GAINESVILLE – The Alachua County Commission has expanded protections for sexual orientation in the county.

Last week, the commission approved an amendment to its human rights ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The amendment applies to the whole county, but cities have the option of opting out or writing their own ordinance. Cities can also opt out of specific portions of the ordinance, rather than accepting or rejecting it in its entirety.

“We’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback,” said Jacqueline Chung, manager of the county’s Equal Opportunity Office. “In my opinion, it’s long overdue.”

The amendment will go into effect Jan. 1, 2014, making sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes. It is meant to protect against workplace harassment and allows transgender peoples to use the restroom or locker facility of the gender they identify with.

Previously, companies with fewer than 15 employees were exempt from the ordinance. The amendment changed the threshold to five. Religious groups and private membership organizations are also exempt.

The amendment passed with a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Susan Baird, opposing the amendment, not voting.

“I have three problems with it,” Baird said. First, Baird suggested allowing the cities to opt in to the ordinance rather than opt out. Second, she opposed changing the employee threshold from 15 to five, which she said creates a huge burden on small companies. Third, she wanted to only allow transgendered individuals who have completed surgery to be able to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Baird said she did not oppose the general goal of the amendment.

No city official in the county has indicated any plan to opt out of the ordinance, though there are some who have expressed issues with it.

Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad said the amendment is controversial, although Chung said the county has received no bad feedback other than some posts on the Alachua County Facebook page.

“It’s kind of a morality issue,” Conrad said. “I’m a Christian. I believe that you’re born with the gender God gave you. A surgeon can’t change it.”

Conrad said he plans to talk to the community in Newberry to gauge public opinion, but he expects the reaction will be negative.  

“I don’t think there’s any need for any change. It’s a box I’d like to not open,” he said. “We’re happy with the status quo.”

Despite Conrad’s opposition, Newberry’s city manager, Keith Ashby, said the city has had no discussion of opting out.

Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper said he has no problem with adding protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, so long as each individual city is able to make its own decision on the matter.

High Springs Mayor Sue Weller said she supported the idea of the amendment, though she hasn’t read enough to comment further.

Support for the ordinance has been widespread, Chung said. Several have sent emails to the commissioners, and the public reaction at the meeting where the amendment was approved was one of jubilance and cheers.

“I’m very proud of the commission for moving forward to approve the amendment,” she said. “In Alachua County, it doesn’t matter whether you’re heterosexual or LGBT, you now have rights to protection against harassment.”

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W - Little prince with teddy

Little Prince's hooves are the size of quarters, his owner says.  When people first saw the picture of him, they thought he was a child's stuffed animal.

HIGH SPRINGS – On July 22, 2013, the same day the new prince was born in the U.K., an unusual pure white colt with blue eyes was born at the ranch headquarters of Gentle Carousel Therapy Horses in High Springs. “Both births were overdue,” said owner Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. “When I checked on the time difference in England, both were born at about the same time as well,” she said.

“Because Liberty, the colt’s mother, was overdue, we weren’t expecting a baby as tiny as this. He was 14 inches tall at the shoulders and weighed only 10 pounds at birth. The average miniature horse foals are 20 to 22 inches at the shoulders at birth,” she said. “Our horses are much smaller than the average miniature horse.”

“He is totally healthy and doing great,” she said. The horse’s mother is also pure white, which is called a silver-black sabino. “It is a type of pinto, but without spots,” she said. “We have lab testing done on all our horses so we know what colors they carry. He is definitely not an albino.”

With all the media attention on the new British prince, it was surprising that the little white colt was seen by over 1 million people around the world on Facebook on Aug. 6. “Two different equine-related sites picked up the photo and between the two they received 1 million hits that day,” Garcia-Bengochea said. In addition, Google sent them a note recently saying they love their website. “We have stayed at number one in their search engine for the past two years with no advertising dollars. Just go to the Google search engine and type in ‘Therapy Horses’ and our site comes up,” she said.

“We subsequently received more than 10,000 name ideas from all over the world,” she said. “Who knew there were so many white horses in legends and books in different languages?”

