A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers
Tampa Bay Times — Dark clouds over government in the sunshine
There are the familiar, such as the annual attempt to keep secret the names of applicants to become university presidents. There are the new, such as the broad public records exemption sought for videos from body cameras worn by police. There are the unnecessary, such as efforts to keep email addresses secret. And there are the downright odd, such as a public records exemption related to academic research.
The Florida Legislature is at it again, preparing to poke more holes in some of the nation’s best sunshine laws that are designed to force government to operate in the open. Today kicks off Sunshine Week, an annual event that highlights the importance of public records and open government, and there are storm clouds in Washington and Tallahassee. At the highest levels of government, there is a remarkable lack of respect for transparency and access. If there is a silver lining, it’s that the indifference to playing by the rules has caught the public’s attention.
The quest for secrecy knows no political boundaries. President Barack Obama’s administration has earned its reputation as one of the least transparent in memory. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email account tied to a computer server in her private home is only the latest example, and her feeble defense that her only motive was convenience is unconvincing. The practical result was that her government emails were improperly protected from the eyes of Congress and the public.
In Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott circumvented state law and the Florida Constitution by ousting Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. The FDLE commissioner reports to the governor and Cabinet, and Bailey says he was told by the governor’s general counsel that the Cabinet members agreed with Scott it was time for him to go. Reaching that concurrence even with messages sent through Cabinet aides would violate the public meetings law.
The Bradenton Herald — Anna Maria Island in spotlight again – globally. For some, not in a good way
The three municipalities on Anna Maria Island, struggling to deal with the overcrowding that popularity brings, now have another claim to fame — as if islanders want any more notoriety.
Conde Nast Traveler selected Coquina Beach as having the best island beach sand in the United States and fifth best in the world.
That ought to bring even more tourists, especially with this notation:
“It’s laid-back, bordered by towering pines, and boasts perfect, unspoiled sand as fine as powder.”
The text also called Coquina “the opposite of South Beach,” signaling travelers weary of that scene.
The magazine’s paid circulation for print and digital editions stands at more than 800,000 with a total audience of 3.3 million. The average total household income of a reader exceeds $111,000 — people with money who enjoy traveling.
Last year’s sand renourishment project sure did a wealth of good for beach lovers. Maybe not so much for islanders, except those connected to the tourism and hospitality trades.
Speaking of which, Manatee County hotels, motels and resorts are packing them in, thanks to terrible weather in the Northeast and a rising economy.
With low vacancy rates and high demand as Southwest Florida’s popularity surges, hoteliers are raising rates. And visitors are not blinking.
Manatee County’s economy stands to benefit handsomely.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Government needs more sunshine
Florida has already enjoyed a week of “extra” sunshine with the advent of Daylight Saving Time. However, state and local governments that operate in the shade too often deserve to have more light shined on them.
Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual slate of activities around the nation aimed at raising the public’s awareness about the importance of open government. Its name refers to the so-called Sunshine Laws that guarantee public access to governmental records and meetings.
Florida in 1967 became the first state to pass an open-meetings law, and today boasts perhaps the strongest Sunshine Law in the nation. Yet every year, the Legislature passes exemptions that chip away at the public’s right to know. And every year surveys find local governments that, whether due to ignorance or intent, fail to abide by their legal responsibility to be open and accountable to their citizens.
Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet are being sued by The Florida Society of News Editors, the Associated Press and other media organizations for possibly violating the Sunshine Law by using staff members as behind-the-scenes conduits to discuss the firing of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. The Florida First Amendment Foundation has also requested that Attorney General Pam Bondi appoint a state attorney from outside Leon County to investigate whether the open-records laws were ignored during Bailey’s firing.
The Florida Times-Union — Government must respond to its owners, the people
The reason for openness in government can be summarized by the first three words of the Preamble of the Constitution: “We the People …”
All too often, those who work in government forget who they are serving.
Allowing the people to see how they conduct business is seen as an obstacle that only slows down progress.
“If only people understood us,” they constantly whine. Yet they don’t want to spend the time to communicate.
That’s why it’s important to celebrate Sunshine Week, which originated with the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 2002. Several states followed Florida’s lead, and now it is a national event timed to coincide with the birthday of Founding Father James Madison on March 16.
In recent years, the Times-Union has fought for the right of the people to be involved in local government.
Through a massive investigation that led to a grand jury presentment, the Times-Union helped change the culture in the City Council.
