Christie: Publix fires warning shot in fight over fake service animals… and it’s about time

Publix has posted new signs at the entrance and exits to stores telling customers which service animals are permitted in the store and where they can be. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s the supermarket showdown that we’ve all been waiting for: grocery shoppers versus pets in shopping carts.

And this one could get ugly. I mean fur — and maybe feathers — flying everywhere.

Beloved grocery store giant Publix Supermarkets Inc. appeared to set up this battle royale when over the weekend various news outlets reported the venerable chain was finally laying down the law with regard to service animals in their stores.

Publix has posted new warnings signs at store entrances and exits telling customers which service animals are permitted in the store and where they can be.

“For food safety reasons, only service animals that are specifically trained to aid a person with disabilities are permitted within the store.

“Service animals are not permitted to sit or ride in shopping carts.

“Thank you for your help!”

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That’s right, no more BOGO help from Fido… OK, not exactly.

But let’s be honest, too many folks have been taking this “service” or “emotional support” animal thing too far selfishly infringing on other folks’ space. They abuse federal laws and company policies that seek to help others living with disabilities. And that’s just wrong.

Socks, left, greets trained service dog Charlie Brown, right, during his “Red, Rover, Red Rover, A Hero Comes Over” reception at the Eastpointe clubhouse in Palm Beach Gardens. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Publix obviously does allow legitimate service animals in their stores. It would be foolish, for example, to ban seeing-eye dogs or a canine providing support to a U.S. military veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

And that’s not at all what the popular Lakeland-based chain seems to be aiming for with the new signs.

In fact, company spokesman Dwaine Stevens told the Orlando Sentinel on Friday that Publix has always had the policy about service animals, but the signs are for awareness. But the signage — which includes an encircled paw print with a slash through it next to type set off in bold that gives a no-no to let your dog ride in a shopping cart — is by design.

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows individuals with disabilities to take service dogs into many public businesses, including restaurants, hotels and stores. It also stops businesses from requiring certification to let animals in.

But a growing number of customers have tormented eateries, airlines, condo boards, et.al by calling all sorts of “pets” — like peacocks, squirrels, pigs and hamsters — “service” or “emotional support” animals. As a result, several states — including Florida — have moved to crack down on people potentially abusing federal disability laws to take their pets into businesses.

Earlier this year Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines tightened restrictions on emotional support animals, banning animals such as goats, salamanders and hedgehogs.

American Disability Rights seemed to champion Publix’s new signs in a tweet it posted that read “Four on the floor! and had among its hashtags, #stopdisabilityfraud.

Another group on Twitter, StairStepDogTraining, also praised the initiative in a tweet directed at Fox 35’s reporting on the Publix signs in Lake Mary, Fla, stores.

“Real service dogs don’t ride in carts,” the tweet read. “They cannot do their job if they are confined in a basket. Emotional support animals are NOT service dogs. People need to quit being frauds with their dogs.”

Still, this isn’t likely to end here as folks tend to really be attached to their pets, no matter the critter’s species. That means, we can expect that some shoppers will push the envelope, despite the new signs warning about an old store policy.

After all, pet owners can still purchase a “service animal” vest online. What’s to stop a customer from doing that and wrapping their little Teacup Yorkie in a pink vest and cradling it in her arms while strolling up and down the store aisles.

There is still a question of whether a Publix store manager can ask the owner whether the dog is a legit service animal. That’s apparently still forbidden under federal law…. so what then?

Take our poll, and tell us what you think:

Christie: Can Florida drivers get a pass from SunPass?… I hope so.

SunPass has been beset with problems since the start of an “system upgrade” in early June. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

A former boss of mine was fond of saying: “You know technology is working the way it should when you don’t have to think about it.”

I’m reminded of this because like tens of thousands of Florida drivers these days, I’ve been wondering what the heck is going on with SunPass — the state’s automatic billing/collecting platform for toll roads from Wildwood to Wilton Manors.

