A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Florida must do more to protect its children
A 4-year-old beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend. An unsupervised, disabled 7-year-old killed after running into the path of a car. A 1-year-old dead of an overdose of methadone. • No Florida child should die from abuse or neglect. But these are just three of the stories from the last six years of how at least 477 of Florida’s children died — even after the state checked on their well-being at least once. This must be our wakeup call. Florida should reconsider its overwhelming bias toward reuniting families even in the face of horrible dysfunction. It has become an unconscionable gamble with the lives of Florida’s children.
This is not just the governor’s problem or the Legislature’s problem or the state bureaucracy’s problem. It is our problem. We have all allowed this to happen by going along with Tallahassee’s wishful and contradictory policy of striving to preserve families while simultaneously undercutting the resources needed to bolster those full of dysfunction. We have tried to have child protection on the cheap, and the result has been deadly and devastating. Florida is better than this.
In a sweeping project that examined thousands of state records, the Miami Herald “Innocents Lost” investigation found that 477 children perished despite being in families contacted at least once by the Department of Children and Families after being alerted the child might be in danger. Many died at the hands of their own parents who beat them, smothered them to death or were on drugs while their children drowned, started fires or committed suicide.
The agency’s multiple failings suggest that a policy of eschewing foster care has become so ingrained in its frontline workers as to blind them to the consequences of a child left in danger. The Herald found again and again that DCF workers made a note of issues, set up toothless safety plans and then walked away. They left behind babies like Emanuel Murray Jr., a 3-month-old Tampa boy who was tossed from a moving car on Interstate 275 by his mother’s boyfriend. Like many other cases on the Herald’s list of 477, DCF had a safety plan that required the mother to stay away from her boyfriend. But the mother didn’t abide by it. Still, investigators closed the family’s case, and a week later, Emanuel was dead.
The Bradenton Herald — An elusive solution to indigent medical costs in Manatee County
The day of reckoning has arrived far sooner than expected. Manatee County’s fund to reimburse medical providers for treating indigent patients will be depleted within days.
Even as recently as last summer during the heated debate over a sales tax increase referendum designed to replenish the fund, the monies were forecast to last until 2015.
One partial solution remains an enigma. Certain Florida legislative leaders continue to be hard-hearted about accepting federal expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — even with the Obama administration allowing options acceptable to other Republican-led states.
So Manatee County’s poor will continue to visit hospital emergency rooms and exact a higher price on society. Hospitals will likely be forced to write off more of the cost of indigent care. The community’s private physicians already provide free care for the poor, and cannot be expected to bear additional costs.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Clean water requires collective effort
Because water follows the path of least resistance, it’s imperative that state and local governments not impede efforts to improve the quality of the Indian River Lagoon system and area springs.
It was therefore encouraging last week to see elected officials from three Southeast Volusia cities — Edgewater, New Smyrna Beach and Oak Hill — publicly meet to express support for the importance of the waterways they share.
In addition, the Volusia County Council will meet April 3 to consider adopting an ordinance that would regulate fertilizer use. The purpose of the ordinance would be to protect the quality of the community’s groundwater and waterways, such as Mosquito Lagoon, St. Johns River and four springs: Blue, Gemini, Green and DeLeon. Studies have shown excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphate found in fertilizers can have harmful impacts on such resources.
The council almost certainly will approve some measure aimed at helping the waters. The only question is how far the ordinance will go.
The Florida Times-Union — Time to reach agreement on pensions
Now that the Retirement Reform Task Force has issued its findings, it is imperative that city officials act quickly to resolve costly pension issues.
“Unless reform is accomplished soon, the city’s quality of life will continue to decline because of the increasing burden that pension obligations will have on the city’s financial resources,” the task force warned in the report given to the mayor and City Council Thursday.
Although similar alarms have been issued repeatedly in recent years, pensions remain “the single most important issue facing the city today,” the task force concluded.
Unfortunately, taxpayers must suffer the financial consequences of bad policy decisions on pensions. But a bad situation will only worsen unless strong leadership comes into play.