Now it’s routine for City Council members to hold “noticed meetings” to discuss issues that involve the public’s business. Those meetings must be posted, held in a reasonably convenient place and minutes must be taken. That’s the law in Florida.
The law does not provide special rights for journalists.
It applies to everyone.
Florida Today – Thumbs up: Space Coast jobs; Thumbs down: Cocoa Expo
Yes, Guv, keep those terms quiet
Thumbs up: Counter-intuitively, to Gov. Rick Scott’s appointees at the Department of Environmental Protection, who told regulators not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in official communication. Those directions, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, reflect the Scott administration’s belief that pollution doesn’t affect the atmosphere, temperatures or weather. We disagree with that view, based on the evidence. But by downplaying terms known to trigger political resistance among other conservatives, the DEP may inadvertently help Florida officials and scientists who are grappling with rising sea levels. Ironically, the governor is among those trying to prepare Florida for a wetter future (aka climate change). Says Popular Science: “Scott is confronting the effects of rising sea levels, whether he wants to call it climate change or not, and Floridians are likely to follow suit.”
Another foul by Expo owner
Thumbs down: To Cocoa Expo redeveloper Jeff Unnerstall for thumbing his nose at county safety rules and hosting college baseball games in an incomplete, unapproved facility. The sports complex off State Road 520 is still under construction after more than three years. The County denied Unnerstall a special event permit for the games because it is still an active construction site and lacks safety inspections and parking. But Unnerstall hosted college games anyway last week. He keeps complaining about red tape even after the county assigned a special building inspector to walk him through the process. Bad regulations? No, a bad developer.
The Gainesville Sun – Cheers and Jeers
Florida lawmakers aren’t content with just turning the state’s college campuses into shooting ranges.
They’re also considering allowing public school teachers to pack heat.
Jeer: The House K-12 Subcommittee, which voted 10-1 this week to pass a bill that would allow superintendents to let school employees and volunteers carry concealed weapons into classrooms.
The bipartisan vote shows lawmakers of both parties base their decisions on fear of the National Rifle Association rather than common sense.
Cheer: Home Van co-founder Arupa Freeman, for all her good work delivering food and supplies to the homeless for nearly 13 years.
She discontinued the service this month because she and other volunteers are getting older, but is still operating a small food pantry from her home.
Cheer and Jeer: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gets a cheer for a new rule banning the import and interstate transport of four species of large constrictor snakes, but a jeer for not going further in also banning boa constrictors.
Boas have been found in natural habitats in Florida, including in the Ocala National Forest in 2012. The exotic pet trade’s profits aren’t a good enough reason to risk allowing more invasive species to become established in our state.
Cheer: The winners of the first-ever Black History Month Essay Contest.
The winners of the contest, sponsored by the Alachua County Democratic Party, included an Asian-American, South African and African-American student.
As contest organizers noted, the diversity of the winners embodied the message of equality for which civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. fought.
The Lakeland Ledger — Voter Records: Database Must Be Fixed Now
Every year, it seems, the Legislature seeks to address some new election controversy, challenge or trend. Many of these ideas go nowhere, even some that might actually improve the voting experience.
So we’ll see what happens to a handful of such proposals this year, which include allowing voters who decline party membership — which amounts to one of every four Florida voters — to cast ballots in partisan primary elections, or expanding types of identification allowed at the polls.
One idea that appears to have a solid chance of passing in 2015 is creating an online voter registration system. If adopted, Florida would join 27 states that either permit their voters to register through cyberspace or will soon implement such a system. Democrats, many county elections supervisors and good-government groups, like the League of Women Voters, prefer that online registration be adopted soon.
It is an idea whose time has come, and we have previously endorsed it in this space. Online registration would be just one more aspect of life as lived in the 21st century. It would likely be cheaper. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that Arizona, for instance, watched its per-registration costs nosedive from 83 cents for each paper application to 3 cents for every online version. And since fighting voter fraud remains a priority, online registration seems secure. The NCSL reports that no voter fraud or security breaches have been reported in states where it is practiced.
The Miami Herald — Blocking the sunshine
Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press, nails it on our Other Views page: “The Freedom of Information Act and state open-records laws are powerful reporting tools. But it’s important to remember that they don’t exist just for journalists. They are there for everyone.”
Floridians, especially, should take his words to heart, because many lawmakers are working hard to chip away at their constituents’ ability to see how the state conducts their business.
Sunday starts that annual weeklong tribute to the public’s right to know — Sunshine Week. Media outlets like the Miami Herald are, of course, among its most ardent and engaged supporters, but access should be a concern for all.