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You see, if you drive a good amount for work or pleasure — especially between Interstate 4 and Alligator Alley — SunPass is one of those “conveniences” that we’ve all come to despise and depend on every day.

That’s why the mess that has been made of the online toll system since June 1 has got so many drivers who frequent Florida’s Turnpike, for example, spouting more noxious fumes than their vehicles.

And now these drivers — many, taxpayers footing the bill for this botched “upgrade” — are beginning to question whether they should shoulder the burden of tolls. And rightly so.

Around June 5, the SunPass Centralized Customer Service System went offline for what was supposed to be a week’s worth of upgrades. But work on the system dragged on for nearly a month, during which time SunPass customers continued to accumulate toll charges, but could not track them.

RELATED: Florida is still paying SunPass contractor, even after officials said they would stop

Many SunPass users have had difficulty using the customer service website, call line and app, and have seen wrong charges posted to their accounts — or no charges posted at all, despite passing through toll booths. Conduent State & Local Solutions, which has a $287 million contract with the state to run customer service technology for Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, is working through a backlog of at least 100 million charges that weren’t processed.

Even though its tolling problems still haven’t been resolved, the state amended a second contract with Conduent on July 1, awarding the company about $100,000 more — paid in $10,000 monthly increments — to install new tolling software, hardware and equipment.

SunPass users are understandably pissed. And one can hardly blame them.

The state seemed to be a bit perturbed too. Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Dew called the delays “completely unacceptable.”

“The department anticipates and expects that Conduent will continue to improve the operations of the SunPass call center, the website interface, the functionality of the mobile application interface and the availability and reliability of SunPass Plus, so that SunPass customers are provided the premium level of service they are entitled to expect,” Dew wrote in a July 16 letter to Conduent President David Amoriell.

Amoriell advised the week prior that the company had already made “substantial improvements in recent weeks and will continue to strive for your complete satisfaction.”

The issues remaining from the upgrade include the effectiveness of the SunPass website and mobile application; issues related to multiple charges being applied through the payment processing system; and problems with the expanded SunPass Plus application at airports, which was slow or unavailable in responding to airport gate systems when customers entered or exited parking facilities.

MIAMI– Sunpass-only Express lanes entrance sign on the Northbound I-95 Express lanes between I-195 and NW 61st Street. (Miami Herald Staff Photo by John VanBeekum)

As part of the conversion, SunPass Plus parking was expanded from Orlando International Airport to include Miami International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Palm Beach International Airport and Tampa International Airport.

But since then, both PBIA and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood have shut down the SunPass Plus application because it was still having problems.

Dew, in the July 16 letter, told Maryland-based Conduent that the state was halting payments to the company until all the changes in the $287 million SunPass Centralized Customer Service System project are deemed “fully operational.”

Not so, according to Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ website. A day after Dew sent the letter, FDOT paid Conduent more than $265,000. On July 19, FDOT paid Conduent almost $10,000 more.

The second payment was tied to a different 10-year contract with Conduent worth more than $13 million that was signed in April 2017. According to the CFO’s website, that contract is for Conduent to provide “information technology consultation services” as a “toll equipment contractor” — the same service as the first contract.

RELATED: SunPass customer starts petition to waive tolls citing botched upgrade

Meanwhile, according to The Palm Beach Post’s Jodi Wagner, Orlando food delivery driver Mike DiMauro has started a petition asking SunPass to waive all tolls incurred by customers during the disruption of service to its customer service system. DiMauro also wants Conduent to pay for them.

“Why should we, the SunPass customers, pay for the tolls during their outage?” he told Wagner. “It’s SunPass and Conduent’s fault, not ours. Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi should go after Conduent and sue them for the toll money during the outage, not getting it collected from the customers.”

A novel idea? One that could certainly catch on?

DiMauro began his petition, in part, because he expects to be hit with a huge bill once all his transactions are posted. The petition, which has been shared on social media, was at 2,221 signatures as of Friday morning. DiMauro is still hoping to get more.