People from France suggested he be named after the author of the book, “The Little Prince.” Because of his blue eyes, Native American names were also suggested. People in Europe wanted names that had to do with the royal family. Many people in the U.S. thought he looked like the Lone Ranger's horse, Silver.

“We finally registered his official name as Silver Sovereign. His barn name is the Little Prince,” she said.

Photos on their Facebook site of her husband, Jorge, holding the tiny horse led people to believe they had developed a tiny stuffed toy horse and the couple received orders for the toy from all over the world. “Although he looks like a little toy right now, he will eventually work inside children’s hospitals and hospice programs,” Garcia-Bengochea said.

“We expect he will grow to probably 22 inches, full grown,” she said. “Right now he walks around the house and I can hear his tiny feet on the floor as he prances around.” His feet are currently the size of quarters, she said.

“We try to expose our horses to as many different sights, sounds, noises and smells as possible during the first 24 hours,” she said. “He does not stay in the house, but we wanted to expose him to it as soon as we could so he wouldn’t be afraid of the different surface under him. We work with our horses to make it so they are not scared by sirens, unusual noises, wheelchairs, elevators and hospital smells,” she said.

During the training process, the couple takes their new babies, along with their mothers, to UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital on Northwest 39th Avenue in Gainesville. They get used to being around wheelchairs and medical equipment.

“The patients, mostly spinal cord and burn injury sufferers, love it…especially when the horses are little babies,” she said. “The patients feel like they are giving back by helping to get these little guys trained.”

The Little Prince will start training at the facility around the first of September. Everything they do at this stage also includes the foal’s mother. “We use the building’s elevators to help get the horses used to things moving under them. Most hospitals we go to have elevators and often the elevators are full of people. The horses have to be unafraid and understand how to behave in an elevator full of people,” she said.

The younger the horse is when training begins, the easier it is for them to get comfortable with everything that is normally very “unhorse like.” “We are being the herd leader so they trust us and feel we’re in charge and they won’t get hurt,” she said. Handling the horses from the time they are born has made a very big difference in their ability to accept the myriad of different things they will be exposed to in a hospital setting.

“Ambulance sounds, bumping into wheelchairs, medical smells, cleaning products, walking on different floor surfaces and being confined in an elevator which is moving under them would all be very confusing to a grown horse not previously exposed to these sights and smells,” Garcia-Bengochea said. “Our training program lasts about two years. The babies are weaned at about 4 months old. We keep them with their mothers in the first stages of training to help them feel more secure.”

The Little Prince’s first exposure to the public will be at the Oleno State Park’s Literacy Festival in September. “Both he and his mom will appear at the beginning of the event at his first meet and greet,” she said. He will not stay through the event. “We try to introduce them to different things gradually, so they feel comfortable,” she said.

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W - High Springs Shooting columbia

HIGH SPRINGS – Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter announced Sunday that deputies of the U.S. Marshals Service had captured Willie J. Wingfield III, 21, of Ft. White, at the home of a family member in Daytona Beach late Sunday afternoon.

Wingfield was wanted for questioning in connection with the shooting of two men in the parking lot outside of the Santa Fe Bar, 23731 U.S. Hwy 441, High Springs, early the previous morning.

According to Hunter, no one was injured in the capture.

The Santa Fe Bar is on Columbia County’s side of the Santa Fe River.

The men reportedly had a heated argument outside the bar after closing time, said Third Circuit State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister. During the exchange, Wingfield pulled out a gun and began firing, deputies said. “Once the first man was shot, another came to help him” and was also shot, Seigmeister said.

The shooter and several witnesses left the scene before the police arrived. Wingfield was immediately identified as a person of interest and his photo was released to the public.

High Springs Police Department officers and Columbia County Sheriff’s Office deputies responded to the disturbance call, which was made around 1 a.m. Saturday.