Florida remains a pretty progressive state in this regard. At the very least, it has Sunshine and open-records laws on the books, giving the public the leverage it needs to access government information. However, over the years, elected officials have chipped away at the laws’ intent. There is now a chasm between the laws’ theory and the practice.
According to Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, “There’s not an agency in Florida that is responsible for enforcing open-meetings and public-records laws.” It’s especially discouraging when officials most responsible for ensuring transparency take a pass. That needs a fix.
When former FDLE chief Gerald Bailey and Gov. Rick Scott told conflicting stories about how Mr. Bailey came to leave his position, the severity of the ex-chief’s accusation — that he did not resign, but the governor had fired him — cried out for further investigation. But in the face of a formal allegation of collusion between Cabinet aides and Mr. Scott — a Sunshine Law violation — State Attorney Willie Meggs declined: “It doesn’t ring my bell,” he said. Unfortunately for the public, Pam Bondi, the state’s top law-enforcer — and Cabinet member — didn’t hear anything ding-a-ling, either.
In this legislative session, several bills are floating around that would further clamp down on vital information. A bill in the Senate would close access to the work history of law-enforcement officers and state workers such as those at the Department of Children & Families. That would mean that residents would never know if an officer, who repeatedly metes out, say, excessive force, has a history of such behavior. We would never find out if bad apples were dismissed from other departments, but allowed to float from job to job unaffected. The bill’s supporters cite public safety. We don’t think so.
The Orlando Sentinel — Protect the abused: Close threatening loopholes
In 1979, AT&T dialed up a successful advertising campaign powered by the slogan, “Reach Out and Touch Someone.” The jingle soothed the communal despair of increasing disconnection by relaying the comforting notion that anyone separated by distance still could connect meaningfully via Ma Bell.
For most, the thought of someone reaching out and touching you with a phone call stands as a cheering thought. Not the case, however, in Florida for domestic-violence survivors who’ve endured someone laying hands on them. In the Sunshine State, survivors — despite being separated from their abuser by jail bars and usually a judge’s “no contact” order — often field jarring phone calls that cajole or cow them into abandoning charges.
All because of a technicality. Because jails aren’t positioned to enforce no-contact orders, perpetrators, while yet in jail, can pepper victims with harassing phone calls.
Sadly, that’s not the only disturbing disconnect amid Florida’s purported commitment to domestic-abuse survivors that so glaringly endangers lives. Currently, perpetrators whom judges tag with an electronic monitoring device can steal with impunity a survivor’s tenuous sense of safety with a snip of the scissors. Tampering with the device in a civil case, including when a victim seeks a protection order from a batterer, inexplicably carries no criminal penalty.
Lawmakers must not allow these loopholes to stand for another year. Two solutions backed by the Florida Sheriffs Association and Orange County’s Domestic Violence Commission provide sensible, if obvious, remedies. Both are sponsored by Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs.
Rather than start the clock after a defendant bonds out of jail, Senate Bill 342 would require immediate enforcement of a judge’s no-contact order, and criminalize those harassing calls from jail.
Meanwhile, for alleged abusers who are slapped with restraining orders, SB 1286 would classify tampering with an electronic monitoring device issued in a civil case as a felony.
The Ocala StarBanner — Prison reform clearly needed
Problems at Florida prisons go even deeper than already suspected, judging by whistleblower testimony at a state Senate committee hearing Tuesday. Corruption and coverups are “rampant” in the prison bureaucracy, according to a Miami Herald report on the hearing.
The state’s new corrections secretary takes issue with the allegations, but the testimony — given under oath by current and former prison inspectors — can’t be ignored. The men described to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee a system unwilling or unable to police itself. And that is simply unacceptable.
The revelations have come in the wake of a Herald investigative series that exposed serious flaws in prison operations, from violence against inmates to staff shortages to underfunding. The damning details argue for wholesale reforms.
On Tuesday, several current or former prison inspectors testified that “bosses repeatedly ordered them to ignore evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing by corrections officers.” Problems ranged from charges of faulty medical care to widespread smuggling of contraband by staff and corrections officers.
“Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones dismissed the inspectors’ testimony, saying it ‘represents one view of several incidents that happened years ago,’” the Herald reported.
The conflicting views suggest a need for further investigation — preferably by an independent, objective oversight board.
The Pensacola News-Journal — Marlette: Gov. Scott making bald look bad
As a bald guy, I am embarrassed. I’m truly embarrassed.
