Last updateFri, 18 Apr 2014 10pm


Jumping ropes to jumpstart healthy hearts


Photo special to Alachua County Today

Haylee Miller jumping rope at last year's event. Jump Rope for
Heart aims to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

ALACHUA – Irby Elementary is thinking about hearts this Valentine’s Day.

Irby Elementary School is holding its annual Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser next week.

If weather permits, the event, a school wide fundraiser, will be from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in the bus loop of the school on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

“We are going old-school this year,” said Aimee Pricher, co-coordinator of the event. Instead of using the cafeteria, the school will be jumping rope in the U-shaped bus loop. If it is raining, they will reschedule to Thursday morning, Feb. 13.

This year will be the 38th anniversary of the American Heart Association, and the event is designed to raise money for the organization’s cause, as well as to educate children.

Jump Rope for Heart is aimed not only to raise money, but to promote healthy habits.

“It’s a chance for kids to help themselves by getting healthy, and help others by raising money and awareness,” said Ray Crone, physical education teacher and co-coordinator of the event.

The event aims to promote health awareness within the family and the community of Alachua. Crone is educating his students to live a healthy lifestyle with good food, exercise and adequate sleep. He hopes this will carry the students into adulthood and to practice with their families.

“It’s had a really positive impact. Irby has been jumping for nearly 20 years,” Crone said. This is his 13th year handling the event.

The event also raises money for the school. For every $2,000 raised, the school will receive vouchers from the American Heart Association in order to pay for equipment and rump ropes to promote healthy living.

The event is expected to have 650 to 700 people jumping rope, and the aim is to raise around $8,000 for the cause. Last year’s event made $7,500.

“It’s a tradition, and it’s doing justice at this school,” Crone said.

The American Heart Association is giving out plastic golf-ball-sized ducks as an incentive for raising funds. They have ninja ducks, glowing ducks and striped ducks. Ducks will be given out for every $5, $15, $35 and $75 raised.

“The kids are really excited about the ducks. My last class wouldn’t stop talking about them,” Crone said.

Crone has a series of warm-ups and activities for the kids to do for the occasion. He has also been playing videos for the kids from the American Heart Association, which educates children on sick hearts and ways to live healthier. He has been incorporating these lessons into his physical education classes at the school.

“It’s a culminating event,” Pricher said.

There will also be individual jump-ropers, small groups and big groups during the event, so everyone can join in.

“The entire school participates at the same time. It’s unique,” Pricher said.

Everybody gets involved, Pricher said. “Everybody does a little bit of everything,” she said.

“It’s just a really feel good event.”

#     #     #

Email berickson@

Add a comment Add a comment

Newberry's watermelon festival turns 69 this year

W - Watermelon

Photo special to Alachua County Today

Two women eating watermelon at last year's festival. The event is one of the longest running festivals in the country.

 NEWBERRY – In 1946, the City of Newberry held a watermelon festival to celebrate the end of the Second World War and to embrace the country’s return to prosperity after the Great Depression. There was a plentiful harvest of crops, and the residents of the town thought it was a fitting way to celebrate. That tradition continues today.

“As far as we can tell, it’s one of the longest continual festivals in the country,” said Kathi Lee Thomas, who now serves as the president of the festival after being its secretary since 1993.

The event is ushered in with a parade, followed by an auction and watermelon eating contests.

Residents then go head-to-head, competing to see who has the biggest melon, and the Watermelon Queen is named.

The search for the queen begins weeks before the festival, with a pageant for prospective watermelon royalty. Newberry’s queen takes on the role of an agricultural advocate as she competes at the state level.

Meagan Morgan became Florida’s queen a few weeks ago.

Morgan, born and raised in Chiefland and studying dental hygiene at Santa Fe College, became involved with Newberry during a Teen Queen pageant in 2012.

Her connections helped her prepare for the state watermelon pageant. She will compete in the national campaign in March 2015, after she spends the year promoting Florida watermelon agriculture by attending conventions. She will even be going to markets to help folks pick out the ripest watermelons.

“It should have a mellow, yellow belly, no bruises or scratches,” Morgan said. “Since it’s 92 percent water, it should be pretty heavy.”

She has had a passion for agriculture, and this is her way of becoming involved with Florida’s watermelon industry, one of the top producers in the country.