High Springs Police Department officers Jamey Yakubsin and Kendrick Hampton were first on the scene at 1:09 a.m. They performed first aid on the victims, according to High Springs Police Chief Steve Holley. Columbia County Sheriff’s Office deputies, in whose jurisdiction the incident occurred, arrived and pronounced Dennis Lamont Smith, 38, and Erik Antonio Akins, 24, both of Ft. White, as dead.

Holley said Columbia County Sheriff’s Office deputies were in the northern part of the county when the disturbance call came in. Their department called High Springs Police for mutual aid at 1:08 a.m., realizing High Springs Police would be closer and able to respond more quickly to the scene.

Officer Yakubsin happened to be at a nearby convenience store and Officer Hampton was also nearby. Both received the call on the radio at the same time they heard from other sources that a shooting had just happened. “They were able to be on the scene within one minute,” Holley said.

Once Columbia County Sheriff’s deputies arrived, officers Yakubsin and Hampton stepped aside and allowed Columbia County to take control of the scene, Holley said.

Detectives and investigators from the sheriff’s office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement were on the scene until around 11 a.m., Saturday, collecting evidence and conducting forensic analysis throughout the night.

Wingfield was taken into custody the following afternoon by the U.S. Marshals Florida Regional Task Force with the assistance of U.S. Marshals from Gainesville, Orlando and Jacksonville. He is being charged with two counts of homicide.

The Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office assisted in Wingfield’s arrest.

Wingfield has a previous arrest record on drug-related charges from last March. He is being charged with two counts of homicide. His criminal record includes arrests for grand theft auto, fleeing police, battery on an employee at a detention facility and cocaine possession, according to records from the Florida Department of Corrections. He has served previous prison terms and listed an address in Daytona Beach when he was released in 2011.    

“I am extremely proud of the efforts that went into this investigation, from all of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office employees, citizens of Columbia County, and the multiple agencies that were able to assist in bringing this investigation to a close so quickly,” said Sheriff Mark Hunter.

Anyone with additional information for the investigation can contact the Columbia County’s Sheriff’s Office detectives at 386-719-2005.

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W - Water dogs

The Warriors division of Irish Water Dogs takes North Florida veterans on nature excursions.

HIGH SPRINGS – Tony St. Angelo, currently in his mid-30s, joined the U.S. Army in 2004, working at Arlington National Cemetery. Even though he never saw combat, he still had personal battles to fight.

“Everybody individually has their issues,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be combat-related.”

St. Angelo said he’s gone through dark times, but asked not to be more specific than that.

For him, his healing came in the form of a program he learned about at the Gainesville Veteran’s Hospital.

Irish Water Dogs Warriors was started about three years ago in Jacksonville, Fla. The program takes veterans on a trip to nature the first Sunday of every month.

“Being on the water is incredibly healing,” said David McDaid, founder of the program. “I’ve seen miracle transformations with this program.”

Veterans who were physically or mentally injured on or off the battlefield and veterans who just want to enjoy a day on the Santa Fe River show up. Current and former service members fighting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction or dealing with bodily damage go kayaking, fishing, hiking, snorkeling or spend the day shooting nature films and snapping photos.

After five months of running the High Springs chapter from Jacksonville, the organization opened a headquarters in Alachua County in January.

McDaid started the Irish Water Dogs about seven years ago as a commercial venture for outdoor. When he decided to use his network to help veterans, he set up the first chapter of the nonprofit Warriors division in Jacksonville. Soon after, they expanded to Tampa, Miami, South Carolina, Virginia and Idaho. Now, there are 16 chapters spread across nine states. Across the country, the Irish Water Dog Warriors takes out between 1,100 to 1,200 vets each month.

“Each chapter focuses on something that is unique to the geography,” McDaid said. For High Springs, the rivers and springs are the heart of the activities.

In the morning when the vets arrive, they are unsure about the day, he said.

“We ask them what they want to do that day,” McDaid said. “If they want to go fishing, we buy them bait. By the end of the day, you can see the transformation. It’s high fives and fist bumps.”

People of all ages have come for the outings, he said. “We have guys in the program that are 19 and 20, all the way through vets from Vietnam and Korea. We even have one that is 89 years old. He’s a World War II vet.”

