A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers

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A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:

Tampa Bay Times — Reforms extend openness

There is a ray of hope for stronger public records laws in Florida as we recognize Sunshine Week, an annual event that calls attention to the importance of open government and often rings the alarm bell to warn of attempts to keep public records secret. The Senate will consider a bill this week that would make a series of positive changes to ensure that public records are available and affordable. Credit Senate President Don Gaetz for moving forward with reforms reinforcing the spirit of the state’s long tradition of openness.

The legislation, SB 1648, would broaden the public records law to require foundations or associations that accept dues from public agencies to open their financial and membership records that are related to the public agency or are generally available to members. That would make it easier for taxpayers to better understand the relationship between government and private groups that may be acting on its behalf or carrying out government functions. Too often, it is far too difficult for taxpayers to trace how their money flows from government to private groups and hold those groups accountable for work they perform that they claim is in the public’s interest.

Private contractors that have contracts to perform government functions already are required to make records relating to that work public, but they can be uncooperative about producing them. The legislation would require contractors to notify the public agency before denying a public records request or if the contractor is about the be sued for failure to produce public records. That should put some teeth into existing law.

Other provisions of the bill would clarify that public records requests generally do not have to be made in writing and spell out the maximum charges for copies. But the greatest impact of the legislation could be a new requirement that all public employees who deal with public records requests undergo training about the public records law. Too often, local and state government workers deny access to public records because they are uninformed about the law, not because they are intentionally trying to hide public documents.

The Bradenton Herald — Put more Sunshine into U.S. Senate campaigns

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, the nationwide annual call for greater open government so citizens, voters and taxpayers can keep track of money in politics and other transparency issues.

With millions and even billions now invested in campaigns for public office, voters have less and less information on contributions thanks a to U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found money is free speech.

That decision aside, the U.S. Senate is operating under disclosure rules that defy the imagination. The system relies on paper — in this day and age, paper?

Yes, the Senate’s campaign filing system doesn’t rely on modern online finance reports, but allows senators to send paper copies to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC then sends paper to a private contractor for keyboarding into the web. Typing?

The Senate must dispense with this antiquated system. Taxpayers must object to the high cost, too, estimated at some $500,000 annually.

The Daytona Beach News-JournalAnswers needed from Halifax Health

There are more than a hundred million reasons and counting why Halifax Health, a public hospital and a community asset, should explain how and why it finds itself in a legal and financial predicament.

Halifax Health recently agreed to pay $85 million to settle a lawsuit filed in 2009 that alleged the hospital illegally paid doctors and improperly billed Medicare. Halifax Health also has spent more than $21 million in legal fees defending itself, and the attorneys for whistle-blower Elin Baklid-Kunz are seeking an additional $10 million to cover her legal costs. The total bill: potentially $116 million.

The settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice also requires Halifax Health to enter into a five-year corporate integrity agreement, which means it will have the feds looking over its shoulder monitoring its operations — rarely an ideal way of doing business.

And that’s just the first round of this legal fight. A second lawsuit, scheduled for trial in July, alleges Halifax Health admitted patients for unneeded hospital stays of two days or less. Baklid-Kunz is seeking more than $246.5 million on those claims.

The Gainesville Sun –— Trauma profits

Competition is supposed to lower prices. But in the case of trauma centers, injured patients can’t shop around before seeking help.

They’re usually brought to the nearest trauma center for treatment that can save their lives, but end up costing them and the health care system as a whole.

A recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found that trauma centers in Florida charge patients a fee just for walking through the door. The average trauma fee today tops $10,000.

The report found excessive prices at hospitals throughout the state, including UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. A teenage girl who spent two hours there due to back pain from a car crash was charged $9,835.

The most outrageous prices came from one of the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chains, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). Its Florida hospitals have an average trauma fee of $28,000.

The Times found that the fee is only part of HCA charging injured patients tens of thousands of dollars more than other trauma centers in the state, a difference that has nothing to do with the level of care.

The Florida Times-Union — Senator making smart moves for justice

But Clay’s expanding footprint in Florida is only fitting because it mirrors the growing influence of Sen. Rob Bradley. A former assistant state attorney and Clay County commissioner, Bradley has been tackling one of Florida’s major challenges: its criminal justice system.

During a recent session with the Times-Union editorial board, Bradley, chairman of the Senate’s criminal and civil justice appropriations subcommittee, shared insights regarding his extensive work on those issues.