Morgan works with Florida Watermelon Association and Florida growers as a spokesperson to promote the watermelon market sustained by local agriculture.

“Once watermelon season starts in April, we will go somewhere different every weekend,” she said.

“We even have a convention planned for Canada, which will be pretty exciting.”

Festival day is May 17, at Destiny Community Church off Highway 26 in Newberry. All the proceeds go to the Watermelon Festival of Newberry, Inc. Scholarship Fund. The Florida Watermelon Queen becomes part of a large public relations campaign to promote Florida agriculture once she receives her crown, going to local super markets like Publix and Hitchcock’s to hand out fresh slices of watermelon, as well as going on farm tours, taking pictures with local growers and visiting schools.                   

#     #     #

Email cgrinstead@

Add a comment Add a comment

Newberry hunts for new manager

NEWBERRY – With City Manager Keith Ashby planning to retire in the upcoming months, the City of Newberry is turning its attention to finding a replacement.

The city has contacted the International City/County Management Association for help through their Range Rider program, said Mayor Bill Conrad.

Established in 1974, the Range Rider program assigns retired city managers as volunteers to provide counsel and advice. Newberry’s Range Rider, Dick Kelton, from Sanford, Fla, works as a volunteer with the League of Cities.

The city met with Kelton this week to plan a process to search for Ashby’s replacement.

Newberry will give Kelton salary expectations and criteria for education and experience, along with its goals for economic development and strengthening the sports tourism in the town.  

Ashby hasn’t received a pay raise since he came on board with the city, Conrad said.

“We’re aware of the fact that we’ll probably have to adjust our pay upwards,” he said.

Kelton will provide Newberry with salary ranges based on cities of a similar size and economy, relative to the experience and education of the city manager candidate. From there, they will refine the search criteria.  

He will then screen hundreds of applicants, bringing the list down to about 12 to 15, Conrad said. The City Commission will look at those and come up with the short list of about three to five candidates, followed by public hearings for each of the applicants.

Conrad said he hopes the process can be finished within the next three months, though it could take up to six. Ashby announced he plans to retire in three to six months in early January, but Conrad said he might stay on longer if the transition called for it.

“He’s really interested in making sure it’s a smooth transition,” Conrad said.

Ashby announced his impending retirement at a City Commission meeting, citing his age as a primary reason for wanting to leave. The 70-year-old has been the city manager for 10 years. Richard Blalock, recreation director, and Lowell Garrett, city planner, whom Ashby described as his right and left arms, respectively, also left the city recently.

He has had heart issues in the past year that resulted in two operations, and the stressful environment of running a city prompted Ashby to want to leave to spend more time with his wife and five children, Ashby said in an earlier interview.

#     #     #

Email cmckinney@

Add a comment Add a comment

Police department may face changes

HIGH SPRINGS – With the High Springs police chief Steve Holley on a month-long vacation and Sgt. Antoine Sheppard taking up the role of acting chief, officials have dismissed or remained silent about the possibility that Holley might step back down to the position of sergeant at the end of his leave.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Holley said in a Feb. 3 interview.

Holley met with City Manager Ed Booth last week, right before taking his time off, to discuss reorganizing the police department, he said. He declined to go into further detail.

“I can’t say anything more than that, really,” Holley said.

Booth did confirm an upcoming workshop to look at the possibility of reorganizing the police department.

“We will be looking at the whole organization of the department,” Booth said.

Commissioners will compare the organization of the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) with other police departments in cities with 5,000 to 6,000 residents to determine if changes should be made to improve services, he said.

“Our city currently lacks a detective and an accident investigator,” he said.

Holley built up 30 days of vacation time by covering other officers’ shifts, Booth said in a previous interview. He is taking the full 30 days.

“I put in a time off request, I really can’t talk about it,” he said.

Alachua County Today made a public records request for all email correspondence between Booth and Holley, but was unable to find any.

Florida’s Sunshine Law, passed in 1967, establishes a basic right of access to governmental meetings and records, including any emails to or from an official email account. The law does not cover informal, in-person meetings, however.

“I don’t use email for this exact reason,” Booth said, when asked about public records of conversations between him and Holley.