When Tony St. Angelo started participating in the program about five months ago, he was able to finally branch out into a passion he’d had for a long time. He was interested in nature videography, and said he always had a dream of being a National Geographic videographer. McDaid said he got him a camera and a waterproof bag to take with him on the excursions.

“I’ve made tremendous progress,” St. Angelo said about his videography techniques.  

Being on the water has helped him learn to enjoy what life has to offer, he said, helping him through personal problems.

McDaid has seen similar progress among others.

“Being outdoors has consumed them,” he said. “To find something that consumes them that is not anguish or hurt is an incredible thing.”

Each chapter of Irish Water Dogs Warriors is sustained largely by that community, and individuals or businesses can donate or sponsor their chapter, McDaid said.

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HAWTHORNE – This time of year it isn’t uncommon for welcome back to school nights and open houses for students and parents. But in Hawthorne, teachers are the recipients of a special annual welcome back to school celebration. Teachers in a small town can sometimes be overlooked as important members of their community, said the Hawthorne PTA president. However, the city of Hawthorne is dedicated to prevent this from happening in their community.

Heather Surrency, president of the local PTA, has worked to put together a Teacher Appreciation Day every year for several years. Assuring Hawthorne teachers they are supported is important to her, she said.

“They have low funding and show incredible commitment,” Surrency said. “Showing them our support and offering both old and new teachers some insight into hidden areas in Hawthorne is the least we can do.”

This year’s event took place at the Little Orange Creek Nature Park Tuesday, and was attended by some 70 teachers and staff from both Shell Elementary School and Hawthorne Middle/High School. The park is not yet open, but a special charter was granted to allow Little Orange Creek to host the event.

All of the teachers were served lunch and sat inside chatting and enjoying the new nature park. Following lunch they were walked around the grounds and explored the venue.

“It’s a beautiful area and we really are lucky to have this support behind us all,” said Sue Bruce, a front office employee at Shell Elementary. “It’s exciting to see the park open and to have something new to advance the city.”

The city has tried to offer this type of day for its teachers for at least the last 15 years, hoping that they feel the dedication Hawthorne has in fostering growth in the community, said Surrency. So far, the effort has not gone unnoticed.

“It means a lot to everyone that they care about what we do and want to help in any way,” said Pam Guttormsen, a media center assistant from Hawthorne Middle/High School. “We have a common goal to put Hawthorne back on the map.”

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W - KFC DemolitionThe KFC in Alachua is being cleared out to make room for a new southbound ramp at I-75.

ALACHUA – The KFC near Interstate 75 has been demolished.

The demolition of the restaurant happened on Tuesday in order to make room for a new on ramp for I-75.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) paid $1,754,900 for the land.

Currently, the southbound ramp is on the north side of the road. The new southbound ramp will be on the south side of the road for easier access, said Gina Busscher, public information director for the FDOT District 2, in an earlier interview.

In addition to the ramp, the old KFC site will host a new parking lot for commuters to park their vehicles while they carpool with someone else.

The demolition of the restaurant was the start of the project, which the FDOT says could be finished in early 2015.

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WALDO – The Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) is helping the City of Waldo replace its water meters as part of an initiative to help local governments with water conservation.

“The district is pleased to partner with the City of Waldo in a project that will conserve water,” said Ann Shortelle, district executive director for the SRWMD.

The funds, about $76,836, will pay for 543 new water meters in Waldo to replace the outdated and broken ones. The new meters are more accurate, according to the SRWMD, and are better at detecting leaks. The new meters could save nearly 5 million gallons of water a year.

The SRWMD set aside about $1.5 million in cost-share funds for the current fiscal year to help water conservation in the district, finding alternate water supplies, providing flood protection, ecosystem restoration and water quality improvement projects. Waldo was one of 14 local governments that were approved for the funding.

“We are grateful that the district is assisting the city with the installation of meters that have better detection capabilities,” said Waldo City Manager Kim Worley.

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