Florence Snyder - 7/8 - SaintPetersBlog

Florence Snyder

Florence Beth Snyder is a Tallahassee-based lawyer and consultant.

Florence Snyder: A postcard from the movies

A Tallahassee theater on a holiday weekend is a lonely place, especially if the film is The Hunting Ground, a documentary examination of sexual assault on college campuses.

Frat boys and football players raping young women and young men is not a popular topic in a town where the money-making machinery revolves around Greeks and jocks.  If adults talk about it at all, it’s to tut-tut about the binge drinking and the hook-up culture, as if adults hadn’t been the ones profiting from peddling both to the millennials since they were born.

Campus sexual assault is not a new problem. In the 20th century, universities stopped acting in loco parentis and a lot of Baby Boomers were violated by people they had thought of as friends. Some never spoke of it until years later, and others will carry the stories to their graves.

The millennials we meet in The Hunting Ground are, thankfully, different.

Consider Andrea Pino.  The daughter of a Cuban immigrant, Pino went to high school in Miami.  She was class valedictorian and a virgin when she arrived at her dream college, the University of North Carolina.

She looks straight into the camera and recalls the weekend before freshman classes began. She was slow dancing with a “nice boy, a good dancer” she met at a nightclub.

Then, “he pulled me into the bathroom … slammed my head on the tile … why was no one coming? Why am I not screaming? … When you’re scared and you don’t know what’s happening to you, you just hope you won’t die …”

Pino survived, graduated, and co-founded a nonprofit called End Rape on Campus.

It wouldn’t be that hard to do. Less than 8 percent of male students commit 90 percent of the rapes. Practice makes perfect, and predators know that the deck is stacked in their favor.

The Hunting Ground is packed with statistics and on-the-record interviews illustrating the ways in which university administrators and faculty are incentivized to silence victims and enable predators. The brave young women and men working to reverse those incentives are aided by Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, who contributed Till It Happens to You to the film’s soundtrack.  The song isn’t very subtle, nor should it be.  The time for subtlety is over.

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A postcard from Tallahassee Tiger Bay

Skip Foster, the new publisher at the Tallahassee Democrat, was greeted as a liberator in his maiden speech to the Capital Tiger Bay Club.

The gray-haired eminences who make up the Club’s membership know the difference between a good newspaper and a Chamber of Commerce rag. They’re embarrassed that the Times – New York and Tampa Bay — regularly come to town to break stories that were there, sometimes for years, for the Democrat’s taking.

Mike Pate, the last publisher to serve at the Democrat before it was sold to Gannett by Knight-Ridder, set the stage for Foster’s highly anticipated appearance with a series of jokes about Foster’s predecessor, who “few of us ever saw” and the recently departed executive editor who had a disturbing propensity to write about his exercise program.

Foster gave the people what they wanted to hear.

The “sacred mission of holding the powerful accountable.”

Check.

A fulltime Capitol reporter.

You betcha.

A strong editorial voice that “may get latched to issues, but not to people.”

Working on it.

Time will tell whether Foster has the clout at Gannett and the competence in the trench to make the Democrat a newspaper that readers can once again trust.

The early signs are not promising.

The day after Foster spoke to Tiger Bay, his paper launched, on its front page, a Russian novel-length series of reports on infant mortality and low-birthweight babies bearing the corporate logo of one of Tallahassee’s two hospitals.

Readers can be forgiven for thinking that this is a business model that is very much “latched to people,” and very much not conducive to “the sacred mission of holding the powerful accountable.”

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Florence Snyder: Postcard from a cold case

A half-century after an unsolved murder, who did the crime is less important that what the crime did to those left behind.

The October 22, 1966, murders of Robert and Helen Sims and their 12-year-old daughter Joy changed Tallahassee, overnight, from a place where everyone trusted everyone to a place where the unspeakable could happen to anyone.

Sims, a pioneering information technology official with the state Department of Education, and his wife and youngest child were slaughtered that night in their home on a quiet cul de sac in Midtown. Their bodies were discovered by their teenage daughters who had been out babysitting for family friends attending the Florida State-Mississippi football game.

The dad for whom the older girls baby-sat was among the packed house at the Tallahassee City Commission Chambers recently for a public lecture on the cold case by local historian Henry Cabbage.

“Robert Wilson Sims was my boss, and my best friend,” he said. You could hear the pain, regret, and self-reproach in the old gentleman’s voice. “I was a good dad. I drove them home, and waited until they were inside the house before driving away…..”