Holley took over after the interim chief, William Benck, resigned in January 2012 over disputes with the interim city manager, Jeri Langman.

After Benck left, Langman, over the span of three days, promoted Holley to sergeant and then again to police chief, which could have been in violation of the city’s contract with the police union, the North Florida Police Benevolent Association.

The contract establishes a process that has to be followed for a promotion, including a written exam and other specific procedures. These procedures were not followed, said Jim Troiano, former High Springs police chief who helped negotiate the contract.  

The memo advertising the position for police chief said the position requires a four-year degree. Holley has a two-year degree from Saint Petersburg College, formerly Saint Petersburg Junior College.

After Langman promoted Holley, Commissioner Bob Barnas, then vice mayor, said in a commission meeting that he would bring a sense of community and a new managerial style to the city.

Bob Barnas, Linda Gestrin and Dean Davis, then mayor, who had a majority on the commission, later made Langman the permanent city manager in February 2012.

During Holley’s tenure as chief of police, multiple complaints have been filed against him by his coworkers.

Angela Stone, currently working for the Office of the City Clerk, worked as an administrative assistant to the High Springs Police Department in 2012. In August of that year, she filed a complaint against Holley for creating a culture of fear in the workplace.

“My work environment is a hostile and an uncomfortable one, and it is and becomes worse daily,” she wrote.

Holley walked into Stone’s office with two others and asked if it intimidated her, she wrote.

Stone also claimed Holley went through her desk in order to find a key to the evidence room.

Former HSPD officer Adam Joy also filed a complaint against Holley last year with several grievances, including favoritism to personal friends.

According to Joy’s complaint, Holley gave friend and former shift partner, officer Ryan Scott, a key to the department and access to passwords.

“It appears more that officer Scott runs the department instead of Chief Holley,” he wrote. Holley confided everything in Scott, leaving other officers and supervisors in the dark, Joy complained.

The city received a letter of resignation from Scott on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

#     #     #

Email cmckinney@

Add a comment Add a comment

Moratorium on new subdivisions considered in High Springs

HIGH SPRINGS – Commissioners have several workshops coming up to help resolve a number of issues facing the city in the near future.

“We need to do more with less,” said City Manager Ed Booth. “The city has a lot of challenges to address. Commissioners and citizens need to be involved in deciding how the city will address these issues,” he said.

One possible outcome of workshops on the sewer system, currently scheduled to begin on Thursday, Feb. 20, could be a moratorium on new subdivisions that require sewer hookup. The city currently has numerous subdivisions and planned unit developments in the pipeline which will provide 700 to 800 new homes. Builders are averaging 50 residential buildings per year at this point.

“We don’t currently have the ability to serve any more subdivisions than those already approved,” he said.

This first workshop will focus on what Booth said is the most serious city sewer system issue, the failure of 10-year-old grinder pumps and their replacement costs. The workshop will be held at the High Springs Elementary School and Community Center to allow input from a larger group of city residents than usually are able to be accommodated at City Hall.

“We have 500 110-volt grinder pumps that are 10 years old,” Booth said. The cost to replace them is $2,500 each, not including installation.

The second workshop will focus on the city’s police department. The commission will look at how the department is organized and compare it to other departments in cities of a similar size, Booth said.

Officers are trying to investigate crimes and accidents at the same time. “We also need to look at dispatch to determine its effectiveness,” he said. Currently, 911 calls for fire services are routed through the county directly to the High Springs Fire Department. However, 911 calls for police services are received by the 911 center in Gainesville and the information is taken and sent to the High Springs Police Department. The only way to get direct city police services in High Springs is to dial their number directly.

The third area to be addressed is the city’s personnel manual. Issues concerning personal time off versus vacation and sick leave need to be addressed, Booth said. The city’s new employee union has made several recommendations, and the city attorney is in the process of reviewing the personnel manual. Recommendations for changes will be the subject of another workshop.

Booth also plans to talk with commissioners about the city’s land-use plan. North Central Florida Regional Planning Council is currently reviewing the plan for suggestions. “The plan was developed years ago for a different city and does not really reflect the issues we face in High Springs,” Booth said. “We want to create a plan that deals with the issues we actually face here,” he said.

#     #     #

Email cwalker@

Add a comment Add a comment