“I hope to get the attention of the state government and have action be done so that it would help the drivers out there,” he said.

Are you a SunPass customer? Take our poll and leave your comments here…

Christie: Charter schools don’t need a specific percentage of the special tax increase

The Palm Beach County School Board is expected to approve a ballot initiative to hike property taxes to pay for among other things, arts and music classes, school security and teacher pay hikes. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

The Palm Beach County School Board is set to vote Wednesday on a ballot measure that it proposes to put before taxpayers in November.

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That measure, if approved by 51 percent of county voters, will add a special $1 of tax per $100,000 of property value. It will replace the 25 cents that has been levied on county taxpayers since 2014 to pay for arts and music teachers, we all as physical education and choice programs.

The special four-year levy, which has been approved twice overwhelmingly — in 2010 and 2014 — by voters, would be replaced by the new levy.

There’s also another twist: the school board doesn’t want charter schools mentioned in the ballot language.

I agree; largely because adding them is not necessary to make sure that charters are able to participate in the voters’ hoped-for largess. The other is the more obvious lack of accountability.

And therein lies the beginning of the rub.

This is just what it sounds like: an all-or-nothing proposition for the school district.

Faced with yet another unfunded mandate by the Florida Legislature — this time to pay for school security, mental health services — the district has little choice. Board members are also boxed in by lagging teacher pay that has reached a near-crisis point in teacher turnover.

And that won’t be the only argument they’ll have to make to the public.

Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy, at the behest of the board, has come back with a recommendation that charter schools not be given a percentage of the estimated $200 million to be raised annually from the special tax.

Fennoy, to his credit, had earlier suggested that charters should get a designated piece of the pie. The still-fledgling schools chief had read the political and legal tea leaves, and determined that it would be easier to include charters than risk a public fight that could torpedo the ballot measure.

But again, his bosses would have none of it. Fennoy returned last week with another (surprise!) legal opinion that cleared the way for excluding charters from the ballot language

RELATED: In reversal, PBC schools chief says to exclude charters in tax push

It’s a little confusing if you’re a voter trying to figure out whether to support the measure. But that’s politics.

Be that as it may, the school board was correct to send Fennoy back to the drawing board on this one. As I said, his political and legal instincts were good, but this school board has a history of playing hard ball with charters over the issue of accountability. And rightly so. This district has had its share of poorly run charters that it has carried, and allowed to continue operating despite their problems.

The district must, above all else, be good stewards of taxpayers dollars — especially when you’re going back to the well so soon. It’s not bottomless, after all.

Also, this doesn’t mean that charters will get nothing for much-needed security and mental health services. That would be foolish on the district’s part. It just means that charter schools — which are privately run — will likely be allocated dollars and resources much the same way as traditional public schools.

But all of that has to be hashed out, and it’s possible that charter school advocates won’t want to wait for the district to show its good faith. I hope that’s not the case.

Because a public fight would have many voters on both sides of the issue wondering whether the school board is making the right call, and not vote in favor of the ballot initiative.

That would only punish those students who need and deserve the continued support of arts and music classes, and teachers who deserve to finally receive a decent pay raise.

Take our poll and tell us what you think here:

Christie: Let’s take a breath, think about this ‘Abolish ICE!’ thing

About 15,000 New Yorkers march in support of immigrant families and to condemn the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policies on June 30. (Erik McGregor / Sipa USA/TNS)

In an election year, one side is always looking for that pivotal issue that will pump up passion among voters and give their side an advantage over the other.

For the left that has been the immigration issue. President Donald J. Trump all but handed his haters the equivalent of a gimme when he instituted a “zero-tolerance policy” for those crossing illegally into the U.S. A policy that resulted in children — some less than a year old — being dispassionately separated from their parents at our southern border.

Pictures and audio captured the immigration mess that bordered on an atrocity, and help Trump’s detractors paint him and his administration as heartless. It looked like a winning strategy at the polls, as the overwhelming majority of Americans detested the child separations.