If it didn’t occur to parents to search for bogeymen before the Sims murders, it occurred to their children after.

One woman, then a young mother and Sims’ family neighbor, described how her child, a playmate of Joy’s, began to insist upon frequent room-to-room searches. The murders on the street where they lived made it impossible to sell. Neither could they stay because their child was too traumatized. They ended up giving their house back to the bank, a financial hit from which the family never recovered.

Crime scene investigations were primitive in those days. In the absence of science, rumors were easy to start and hard to extinguish.  Among the casualties of the Sims’ murders was the good name of a prominent pastor alleged to have been having an affair with Mrs. Sims, simply because she had worked as a church secretary.

The pastor had an airtight alibi, and people who were close to the Sims family are, after all these years, enraged by the slander. Sims’ friend and DOE colleague “didn’t believe ‘the affair’ for a second. Those were two people who loved each other.”

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Halsey Beshears supports small government, except when he doesn’t

State Rep. Halsey Beshears (R-Not From Panacea) supports small government, except when he doesn’t.

Beshears was elected to the House in 2012 from Monticello, in Jefferson County. He’s all in for making a city out of Panacea, located in Wakulla County, inside his sprawling district, but an hour’s drive and a world away from where he lives and works.

Florida law requires approval from the Wakulla County Commission and from the Legislature before there can be a City of Panacea, where the locals can be taxed to pay for a council, a manager and other bureaucracy that Republicans generally think we need less of.

Last Tuesday, Beshears went before the House Local Government Affairs Subcommittee carrying water for Panacea Waterfront Partnership, a group of Wakulla County One Percenters who are making their third attempt to create a City of Panacea. They contend that a city would be eligible for state and federal grants that would otherwise be off limits.
Beshears wasn’t very specific about whose pockets such grants would come from, nor whose properties and businesses would benefit. Wakulla County residents who are not members of the One Percent, on the other hand, were very specific in describing the ways in which their taxes would go up and their mom-and-pop businesses would be damaged if incorporation advocates prevail. Subcommittee Chair Debbie Mayfield  thanked them for their testimony before kissing off their concerns. Without discussion, the subcommittee unanimously blessed Beshears’ bill.
If Beshears succeeds in carrying HB 539 to the legislative finish line, the matter of incorporation would then come to a referendum vote June 30, and a five-member city council would be elected on August 18.
One wonders where the candidates will be coming from. Who knew there was such a pent-up lust to hold public office in a place where most people are barely getting by?
It’s one thing for the Legislature to defer to the wishes of a local lawmaker on a local issue. But the supine performance of Mayfield’s subcommittee was unsettling. You had the feeling that The Three Wise Men could have gone up against Beshears, and they’d have been blown off, too.
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Florence Snyder: In loving remembrance of Gus Harwell

By the time reporters like the Miami Herald‘s Mike Sallah and Carol Marbin Miller and Kimberly Miller of The Palm Beach Post took starter jobs at the Boca Raton News, 1960s-era Publisher Gus Harwell was long-gone to bigger jobs at Knight Newspapers. But his legacy as a reporter’s publisher continued to attract top young talent for years after he moved on to the Tallahassee Democrat and a corporate vice-presidency before retiring in 1995.

Harwell, who died last Friday in Port Orange at age 85, came to the News when Boca Raton had just become home to Florida Atlantic University.  The sleepy little town was about to explode, and three much bigger South Florida newspapers were looking to scarf up subscribers and advertisers.

Harwell and his editor, journalism legend Buzz Merritt, faced the better-funded competition with a simple strategy: Hire exceptional staff, treat them exceptionally well, and cover the living daylights out of Boca Raton.

“If it didn’t happen in Boca Raton, it didn’t happen,” Harwell would say. And if it did happen in Boca Raton, the News was going to be first and best with the story.

“Gus was hands-on,” said Skip Sheffield, who worked for the News from 1969 until it folded in 2009. “He got his hands dirty in the composing room, pasting up the paper.”

He was hands-off, too. Reporters never knew that some of their biggest stories came from tips Harwell picked up on the party circuit … and how many calls he took at home from big shots needing to blow off steam about stories they didn’t like.

Good reporters, the kind Harwell attracted, are a cranky, high-maintenance lot. “We grumbled,” Sheffield said. “We didn’t appreciate how good he was, and how good we had it.”