Mayor Alvin Brown and City Council President Bill Gulliford pledged to move with dispatch to act on the recommendations in the 50-page report. The city’s public safety unions need to join them, using the task force report as a framework to begin open collective bargaining.
One test of success will be whether major issues are resolved in time for the next budget year, which begins Oct. 1. Any further delays will result in needless and unaffordable costs to taxpayers.
The Gainesville Sun – Retire the penny
On a 2001 episode of the television show “The West Wing,” one of the president’s aides becomes obsessed with the idea of eliminating the penny.
He’s eventually told that legislation to do so would never fly because the speaker of the House was from Illinois — the same state as Lincoln, whose face is on the penny.
Flash forward to 2014. President Obama, who previously represented Illinois in Congress, was asked last month in a Google Hangout session why the U.S. hasn’t killed the copper penny. After all, it cost 1.8 cents to make a penny in 2013.
“I will tell you right now, this will not be a huge savings for government, but anytime we’re spending more money on something that people don’t actually use that’s an example of something we should change,” Obama said in response to the question, Business Insider reported.
The Lakeland Ledger — Lakeland Police Scandals: Do People’s Business In Open
Sunshine Week has just ended, but government in the sunshine — taking action not only on behalf of the people, but so the people can observe their government in action and take part by offering comments — must go on.
The Lakeland City Commission plans to formally review the hiring of a Tampa public relations firm last July by City Manager Doug Thomas. He never sought approval in a commission meeting.
Monday, Commissioner Justin Troller questioned whether much of the work delivered by the Tucker/Hall PR firm was requested by the city of Lakeland and whether the firm exceeded the terms of its contract, written on behalf of the city by the Lakeland office of the GrayRobinson law firm.
He said a refund might be in order. Tucker/Hall has charged the city $134,624 so far.
The Miami Herald — It’s time to act
After 477 child deaths, lawmakers, DCF must say: Enough!
What a difference a day makes.
Especially when on that day a newspaper publishes a mosaic of beautiful children. Scores and scores of them with dimpled, smiling, laughing, heartbreakingly happy faces. All of them dead, from brutality, neglect — and even a python. All of them known to the Department of Children & Families, charged with being their salvation.
The agency was anything but.
But after just one day, the lawmakers who for years have, with the blessing of governors past and present, siphoned life-saving funding and oversight from the agency, now declared fixing DCF Job No. 1.
The Orlando Sentinel — Florida courts should reflect diversity
Florida is one of the nation’s more diverse states — about 22 percent Hispanic and 16 percent African-American. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the state’s judiciary.
Among the state’s 974 county, circuit and appeals court judges, fewer than 9 percent are Hispanic, and fewer than 7 percent are black. Public trust in the judicial system, and the quality of the justice it delivers, are at risk when the courts don’t come close to reflecting their communities.
A state Supreme Court panel reported in 2008 that “the lack of diversity in the Florida courts system is perceived to contribute to bias and to diminish the concept of fairness.” Yet the percentage of Hispanics on the bench has risen only slightly since then, and the percentage of blacks has fallen.
And the lack of diversity is as bad or worse on the commissions that nominate judges, which means the disconnect between the courts and the public could deepen in the future. Fewer than 10 percent of commission members are Hispanic, and fewer than 4 percent are black. A state panel in 1990 found that minorities are less likely to apply to all-white commissions for judicial openings.
A task force recently appointed by the Florida Bar, the professional organization that represents the state’s lawyers, began meeting this month to study ways to promote more diversity on the bench and the nominating commissions. The Bar and its president, Eugene Pettis, deserve credit for making this issue a priority.
The Ocala StarBanner — Fix ‘stand your ground’
Whether Florida’s “stand your ground” law is malevolent, misguided or merely misunderstood, it needs repair.
Legislation that would clarify the law is gaining ground in the state Senate. House leaders, too, should get on board this needed update.
The new bill (CS/SB 130) last week gained unanimous support from the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee. The measure would not repeal the controversial stand your ground law. Instead, it would address some of the unintended consequences that have emerged since the law’s passage a decade ago.