The president backtracked and reversed, and is still stumbling over the issue.

But the left — and some Democrats — maybe a little drunk on their success,  have possibly taken things too far.

“Abolish ICE” makes for a good rallying cry. But demanding the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also provides Trump — and the right  — with a useful weapon for bludgeoning Dems politically. And a significant portion of the American public will agree.

LOS ANGELES, CA – Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the Families Belong Together – Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)

Democratic Sens. Sen Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, and Kamala Harris, of California, have all pounded the issue at Senate hearings and public rallies. But no one was taking it too seriously.

Then, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — stunned the New York Democratic establishment, and the nation, with her primary victory last month over 10-term U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley. Part of her platform: Abolish ICE!

And now, the slogan, has caught on with the left and threatens to steamroll the Democratic agenda — whatever that is at the moment.

Yes, “Abolish ICE!” is usually followed with, “Replace it with something else,” but nobody’s listening to that part.

All the masses hear — both on the left and the right — is “Abolish ICE!” Well, on the right, they also hear, “We want open borders!”

And that’s been the left’s election-year give back to Trump. He has said as much.

President Donald Trump has gone the attack against Democratic lawmakers who have called for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seeking to seize political advantage on an issue that has put him on the defensive for weeks and offer a winning message for Republicans facing a forbidding midterm election. (Al Drago / The New York Times)

What’s frustrating is that beyond being a nice slogan, abolishing ICE is no more a serious policy proposal than claiming Mexico’s “gonna pay for the wall.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, elections have consequences. Those include changes in policy, not typically the creation or elimination of whole agencies. If Americans don’t like ICE’s current enforcement polices, the public should demand a change in those policies, or a change in the leaders who promulgate those policies. During the Vietnam War, millions of Americans demanded an end to the war; no one seriously demanded that we abolish the entire U.S. Defense Department. That would be stupid as it would have completely compromised our national security.

Getting rid of ICE is not on that level, but it would definitely compromise public safety. ICE is a law-enforcement agency. It consists of essentially two components: enforcement and removal operations (ERO), and homeland security investigations (HSI), which is dedicated to the investigation of cross-border crimes such as smuggling dangerous drugs and contraband, the theft of intellectual property, child pornography and human trafficking.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (AP Photo / Andrew Harnik)

In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson:

“During the last three years of the Obama administration, when I headed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), President Barack Obama gave me the policy direction to focus ICE’s deportation resources on recent border crossers and those undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. We did that. In those years, the number of deportations from the interior United States went down, but the percentage of those deported who were serious criminals went up. We stripped away the barriers that existed between ICE and so-called sanctuary cities. By the time I left office, 21 of the 25 largest jurisdictions that had refused to comply with ICE detainers – written requests to delay the release of people arrested by local law enforcement – had signaled a willingness to work with ICE again in pursuit of the most dangerous undocumented criminals.

RELATED: ‘Abolish ICE’: What is Immigration and Customs Enforcement and what does it do?

As we at Homeland Security asked ICE to focus more on criminals, we heard pleas from many in the enforcement and removal operations workforce whose pay had been capped at an arbitrary ceiling; we put them on the same pay scale with their law-enforcement peers. All this was a good step in the direction of public safety, and it was good for morale. In 2016, my last year in office, the morale within ICE’s 20,000-person workforce increased 7 percent, according to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Meanwhile, I constantly reminded ICE leadership that controversial, high-profile cases of fathers torn from their families and students pulled from their schools for deportation would turn ICE into a pariah in the very communities where its agents must work, and would threaten to undermine ICE’s larger public-safety mission. I regret to watch that happening now, as ICE is vilified across the country and sanctuary cities are emboldened to proclaim themselves as such. My thoughts are with the hardworking men and women of the agency caught in the middle of this political firestorm.”

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All that these calls to abolish ICE have done so far is further divide the public — and its which-ever-way-the-wind-blows politicians — and hinder already slim chances at immigration reform. No wonder running against Washington remains such a popular campaign tactic.