So to all you members of the hairy-headed community — especially you hairy-headed Floridians — please accept my apology for the behavior of Gov. Rick Scott.
Members of our bald brotherhood are supposed to be better than this.
After all, we are the group that brought you William Shakespeare, Shel Silverstein and Charles Barkley. Not to mention — even though he wouldn’t admit it publicly — Frank Sinatra. Gov. Scott is simply not adhering to the very high standards that most of us try to uphold as bearers of baldness.
This is especially glaring as we mark the beginning of Sunshine Week here in Florida. No modern governor has done more to dishonor the spirit of Sunshine State sunniness by skirting public records laws, deleting emails and by a persistent and cowardly refusal to engage in meaningful public discourse with citizens and reporters.
For a bald man who claims to be conservative, Gov. Scott looks a lot like liberal queen, Hillary Clinton.
Add to that last week’s shameful news that under Scott, a shady policy of state-sanctioned language has effectively banned terms like “climate change,” “global warming” and “sustainability” from state science.
Yes, our bald brotherhood is proudly the party of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. But that doesn’t mean we’re willing to scrap science for science fiction.
Bald brothers and hairy-headers, alike, will recall that when faced with questions about climate change, Gov. Scott previously and famously proclaimed that he is “not a scientist.”
That prompted actual scientists from our esteemed state universities to sit with the governor and school him on the very important and very real science of climate change, as well as the very serious physical and fiscal threats that it poses to Florida.
Despite that education, former employees at the Department of Environmental Protection and other state agencies have now reported an unwritten commandment that they shalt not speak of climate change. The governor has denied existence of the policy.
And maybe it’s not written on paper. But even if there is no “policy” carved into Scott’s stone tablets, the point is that he has created a creepy governmental culture where word-banning and selective science are allowed to fester. A poisonous culture is even more dangerous than a foolish policy.
We bald brothers possess an instinct for authentic conservatism. We don’t have hair. Why? Because we don’t need it. It’s excess. It’s wasteful. To us, hair is an oppressive and unnecessary entity hanging over our heads and dictating aspects of our life. We understand this: Hair does not define the individual — the head does. Therefore, the head must remain free and unburdened.
Clearly, Gov. Scott has completely lost touch with that sacred core of the bald brotherhood’s philosophy.
The Palm Beach Post — Expunge juvenile records to give adults a ‘second chance’
It would be fantasy to believe that juvenile arrests evaporate when children become adults. The reality in Florida is that most juvenile records aren’t expunged until the offender is 24, and for some crimes not until age 26.
By then too many have slipped down a spiral where they can’t find a legal job. Their lack of good answers is costly not only for society, but particularly for those who committed juvenile offenses, and years later are struggling to move on after paying their dues in the juvenile justice system. All too often their youthful misbehavior, no longer a threat to public safety, locks them out of jobs or other options for successful adulthood.
So it’s good that Florida lawmakers are considering overdue help. The records of minors who have committed nonviolent misdemeanors, but gone on to complete diversion programs, could be expunged under SB 1316, sponsored by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. Two other bills, SB 334 and HB 205, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, would shorten the time juvenile offenses stay on the record of minors who aren’t serious or habitual offenders.
And there is also a good chance the bills can succeed in this Republican-dominated Legislature this year, as evidenced by the involvement of Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, who last week joined children’s advocates in Jacksonville, saying he would support efforts to give kids a “second chance.”
The issue is close to the heart of former Judge Ronald V. Alvarez, retired from the juvenile division of the Palm Beach County Circuit Court. Highly esteemed for his rare expertise in juvenile and family law, and for his rulings that navigated the complex system to foster rehabilitation, he says he “never thought that they would even think about doing something like this, but it’s great. It’s fantastic for the kids.”
The untenable situation now is that what happens as a child too often comes back to haunt 20-somethings, for example, for a lifetime. “We had a problem over the years,” said Alvarez, “because these kids get out of the juvenile system, they try to get a job, and then somebody for $24 is able to get their juvenile record, and see they were charged with domestic battery when they were 13. What a child does at 13 or 15 or 16, is it relevant to their present state? I don’t think so.”
The Panama City News-Herald — A “church” and state conundrum
Whatever you might think of Markus Bishop’s spiritual abilities, his earthly abilities have always seemed clear.
The guy can collect money.
