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Mark Puente, Times Staff Writer

Mark Puente

Mark Puente covers Pinellas County government, including the constitutional officers and the way they operate their offices. Puente returned to the Tampa Bay Times in July after two years at The Baltimore Sun. He worked as an investigative reporter and was on the team that was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of the Freddie Gray saga and city's riots. His "Undue Force" series about police brutality led to reform efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Baltimore. The series won the Institute on Political Journalism's Clark Mollenhoff Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States.

He joined the Times in November 2010 and covered real estate issues as part of the Times' Business team until June 2012. He then covered St. Petersburg City Hall until March 2014. He spent more than five years with the Plain Dealer in Cleveland where he won multiple journalism awards for his investigative work. His reporting forced a 32-year sheriff in Ohio's largest county to resign from office in 2009 and plead guilty to theft-in-office charges.

He took a different path to journalism, logging more than 1 million miles in the cab of a semitrailer truck over 14 years. After leaving the trucking industry, Puente earned a political science degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has a wife and three sons. Go Tar Heels!

Phone: (727) 892-2996

Email: mpuente@tampabay.com

Twitter: @MarkPuente

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  1. Pinellas County to consider rules for medical marijuana

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– The Pinellas County Commission is slated to vote Tuesday on an ordinance to establish rules for growing, processing and selling medical pot in unincorporated areas of the county.

    But before the vote, commissioners could hear passionate pleas from critics and supporters of medical marijuana during a 6 p.m. public hearing.

    Under the current proposal, medical marijuana dispensaries would not be able to operate within 500 feet of schools, parks, libraries and religious facilities, but they could operate within 1,000 feet of another marijuana facility....

    The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday will consider new rules for growing, processing and selling medical pot in unincorporated areas of the county. [Washington Post]
  2. State Rep. Larry Ahern files to run for Pinellas County Commission

    Blog

    While the Florida Legislature is still in session, one Pinellas lawmaker is already eyeing another job.

    State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, filed paperwork this week to run for the Pinellas County Commission District 6 being vacated next year by commissioner John Morroni.

    Ahern won reelection for the third time in November to the Florida House in a rematch against Democratic opponent Lorena Grizzle. This will be his fourth and final term in the House....

    State Rep. Larry Ahern has filed to run for the Pinellas County Commission seat being vacated next year by John Morroni.
  3. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri: New diversion program for minor offenses is working

    Crime

    CLEARWATER — A diversion program launched in October across Pinellas County has helped more than 450 people avoid criminal records for low-level offenses, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri reported to the County Commission on Tuesday.

    The Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program, an ambitious criminal justice reform that Gualtieri set up last year, allows adults arrested for low-level crimes to avoid jail by completing community service, counseling or drug treatment. The program is aimed at eliminating arrest records for minor offenses, which make it difficult for people to find jobs and housing....

    Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says the program’s guidelines are strict, but aim to help people.
  4. Tax foes not confident they can stop renewal of Penny for Pinellas sales tax in 2017

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER — The anti-tax foes that helped defeat the Greenlight Pinellas transportation sales tax in 2014 don't believe they can thwart the coming renewal of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. The 30-year tax is coming up for another vote in November.

    But critics of the penny tax can still complain about it.

    Their latest complaint is that they don't stand a chance against the coordinated campaign under way from elected officials across Pinellas County who are using public funds to highlight to residents what the tax has paid for over past decades....

    Tarpon Springs has used Penny funds to shore up the Spring Bayou seawall. Mayor Chris Alahouzos has met with community groups about the tax and not encountered much opposition.
  5. Brush fire that shut down I-275 and Gandy interchange contained; mobile home park evacuated

    Fire

    ST. PETERSBURG

    The warning signs were all there: a persistent drought, a huge drop in rainfall going back to last year and heavy winds. The bay area started Friday under a "red flag warning" for wildfires. All that was needed was a spark.

    It came when a commercial lawn mower overheated and ignited the dry grass on Jabil Circuit's property in the Gateway area. The dry ground and strong winds caused the fire and smoke to quickly spread to the Interstate 275 interchange at Gandy Boulevard just as rush hour started....

    Firefighters are seen in the image provided to the Tampa Bay Times by the Florida Highway Patrol Friday, April 07, 2017 in St. Petersburg. Firefighters continued battling a brush fire that has blocked traffic all around the Gandy Boulevard and Interstate 275 interchange, creating a traffic nightmare for Friday evening commuters.
  6. Pinellas sheriff: Fugitive, 48, killed after firing on deputies on Ulmerton Road; no deputies injured (w/video)

    Crime

    LARGO — About 13 hours after learning of an armed fugitive, six sheriff's deputies shot and killed a 48-year-old man Thursday when he opened fire on detectives during a traffic stop, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

    The shooting occurred about 3:30 p.m. outside the WingHouse at 7369 Ulmerton Road. No deputies or bystanders were injured.

    Richard Xavier Summers, who the Sheriff's Office said has a long and violent criminally history, missed a recent court appearance for a fraud charge. Deputies got a tip from a bailbondsman that Summers was armed, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri....