The Republican lawmaker wants Florida to be a much tougher and more severe state in dealing with clearly violent criminals and predators.

But he also wants Florida to become far more redemptive and proactive with nonviolent offenders who can be better punished without clogging up prison cells.

“It’s about being tougher in dealing with the people we’re scared of,” Bradley said, “but being smarter in dealing with the people we’re just mad at.”

It’s a thoughtful, balanced and common-sense way to address criminal justice in our state.

The Lakeland Ledger —Lakeland Police Scandals: The $350- Per-Hour Cat

Today is Sunshine Sunday, the start of Sunshine Week. That’s sunshine in the sense of open government.

Anyone who wants a lesson in government in the sunshine should study the city operations of Lakeland, particularly the Police Department.

Sunshine searchers would not find the halls of Lakeland government to be a font of forthrightness or clarity, despite a number of willing workers and police officers.

Examples that exist have been overwhelmed during the past 15 months by a devious darkness meant to obscure illegal and inappropriate practices, and a slew of scandals — sexual violations, incompetence, rich spending and much more.

When it comes to government in the sunshine, there is no place in Florida where so many shades are drawn, doors are slammed and record books are closed as in Lakeland.

The Miami Herald — Daylight, not darkness

Don’t let Florida’s beloved moniker fool you. The elected leaders of the Sunshine State have steadily blacked out the windows, closed the blinds and dimmed the lights on Floridians’ ability to see how their money is spent, who’s pocketing it — and even where their governor goes and with whom.

Transparency is under threat in Florida and, therefore, so is good government and accountability.

Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, during which the media highlight just how precious is citizens’ ability to know what government is doing in their name — for good and for ill. The Miami Herald and several other McClatchy Co. newspapers are taking part.

In Florida, unfortunately, there’s more to lament than to celebrate. Now that the Legislature is in session, even more could be kept from public scrutiny — legally — if good-government advocates don’t kick and scream:

Current law, for instance, provides an exemption for portions of meetings of child-abuse death review committees at which exempt information is discussed, requiring that those closed portions of meetings be recorded. Senate Bill 370, however, would eliminate the recording requirement.

Then this: As the business-indebted legislators insist on shoveling mountains of public funds into private schools, prisons and hospitals, that money too often goes undercover and unaccounted for because there are few reporting mandates.

The Orlando Sentinel —Lauren Book & Justin Bieber: Champ & Chump

Champ

Lauren Book: Lawmakers this legislative session wasted little time passing a raft of bills to stop sexually violent predators. Music to the ears of Book, abused by her nanny for six years. In the aftermath, she’s advocated for tougher laws and championed healing through her nonprofit, Lauren’s Kids. Yet, she understands the fight’s not over. Book embarks on her fifth annual 1,500-mile “Walk in My Shoes” journey Sunday to raise awareness of the lasting scars of child sexual abuse. With her dedication to end this scourge, we hope she’ll soon be able to hang up her sneakers.

Chump

Justin Bieber: In 2010, while promoting his film, “Never Say Never,” he told MTV News anything’s possible as long as you “stay grounded.” Evidently, the singer ignored his own advice. After a 2013 marred by police run-ins and a brothel visit, he was busted in January by Miami Beach police on DUI and drag-racing charges. Unflattering video from that arrest recently went viral. Meanwhile, more than 267,000 names are on a petition on the White House’s “We the People” website to deport the Canadian pop star. Until he cleans up his act, we’d be happy if he just steers clear of Florida.

The Ocala StarBanner — Former Gov. Askew’s legacy

Florida was lucky to have Reubin Askew as governor. If the state is fortunate, someday its voters will again elect someone of his vision and strengths.

Askew, governor from 1971 to 1979, died Wednesday at the age of 85. He packed a lot of public service into his life, stretching from his years in the Army and Air Force to his decade-plus as a Pensacola legislator, through his two terms as governor, to his stint as a presidential candidate, to U.S. trade representative, and through what may have been his most influential job of all: public policy professor and mentor to a generation of students.

The esteem he earned is also reflected in the title of Martin Dyckman’s political history, “Reubin O’D. Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics.”

A Harvard study included him among the 10 best governors of the 20th century.

Famously teetotaling and religious, he was raised by a divorced mom whose difficulties made Askew a staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Neither pro-choice nor pro-union, he did not fit the parameters of a typical liberal or Democrat. He was progressive on social justice, ethics, taxes, governmental accountability and the environment.

The Pensacola News-Journal —Today we celebrate Sunshine Week

Happy Birthday, James Madison!

