Alachua Police Chief Joel DeCoursey, Jr., High Springs Police Chief James S. Holley, Superintendent Dan Boyd and other representatives from local law enforcement agencies and the school district met Tuesday and agreed to establish the work group to address emergency training, facilities improvements, security procedures, crisis communication and other safety-related issues. The group will be coordinated by Lt. David Lee, who is currently in charge of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) School Resource Officer (SRO) program.

“This will be our number one priority and nothing will be off the table for the work group,” said Sheriff Darnell. “The safety of children is our focus for the new year. That’s our resolution.”

“It’s critical that we work together on this so that we can come up with effective, long-term strategies to address safety issues in our schools,” said Chief Jones.

Law enforcement and district officials also agreed that one of work group’s highest priorities will be to petition state and federal leaders for the funding needed to place a school resource officer in all schools. Currently there are SROs in Alachua County’s middle and high schools.

Chief DeCoursey and his officers spend a lot of time in schools. He says the presence of an SRO offers multiple benefits.

“Having that high visibility can minimize threats and provide peace of mind for students, parents and staff,” he said. “But being on campus every day also allows officers to develop a rapport with students that can prevent problems in the first place. Students learn that the police are there to help them.”

The group also agreed to work with local mental health experts to seek more state support for mental health services.

Such cooperation with partners throughout the county will be essential to promoting school security.

“I think it’s paramount,” said Chief Holley. “It’s what schools are all about. To educate young people and to keep them safe, it’s essential to have the cooperation of parents and the entire community.”

In the meantime, law enforcement agencies will be boosting their presence at local schools. Boyd said the district appreciates their ongoing support.

“They immediately responded to our call for help and advice, just as they’ve always done,” he said. “I’m confident that as a result of this joint effort, schools will be even safer for our students.”

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HIGH SPRINGS – The High Springs City Commission dispatched a 23-item agenda in under four hours on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. As the only commission meeting during the month of December, the agenda was packed with a variety of issues that normally might have been dispersed between two or more meetings.

Both outgoing Interim City Manager Lee Vincent and newly-appointed City Manager Edwin Booth were on hand for the meeting, with Booth receiving more than his fair share of items on which to research, address and report back to the commission.

Possible uses of the city’s old school building, which related to at least three agenda items, was tabled to allow Booth and City Attorney Scott Walker time to research how the initial grant funds were intended to be used as part of the restoration of the old school building. Following the research, Booth is to provide a master use plan to the commission for consideration. An item on the agenda for the past few meetings, which is a request to allow Zumba classes to be held at the old school building, will be delayed until the commission approves a master use plan for the building.

Another item referred to the new city manager is notifying USDA Rural Development that the City does not intend to continue with Phases 4 and 5 of the wastewater system. Booth is to discuss the issue with USDA to see what is required from the City. If, at that time, it is determined that a letter is required, Booth will contact Walker to prepare the appropriate notification.

Following discussion of pollution control measures for stormwater runoff for James Paul Park, Booth is to contact the Florida Department of Transportation to determine if they have any intention of addressing the issue. Booth will also obtain costs for soil testing in the park and report back to the commission with his findings and associated costs.

Booth also was tasked with addressing the needs of the City Clerk’s department. Commission minutes were delayed earlier in the year due to the City Clerk taking on interim city manager duties. In an attempt to catch up on minutes, a former City employee has been hired on a temporary full-time basis to help the department catch up on past minutes.

The city manager was also tasked with setting up another meeting with the Police Benevolence Association (PBA) attorney as their attorney was unable to make the scheduled meeting. PBA negotiations are stalled until such time as the PBA attorney can attend a meeting with the City.

The City’s management of Poe Springs is on hold pending City Manager Booth meeting with the county manager to determine the status of Poe Springs’ construction projects. The City has been slated to take over Poe Springs, but the issue has been on hold due to completion of construction at the springs.

Booth is to act as executive director for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) until such time as the CRA plan is revised, something that should be done every five years, and it is determined whether the CRA needs to hire an executive director. Commissioner and CRA Board Member Byran William is chairman of the CRA at this time.

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ALACHUA – Alachua’s City Commission ratified the Alachua Police Department’s bargaining agreement during Monday’s commission meeting.

The 2012-2013 agreement states that Gator Lodge 67 will represent the police department as the unit’s bargaining representative.

The Alachua Police Department Bargaining Unit ratified the contract on Dec. 3 in a unanimous vote. The contract will last until September 2013.

The 2012-2013 contract is similar to last year’s contract with only a few changes. In the previous contract, police officers with take-home vehicles were only allowed to take their vehicles home if they lived within 20 miles of the police station.

The new contract states that officers will be allowed to drive their assigned vehicles to and from their residence as long as they live within Alachua County.

The new contract also provides for a one-time additional wage payment before Dec 31. The payment will be equal to 2 percent of the officer’s existing base pay.

Commissioner Ben Boukari said he was grateful for both the City and the police department.

“I know this process can be lengthy,” he said. “I want to thank the folks on both sides.”

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W - Our Chiefland volunteers helped each child pick out special gifts for their family members copy

Chiefland volunteers helped each child pick out special gifts for their family members.

GAINESVILLE – The fifth annual Kids’ Holiday Shopping Night, hosted by Haven Hospice, brought smiles to more than 200 children at the organization’s Attic resale stores in Gainesville on Dec. 6, in Lake City on Dec. 11 and Chiefland on Dec. 13. Participating children enjoyed the opportunity to purchase presents for parents, grandparents and siblings, using “Santa Bucks” provided by the Attic.

Children were treated to a free photo with Santa, gift wrapping and refreshments, which helped many families who are financially struggling during the holiday season. Area businesses such as Toys for Tots, Dollar General, Family Dollar and Wal-Mart supported the effort.

“We are thankful to all the Haven staff, donors and volunteers who participated,” said Michael Morse, vice president of organizational advancement for Haven Hospice, “as well as the countless individuals in the community who generously support the Attic stores with their donations and purchases. Their support goes a long way toward helping the families and communities we serve.

All sales at the Haven Hospice Attic Resale Stores directly benefit Haven Hospice patients and their families, as well as those served by community programs such as Camp Safe Haven for children who have experienced a loss.

In 2011, the Attic stores provided $559,000 to directly support Haven’s unfunded programs and services.

For more information about the Haven Hospice Attic Resale Stores, call 352-378-7484. Haven Hospice is a not-for-profit community hospice organization providing services since 1979 and licensed in Florida since 1980. For more than 30 years Haven has served more than 60,000 patients and families in North Florida. For more information, visit www.havenhospice.org or call 800-727-1889.

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