Immigration reform is something most Americans believe that we need. How to get there has been the sticking point for more than 30 years.

A zero-tolerance policy that removes toddlers from their parents at the border is not the answer. But neither is outright abolishing ICE.

Christie: Drivers shrug off higher gas prices for 4th of July, summer travel

Gas prices, which surged ahead of the July 4th holiday, are expected to keep rising through the summer. Pump prices are already the highest since 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

After weeks and weeks of dueling stories about whether gas prices will continue to go up ahead of the July 4th holiday, the consensus seems to have settled on consumers paying more at the pump.

RELATED: Christie: Um… so what’s going on with these rising gas prices?

According to Gas Buddy, which as late as last week was proclaiming a drop in the highest gas prices drivers have seen in four years, motorists hitting the road to celebrate the July 4 holiday will be shelling out an average of $2.90 per gallon, the highest Independence Day gas prices since 2014, when the national average hit $3.66 per gallon.

“Oil has surged over 10 percent just in time for summer’s busiest travel holiday, costing motorists over $1 billion more than last year,” Patrick DeHaan, a GasBuddy analyst, said in a news release. “All the ingredients exist for the national average to inch closer to $3 per gallon, just in time for the second half of the summer.”

But whether that will cause drivers to curtail or even change their travel plans is altogether another question; and most analysts don’t believe it will. They expect a record-breaking number of Americans to travel by car this holiday, and traffic to be at its worst on Tuesday in the late afternoon.

Motorists are expected in record numbers this week despite higher gas prices. ( Bloomberg / Patrick T. Fallon)

AAA, which has tracked travel numbers over Fourth of July for the last 18 years, reports that the number of on-the-road travelers will be up 5 percent from 2017. That’s despite gas prices going up an average of 62 cents across the country from a year ago.

Again, we are still pretty far from the 2014 national average and most analysts don’t believe motorists will be jarred into changing their driving habits until the price hits the psychological threshold of $3 per gallon.

They might not have to wait for long. Higher prices are expected to hang around all summer. After five-straight weeks of prices dropping, gas prices are likely to increase again as oil prices surged to $73 per barrel late Thursday, the highest since 2014. The U.S. State Department ordered buyers to curb their oil purchases from Iran by November. In addition, OPEC’s smaller-than-expected oil production increase last week fueled speculation that global inventories will continue to drop, and a government report showed U.S. oil inventories dropped three times as much as expected as total petroleum exports from the U.S. hit a new record high.

President Donald Trump said Saturday that he had received assurances from King Salman of Saudi Arabia that the kingdom will increase oil production, “maybe up to 2,000,000 barrels” in response to turmoil in Iran and Venezuela. Key OPEC member Saudi Arabia acknowledged the call took place, but mentioned no production targets.

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One as he travels to his resort in Bedminster, N.J. on Saturday. Trump said that he was pressuring Saudi Arabia and OPEC to increase oil production. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Trump wrote on Twitter that he had asked the king in a phone call to boost oil production “to make up the difference…Prices to (sic) high! He has agreed!”

A little over an hour later, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported on the call, but offered few details.

“During the call, the two leaders stressed the need to make efforts to maintain the stability of oil markets and the growth of the global economy,” the statement said.

It added that there also was an understanding that oil-producing countries would need “to compensate for any potential shortage of supplies.” It did not elaborate.

Well, there you go. We’ll have to see whether the Saudis honor any agreement with the president. And even if they do, whether it will have the desired effect of pushing down gas prices.

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Regardless, even with high gas prices, most motorists aren’t likely to curtail their travel during the most popular summer holiday, due to its appeal and rich tradition celebrating the nation’s birthday.

AAA says that the Fourth of July falling on Wednesday this year has given travelers more flexibility to schedule trips either the weekend before or after the holiday. That could account for the increase is drivers this year.

Are high gas prices having an effect on your travel plans?