Why single out our fourth president today when there is plenty going on in government that requires comment on this page? It’s simple: Madison is the man many legal and history scholars credit for being largely responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.

Madison’s birthday, March 16, is the reason we celebrate Sunshine Week, which begins today, this time of year. It’s a fitting tribute to Madison, who often gets overlooked when the Founding Fathers are discussed.

But without visionaries like Madison, the public would likely be kept in the dark when it comes to the decisions made by their governments.

While this newspaper deals with city, county, state or federal governments daily, Sunshine Week is a chance to remind all of us that we are the boss. All those elected officials and the bureaucrats they employ actually work for us. We put them in office and pay their salaries. Their decisions deserve intense scrutiny, especially when it involves our money. That’s why meetings have to be announced well in advance, conducted in the open – with few exceptions – and minutes, including any votes taken, have to be recorded. Most of our courts – the judicial branch of government – also have to play by similar rules of keeping open to the public to ensure trials are conducted fairly.

The Palm Beach Post —Too little progress on commuter rail along South Florida coast

South Florida has been hashing out the future of passenger rail service in the region for years, but we’re in the thick of it now, and questions abound. Will the region get commuter trains running through its coastal downtown centers? What will the service look like? And how much will it cost?

No longer just a theoretical goal, a vision for local commuter rail is beginning to take shape in important negotiations, one that will have repercussions across South Florida for decades to come. But there’s been too little progress on the most critical points, and the delays are endangering the entire project.

The Panama City News-Herald — What’s good for the processed goose

Decades ago there was a hog farm in Callaway near the bend on U.S. 98 just before you reached 11th Street.

Some locals still call that area Hog Pen Curve. We’re told the strong smell of pigs wafted for miles in any direction the wind was blowing.

We were reminded of Hog Pen Curve while reading about Lynn Haven’s new concern over wild game processing. The city commission issued a temporary moratorium on establishing slaughterhouses or processing facilities within Lynn Haven’s city limits until the commission can draft a new ordinance dealing with the facilities.

Bobby Baker, interim city manager, cited adverse social, economic and aesthetic aspects with the location of the processing business, which until recently was in operation. He also says the sewer system can’t take the strain.

The commission’s concern over animal processing comes as a local business owner works to reopen the processing facility behind Sandi’s Feed & Seed on State 77. This is a little like closing the pen after all the hogs have escaped.

While the city can and should pass ordinances that keep suitable business, residences and other facilities within certain areas of town, that should be done before an issue like this arises.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Gerald Ensley: Cascades Park heralds a change in Tallahassee

Sometimes you have to be proud of your community. This is one of those times.

Cascades Park opened. It’s amazing.

The amazing part is not so much what’s there — which is a bunch of stuff. It’s amazing because it exists. In Tallahassee.

Some of us came here 40, 50 years ago, when there wasn’t much to Tallahassee. Oh, we had natural beauty, good universities and great people. But what did we have for parks or buildings or sophisticated amenities?

The Chain of Parks was cool, if plain Jane. We had the seven-story Exchange Building for a “skyscraper,” though it quit being a center of commerce in the 1970s. When visitors came, where could we take them? Maclay Gardens, if they liked flowers, and Wakulla Springs, if they were willing to drive 25 miles. We had bumpy, two-laned roads, and many areas flooded every time there was a heavy rain.

There was very little in Tallahassee you could call big-city or sophisticated. We dreamed about big projects, but we didn’t build big projects.

The Tampa Tribune —Traffic taking a toll in Pasco

No one should fault the Florida Department of Transportation for being enthusiastic about a private company’s proposal to build and operate an elevated toll road that would span south Pasco County.

The department’s job is to move traffic, and Pasco has a traffic problem in the State Road 54/56 corridor because county officials approved a reckless pattern of development without adequate road capacity, or adequate planning.

But is a privately built and operated toll road the best solution? And if it is, is one needed along the entire 30-plus-mile route from west Pasco to U.S. 301 in the Zephyrhills area? Would such a facility be utilized enough by motorists to justify construction — and the state’s faith in what would be the first road project of its type in Florida? Would the facility provide motorists a viable choice — or simply serve as another scheme to drive even more development?

And what would be the impact on communities in the corridor? Although DOT could require noise-buffering walls and aesthetically pleasing design, it is hard to believe that residents in these attractive subdivisions would not face additional daily headaches regardless of the attempts to minimize the project’s effects.

 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.