The widely misinterpreted law is complex. It expanded the circumstances under which the use of lethal force is justified in self-defense. Before stand your ground, people in a public place had a duty to retreat, if feasible, rather than use deadly force in the face of a threat. Now, they can use lethal force if they reasonably perceive themselves or others to be in great danger or to prevent a “forcible felony.”
The Pensacola News-Journal — Mayor’s veto protects city’s rules
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward was right to veto a City Council plan that subverts the process of hiring a vendor at the Pensacola International Airport.
On Friday, Hayward signed a contract with a new vendor, OHM Foods. We encourage the City Council to accept the mayor’s action. After all, a March 31 deadline was looming. It’s time to put this divisive issue to rest and get on with other business. This decision to award the contract has been idling on the tarmac since September. (You didn’t think we could write about an airport squabble without one airport-related pun, did you?)
The council was deadlocked over approving the contract of the chosen bidder, OHM Foods. That Missouri firm received the top ranking from a five-member airport selection committee, but a New York company working with some local restaurateurs said they didn’t get a fair shot at the contract. Local political pressure was applied and the issue has been on and off the City Council agenda since.
Finally, the council reached a compromise among themselves to extend the contract of the current vendor, Robert DeVarona. The mayor on Tuesday vetoed that move. We agree with his decision because it preserves the selection process.
The Palm Beach Post — Keep school voucher program focused on kids who need it most
An effort to expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program appeared to die suddenly last week. Now, it should be buried.
Twin bills in the House and Senate making hundreds of millions of dollars available to the program, created 12 years ago during the Jeb Bush administration, were seemingly fast-tracked for approval before running out of steam in the Senate late Thursday.
The Panama City News-Herald — The other marijuana proposal
A few months ago, the smart money was on the Florida Legislature having a big fight over casino gambling. That idea went up in a puff of smoke, though, as lawmakers — Republicans at first — started backing proposals to legalize medical marijuana.
Who would have thought the GOP would make doctor-prescribed, state-dispensed pot one of the major issues in 2014?
State Rep. Matt Gaetz is pushing a bill (HB 843) that legalizes a specific, non-euphoric strain of marijuana by “creating an affirmative defense” for families of stricken children who use it to control their youngsters’ seizures. It says the Legislature “intends to discourage law enforcement from arresting, and state attorneys from prosecuting,” such people.
In the Senate, SB 1030 is described as a companion to HB 843 — but it’s not the same proposal.
SB 1030, in its own words, “authorizes specified physicians to prescribe to specified patients medical-grade marijuana.” Such patients would be listed in a statewide “compassionate use” registry. The bill outlines requirements for the registry and says the Department of Health will “authorize a specified number of dispensing organizations” to cultivate medical marijuana and make it available.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Gerald Ensley: Staying connected
I am eating dinner. My cellphone is beside me. It has to be.
My wife is messaging every two minutes from out of town. Editors from work are texting about the story I wrote. Facebook posts are pouring in. And, frankly, I’m tweeting every five minutes about the basketball game on TV.
The tyranny of the machines is omnipresent!
Once upon a time, reporters did their job over eight hours. We interviewed people, checked facts, wrote our stories and went home. Done.
Now, the job of a reporter, like many other professions, is an endless engagement with one’s computer, tablet and cellphone. As we interview, cover, research, we post tweets and text editors. We film and edit videos. A constant onslaught of emails pour in as we write our stories. When the story is finished, we post it on our website and on Facebook. At home, we field more emails and texts from editors, revise the story on the website and Facebook and send out tweets about the story. Then we get up at 5 a.m., check the emails and start all over again.
The Tampa Tribune — The Bollywood payoff
The International Indian Film Academy’s awards Tampa will host April 23-26 is expected to attract 30,000 visitors and have an immediate economic impact of $30 million.
But beyond such numbers, the “Bollywood Oscars” could give Tampa a much higher international profile and create future business opportunities.
Local leaders such as Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn correctly want to ensure the community capitalizes on the event.
It’s possible the Bollywood events could have greater long-term impact than the 2012 Republican National Convention, which the city handled impressively and which led to its landing the IIFA spectacle. A University of Tampa study found the convention had an overall $404 million economic impact.
But maximizing the Bollywood return is going to require time and commitment.