Bishop was once the pastor of Faith Christian Family Church. His church purchased a 10,000 square-foot, five-bedroom, six-bath home in an exclusive neighborhood – nowhere near the church. The home was so opulent that it came under scrutiny from the local property appraiser who said it should not count as a tax-exempt parsonage. Years of court battles followed but Bishop won every time and the case was eventually dropped.
However, Faith Christian fell on hard times and closed its doors. Bishop has since opened a new church, The Life Center, but the activities inside the center have led local officials like Sheriff Frank McKeithen to proclaim that Bishop is not running a church but “trying to get around the laws, and they’re using the church to get there.”
The Center has, since Feb. 28, run a seven-days-a-week party schedule as Amnesia: The Tabernacle. A video promoting activities there did not describe events that most people would consider spiritual.
The Tabernacle’s website boasts a pajama and lingerie parties, “Anything But Clothes” paint party and “Wet n Wild,” a water-themed event where “white water meets Tabernacle PCB with a little twerkin’.” Patrons are charged $20 at the door, which is called a donation.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Celebrating Sunshine Week
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if elected officials instinctively conducted all of the public’s business openly and made all records of their policymaking, administration and enforcement accessible to the public?
After all, we elect individuals to represent us and to perform their duties in an ethical manner with the best interest of their constituents in mind. But there are many competing interests. There’s temptation for backroom dealing and trading favors. Strong political influences can affect decision-making and personal opportunity can lead to conflicts of interest.
To safeguard against the possibility of impropriety, corruption and personal financial gain, Florida has established some of the strictest government-in-the-sunshine laws. Because we believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant, we designed laws that require official business to be conducted publicly.
In order to hold elected officials accountable, all aspects of lawmaking and enforcement are to be transparent so voters can see and participate in our democratic process. Since most Floridians can’t be in the state capital while these important policy and budget decisions are being made, we rely on the news media to act as our watchdogs and to alert us when something is amiss.
In mid-March each year, the news media and other sunshine advocates celebrate Government in the Sunshine Week to educate voters of our laws and of the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
Governors have traditionally embraced our sunshine laws and have tried to make public records accessible to our citizens. Unfortunately, Gov. Rick Scott has bucked that trend and has initiated a new era of perpetual clouds.
Scott, who comes from the corporate world of trade secrets and private negotiations, has not embraced the notion of accountability, accessibility and public debate in his public role. Averse to speaking frankly to the press, Scott finds himself embroiled in several sunshine scandals.
His administration has erased requested emails, fought release of private emails in court, circumvented creating records by conducting public business through verbal instructions, and used go-betweens to avoid public discussion in Cabinet meetings.
The Tampa Tribune — The Venezuela-Cuba connection
As if he didn’t have enough on his plate defending his embattled presidency at home, seeking to stymie the Islamist jihadists in Syria and Iraq and coping with myriad other crises at home and abroad, Barack Obama has added a war of words with a neighbor to the south, Venezuela.
Relations between Washington and Caracas were bad enough when the late Hugo Chavez, a zealous socialist, was calling the shots in Venezuela, but they’ve deteriorated further under the leadership of his volatile successor, Nicolas Maduro, and that’s why Obama justifiably enacted new sanctions against Maduro’s government.
So far the conflict has generated volleys of criticism back and forth, but more serious consequences may be on the horizon.
Fidel Castro has joined the fray on Maduro’s side, and for some — including Marco Rubio, a possible candidate for president — that can only reinforce their opposition to the Obama administration’s quest for better relations with Cuba.
Washington needs to find a way to keep Cuba and Venezuela as separate issues, but with the elder Castro jumping into the fray, that may become a daunting diplomatic challenge.
Fidel, 88, is no longer in charge in Cuba, and it has been his 83-year-old brother, Raul, who has been overseeing the warming of relations with Washington; yet Fidel’s opinion can’t be disregarded.
Obama’s recent declaration that Venezuela represented a threat to the security of the United States was intended as the formal justification for new economic sanctions designed to persuade Maduro to behave.
The other night, the Venezuelan leader brazenly described the new sanctions as an attempt to overthrow him. In response, Fidel Castro declared that, regardless of any thaw in Cuba’s relations with the United States, Maduro still had his country’s “unconditional support.”
“Dear Nicolás Maduro,” the elder Castro wrote, “I congratulate you for your brilliant and brave speech in the face of the brutal plans by the United States government. Your words will go down in history as proof that humanity can and will know the truth.”
It’s not clear what “brutal plans” Washington is cooking up other than, as stated, the imposition of additional sanctions, a diplomatic device that’s almost commonplace when another nation acts to undermine America’s interests.