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Florence Snyder: Postcard from Red Hills Horse Trials

Tallahassee’s Red Hills Horse Trials isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for working-class people looking to spend a spring afternoon outdoors with the kids. It’s easy to feel intimidated by a United States Equestrian Association event that attracts an international crowd of die-hard members of the horsey set.

But the “suggested donation” of $15 is a whole lot less than a day at Disney. And the look on children’s faces as they sit on a family picnic blanket watching Olympic-level stadium jumping, cross-country, and dressage is priceless.

Once inside the Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park, located on one of the canopy roads the locals love to brag about, people who aren’t rich feel as much at home as on a Little League field. There’s a pricier assortment of merch and food to tempt shoppers, but no pressure to buy. Families are welcome to bring their own coolers; if you can’t lift it by yourself onto the StarMetro bus that shuttles you from the parking lot, there’s always a bystander willing to help.

Red Hills was midwifed in the mid-1990s by community volunteers Sylvia Ochs and Sallie Ausley. The idea came “like a lightning bolt out of the blue,” Ochs told Tallahassee Magazine in 2011. “Sallie and I heard that Tallahassee ecologist and horse enthusiast Colin Phipps was building a cross country course on his property called ‘The Farm’ off Meridian Road. He had asked Capt. Mark Phillips (Chef d’Equipe and technical adviser for the United States Equestrian Team and a former member of Great Britain’s Olympic team) to design it and Scotland’s Hugh Lochore to build it.

“Sallie and I had a lot of experience with horse trials, and we thought this was a great opportunity to establish a quality event in Tallahassee,” Ochs said. “Colin was very receptive, and Sallie and I began to twist every arm, bend every ear and look in every nook and cranny to find financial support.”

Now in its 17th year, Red Hills relies on the resources of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, the city of Tallahassee, Leon County, 100 committee chairs, and 400 volunteers to maintain the magic conjured up by Ochs and Ausley.

At any given picnic table, you might see vacationing school cafeteria lunch ladies snacking on popcorn with the ladies who lunch. There aren’t any name tags. You can’t tell the difference.

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Florence Snyder: Postcard from ‘The Process’

In Casablanca, “everybody goes to Rick’s” Cafe Americain.  In Tallahassee, everybody goes to Andrew’s Capital Grill.

Or Andrew goes to everybody, as he did last night, personally attending to the feeding and watering of 1,200 of Associated Industries’ closest friends at its annual eve-of-session cocktail party.

Andrew Reiss has been doing this since the party began, 28 years ago poolside at the old Ramada Inn.

Andrew hugs and smiles a lot more than the brooding, lovelorn character played by Humphrey Bogart. But in real life as in fiction, the saloonkeeper is like Carson the Butler from Downton Abbey.  He knows everything about everybody, and loves them anyway.

The Associated Industries annual blowout has a Vanity Fair Oscars party vibe, but it’s much easier for those who have not yet “arrived” to score a ticket. Twenty-somethings are all over the place. They sport new clothes, or new iPhones, like on the first day of school, and seek a wink, a handshake or a moment of small talk with the bold-faced names. Elected officials and lobbyists who flew in on their own private jets, are, for the most part, extremely gracious about it.  You never know who’s going to be the Next Rising Stars.

They might even come from the ranks of the college kids moving gracefully through the party with silver trays of hors’ d’oeurves.  Andrew has employed hundreds of them over the years. They learn as much about government tending bar in the courtyard of Associated Industries’ mini-Mansion two blocks down from Gov. Rick Scott’s local address as they do in their political science classes at FSU.

The Associated Industries party lends itself almost too easily to parody. It’s worth remembering that there are plenty of decent, committed, smart people in The Process looking to make a living doing the right things for the right reasons.

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Florence Snyder: In respectful remembrance of Ken Plante

“Revered lobbyist” is usually an oxymoron, but not when applied to Ken Plante, who died last night of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

As the tributes pour in, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when Plante was not beloved of government reformers and their cheerleaders on Florida’s editorial boards. But that’s how it was in 1976, when Plante was the lead plaintiff in a court challenge to Florida’s Sunshine Amendment.

The amendment had been championed by Gov. Reubin Askew and was overwhelmingly approved by voters in the wake of a series of shenanigans that had forced a number of elected officials and judges from office.

Plante thought the amendment went way too far in its requirement for financial disclosure.  He believed there were better ways of keepin’ ’em honest than the broad disclosures the Sunshine Amendment required of public officials. After losing the lawsuit, Plante gave up his seat in the Florida Senate and spent the rest of his professional life demonstrating that lobbyists can be successful, respected, and scandal free all at the same time.