    A handgun is seen in this image courtesy of the  Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The Pinellas County Sheriff?•s Office was investigating a deputy-involved shooting that left one person dead Thursday afternoon at a restaurant on Ulmerton Road.
  7. Mayor Rick Kriseman makes his pitch for Tampa Bay Rays to stay put in St. Petersburg (w/video)

    Growth

    ST. PETERSBURG — Shortly before throwing out the first pitch at Tropicana Field on Wednesday evening, Mayor Rick Kriseman made a much more important pitch to the Tampa Bay Rays: Stay put.

    Kriseman and other officials gathered across the street at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill to tout a glossy 43-page report the city prepared for the team outlining why the 85-acre Trop site is the best place in the Tampa Bay region to build a new baseball stadium. Most of the city's talking points have been discussed before....

    St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Wednesday unveiled the city's pitch to keep the Rays in the city, playing in as new stadium that would replace Tropicana Field. But no financial details were released about how the city would keep the baseball team from leaving. [SCOTT KEELER    |    Times]
  8. Pinellas County ambulance service Sunstar is for sale

    Local Government

    The Texas company that provides ambulances across Pinellas County announced Thursday that it will sell the service.

    The move comes less than two years after Paramedics Plus, the parent company of Sunstar Paramedics, renewed a contract with Pinellas County in 2015. The firm has provided ambulance services in Pinellas County since at least 2004.

    Paramedics Plus announced they are seeking a "strategic" buyer and have engaged an investment banking firm to assist in the process, according to an email sent to the Pinellas County's Emergency Medical Services Authority. That group consists of 24 citizens, elected officials, administrators and first responders....

    Paramedics Plus of Texas, which owns Sunstar and provides ambulance service across Pinellas County, announced Thursday it is selling the service it has operated since 2004. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]

  9. Under new leadership, Pinellas construction board starts judging contractors again

    Local Government

    LARGO — For years, a Pinellas County committee judged complaints against contractors without legal guidance, or transparency, or even rules.

    SPECIAL REPORT: Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process...

    Gay Lancaster, interim executive director at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, leads a committee meeting Wednesday where the agency ruled on homeowners' complaints against contractors. It's the first time the panel has met in weeks, after a Tampa Bay Times investigation raised questions about the way the agency operates and treats consumers and contractors. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  10. Mayor Rick Kriseman: Ridership numbers show a need for ferry service between Tampa and St. Petersburg

    Transportation

    CLEARWATER — With the ferry service between St. Petersburg and Tampa ending in April, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman vowed in front of the Pinellas County Commission to find money to help bring it back in November.

    During a 30-minute presentation Tuesday, Kriseman told the commission that his staff is contacting federal and state officials to see what is required for those governments to possibly contribute money for the temporary service. ...

    The Cross Bay Ferry has run between St. Petersburg and Tampa since November. Its test run was funded through April.
  11. Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni says he'll retire next year

    Local

    CLEARWATER — After representing residents for 25 years, Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election to a fifth term in 2018.

    His political retirement ends a career that started when he served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1992 to 2000. The Treasure Island Republican was elected to the County Commission's District 6 seat in 2000 and chaired the board in 2005, 2012 and 2015....

    Morroni
  12. Pinellas County Commission: There were no kickbacks in ambulance contract

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– After agreeing to pay $92,700 toward a federal lawsuit involving ambulance-service kickbacks in Texas, Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday delivered a message to residents: No kickbacks took place in their county.

    "It's an incendiary word," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "None of that money went into any employees' pockets."

    The comments came in response to a 2014 federal whistleblower lawsuit that alleged Pinellas County's Emergency Medical Services Authority received improper payments from the Paramedics Plus, the parent company of Sunstar Paramedics, in return for awarding contracts to provide the county's ambulance service....

    Pinellas County on Tuesday agreed to pay $97,200 settlement related to a federal whistleblower lawsuit in Texas involving its ambulance service but denied any wrongdoing. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
  13. Pinellas County must pay $163,800 in federal kickback lawsuit

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER — The government authority that oversees ambulance service in Pinellas County has agreed to pay $163,800 to settle its part of a lawsuit that claims it took kickbacks.

    The federal whistle-blower lawsuit alleges Pinellas County's Emergency Medical Services Authority received improper payments from the Paramedics Plus, the parent company of Sunstar Paramedics, in return for awarding contracts to provide the county's ambulance service....

    Pinellas County's Emergency Medical Services Authority has agreed to pay $163,000 related to an illegal kickack scheme with Sunstar Paramedics. It is the parent company of Paramedics Plus, which runs the county's ambulance services. The county has denied the allegations. A former company executive filed the suit in Texas. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
  14. Pasco County man pleads guilty to hate crime in federal court

    Crime

    TAMPA — A 45-year-old Pasco County man on Friday pleaded guilty to a hate crime in U.S. District Court for his role in a burning a cross in a black neighbor's yard on Halloween night in 2012.

    The U.S. Attorney's Office announced that Thomas Herris Sigler III pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring with others to threaten, intimidate and interfere with an interracial couple's enjoyment of their housing rights. No sentencing details were released....

    Sigler
  15. Lone state bill to reform Pinellas construction licensing board is killed

    Local Government

    When a controversy erupted in November over possibly faked nominations to serve on the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, state lawmakers vowed to craft new legislation that would make the nomination process more transparent....

    State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.