The corruption that shocked Askew and inspired the Sunshine Amendment was small potatoes by 21st century standards, and in their emeritus years, Plante and Askew were united in the belief that the influence of money in the political process was out of control and a real threat to democracy.

In her definitive obituary for the Tampa Bay Times, Lucy Morgan reports that before their final illnesses, Plante and Askew worked with like-minded members of Florida’s greatest political generation to try to craft a constitutional amendment to limit that influence.

“With the death of Askew a year ago and Plante’s illness, the effort foundered and died,” Morgan wrote.

One by one, they are leaving us, these smart and independent thinkers who could and did have differences of opinion and play them out in epic court battles and still be friends.

Their memory is for a blessing, and their work goes on.

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As Sunshine Week concludes, meet a young woman from the ‘Old School’

Editor Lenore Devore thinks reporters should look at the wheat to be found in public records, and not the chaff of press releases peddled by taxpayer-supported ministers of disinformation.

So when the Lakeland Police Department’s “public information officer” stonewalled a young police reporter looking to flesh out details of a shooting, Devore did what good editors do.  She refused to let her newsroom take “no” for an answer.

That was in the fall of 2012, when the community and its newspaper had high hopes for Lakeland’s new police chief, Lisa Womack.  But Womack quickly proved to be Lakeland’s worst enemy, and her own.

As The Ledger uncovered instances of the department falsely claiming that records did not exist or could not be found, Womack candidly, if stupidly, admitted she plays a “cat-and-mouse” game with the press regarding Florida’s 100-plus-year-old public records law.

The State Attorney asked the grand jury to take a look, and The Ledger took the unusual step of allowing Devore and five of her reporters to testify under oath and behind closed doors.

Journalists usually resist being “part of the story,” and for good reason.  A newspaper’s credibility rests upon the public’s belief that the newsroom is working for readers, and not for the powers that be.

But The Ledger didn’t report anything to the grand jury that it had not already reported to its readers.

The grand jury issued a scathing report, expressing doubt as to Womack’s fitness to serve as police chief given her hostility toward her legal duty to be candid with the press and public.  The report remained secret for 10 months, as the city fought to keep it secret.

Meanwhile, honest people who knew things and trusted their newspaper began to come out of the woodwork. The more The Ledger dug, the more “new sources provided information from right under the chief’s nose,” said Devore.

The Ledger’s front page was awash in stories of sex scandal cover-ups by higher-ups.  A police captain, a city human resources chief, and 28 others were fired or forced to resign. There were reports of frat-boy “bra searches” designed to frighten and humiliate.

One officer was arrested on charges of sexual battery and stalking.

Another officer admitted to requiring DUI suspects to sign forms he had not yet filled out.  The State Attorney was forced to drop dozens of that officer’s cases, and later concluded that “public safety is at risk in Lakeland.”

A year after The Ledger wrote its first story detailing problems with public records at the police department, the city lost its $220,000 fight to keep the grand jury report secret. A month later, the police chief resigned.

Lakeland’s credibility is in a mighty big hole, but the city fathers won’t stop digging. And neither will The Ledger, which recently reported that the city secretly hired a public relations firm and paid it $130,000 for fruitless and futile damage control.

You don’t have to live and pay taxes in Lakeland to appreciate this kind of dogged, persistent, meat-and-potatoes local reporting. Every community deserves an editor like Devore, but far too few communities have one.

Florence Beth Snyder is a Tallahassee-based lawyer and consultant.

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Spotted at Momo’s: Judge Terry Lewis’s launch party for his third crime novel, “Delusional”

Momo’s Pizza and Brew Pub looked more like a Bar convention Monday, as Terry Lewis, circuit court judge and mystery writer, presided over the launch party for his third crime novel, “Delusional.”

The popular pizzeria at Market Square was crowded with Lewis’ 2nd Circuit colleagues, as well as judges from the 1st District Court of Appeal and retired Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead; all stood in line to have their books autographed, and then held court with Lewis’ friends, family, and fans.

Lewis became a judge in 1989 and has been in the news often in connection with high profile cases that come before the trial courts in the capital city. His legal thrillers are published by Sarasota-based Pineapple Press, and “explore that ambiguous grey area that resides in the conflict between the law and morality.”

“Delusional” is available in bookstores and at terrylewisbooks.com.

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