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 — Legislature must protect the rights of the mentally disabled

The mentally disabled in Florida who are accused of crimes should not be involuntarily committed indefinitely without due process. The U.S. Constitution provides that everyone has the right to a trial. But people who are deemed mentally unfit to face a judge consistently fall through the cracks. In Florida, state law allows the mentally incompetent to end up in secure facilities with no apparent legal recourse and no limit on how long they will be locked up. The Legislature should revisit this unjust state law, which does not protect the rights of those who are least able to defend themselves.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Dan Sullivan reported that nearly 100 intellectually disabled men in Florida remained locked up long after criminal proceedings against them were dismissed. Florida statutes say charges against a person deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial will be dismissed within two years. But if the state determines that a defendant cannot live independently or is a danger to himself or society, confinement can last for as long as the defendant could have been imprisoned for the alleged crime.

In one such case, 55-year-old Dreek Drayton was locked up for 11 years after he was accused of molesting a 7-year-old girl. Drayton was never convicted. But he repeatedly failed an annual evaluation that would have set him free, largely because doctors based their recommendation on the severity of his alleged crime. A crusading public defender won Drayton’s freedom in 2010.

The Bradenton Herald — Keep protecting Sarasota Bay from pollution

Clean water ranks as one of the greatest treasures to an environment, and now we have a dollar amount to place on Sarasota Bay.

After decades of degradation, the 56-mile stretch of the intercoastal from Palma Sola Bay down to Blackburn Bay has shown a remarkable recovery with the scallop population and the seagrass beds.

For the four decades until 1990, water quality plunged and scallops disappeared. Tidal wetlands and marine habitat disappeared with shoreline development.

Today, an Eckerd College environmental study for the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program pegged the monetary value of this prized natural resource at $11.8 billion. We shudder to think what that figure might have been before restoration efforts resuscitated the bay.

Bay-related tourism spending stands at $1.15 billion with another $487 million on recreational trips and $731 million on worker wages linked to the bay.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Hold county politics to a higher standard

The lesson from the two investigations into Waverly Media and its connections to local candidates for public office is that when it comes to ethical rights and wrongs, Volusia County politics should be held to a higher standard than whether or not somebody gets charged with a crime.

On Aug. 12, after more than a year of inquiry, State Attorney R.J. Larizza announced his office had concluded there was “no compelling evidence” of “intentional unlawful violations” of election laws during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles with regard to Waverly providing in-kind campaign contributions, primarily in the form of bus-bench advertisements, to several candidates. They included two current council members, Josh Wagner and Joyce Cusack (Cusack is up for re-election), and current District 1 candidate Andy Kelly when he ran for supervisor of elections in 2012.

Some of the donations used false names (known as “straw donors”) in finance reports to avoid legal limits. However, only one person has been held legally culpable in the matter: Jim Brown, a former Waverly employee, was sentenced to probation after pleading no contest to exceeding campaign contribution limits. He has since died.

The political fallout, though, continues.

The Florida Times-Union — City Council must answer huge questions on pension deal

How excessive can the city’s overly generous Police and Fire Pension Fund possibly be? Hidden benefits keep turning up. How many more are out there?

Times-Union reporter Eileen Kelley’s excellent recent story revealed that Bobby Deal will be making more in retirement than his $100,000 salary for running the Police Athletic League.

Deal, his spouse and heirs will collect almost $5 million from the taxpayers in retirement benefits.

But this isn’t about one man. It’s about a pension system that Jacksonville simply can’t afford.

Everyone agrees that police and firefighters deserve special pensions. But there are limits.

Dominic Calabro, CEO of Florida TaxWatch, called the pension system for police and firefighters “totally ridiculous” and “dysfunctional.”

Calabro would know: It was TaxWatch that blew the whistle on the city’s unfunded pension liabilities in 2008.

One key is a special pension fund called DROP that’s more generous than any in Florida. Investment returns of 8.4 percent are guaranteed. And they can be held in an account for long periods of time.

The Gainesville Sun – Another opener

Last Saturday, Gator fans showed that it takes more than The Swamp almost becoming a real swamp to turn them away.

The Gator football team’s season opener against the Idaho Vandals was delayed nearly three hours due to lightning and steady rain. Yet tens of thousands of fans packed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when the game finally kicked off, creating a loud and electric atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the game was canceled after that one play. Given the continued lightning through the night and drenched conditions of the field, it was clearly the right decision.

The University of Florida athletic association also made the correct calls in deciding against replaying the game and refunding fans the cost of tickets. It was also right to fulfill a contract to pay $975,000 to Idaho for the game. The two schools will now play in Gainesville in 2017.

Those decisions were made easier due to the insurance that covered much of the lost revenue. The athletic program also made money off fans who stayed in the stadium and frequented concession stands during delays in the action, while doing a favor for fans as well as nearby bars and restaurants by allowing ticketholders to leave and return.

The Lakeland Ledger — Ebola Epidemic: You Can Help End A Disaster

It is difficult to watch the Ebola epidemic unfold without feeling some guilt. American soil is untouched, after all, while the people of West Africa endure untold suffering and medical workers demonstrate astounding heroism.

Those of us without the skills or the bravery to tend the sick wonder what we can offer to help turn the tide. Sending more vaccine is not an option because there is none approved for this terrible disease. Many of the hardest-hit communities lack hospitals or even a power grid. So what can be done? Here are some suggestions:

Support U.S. government, U.N. and World Health Organization efforts to assist with infection control, to slow the spread of Ebola in Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deployed expert medical teams and other aid; the U.S. Agency for International Development is distributing tons of equipment.

Donate money for protective gear, decontamination measures, medical supplies, vehicles, humanitarian aid and more. Resources are needed to equip hospitals, mount public safety campaigns, man border checks, and such.

The Miami Herald —The making of a federal judge

The three South Florida finalists advancing for consideration for a coveted opening on the federal bench in the Southern District are to be congratulated. They’ve earned it.

On Thursday, they, along with other aspirants to the prestigious, lifetime appointment, sat on the hot seat in a large conference room on the 14th floor of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse in downtown Miami.

A member of the Miami Herald Editorial Board was present as the 20-plus members of the Florida Judicial Nominating Commission quizzed and grilled the 15 candidates for 25 minutes each, the final phase of a long process that began in July for the privilege of having their names recommended to Florida’s two U.S. senators.

In this race, voters did not pick the winner; the blue-ribbon panel made up of local legal eagles and community leaders had the honor — and somehow that seemed right and how, perhaps, it should be done for all judicial races.

The Orlando Sentinel — Jennifer Sullivan and John Morgan: Champ & Chump

Champ

Jennifer Sullivan: We didn’t endorse her, but we have to tip our hat to this 23-year-old from Mount Dora, who will become the youngest female legislator in Florida history when she is sworn in later this year. Sullivan earned the title by defeating four older opponents in the Republican primary for state House District 31; no other candidates were seeking the seat. She was outspent by two of her opponents, but her youthful energy and enthusiasm turned out to be a bigger asset in a campaign she managed herself. It’s reassuring to see that political office isn’t reserved for insiders with the most money.

 Chump

John Morgan: Orlando’s best-known trial lawyer has put his name and fortune behind a statewide campaign to legalize marijuana for medical use, but he set back his cause with a profane, drunken plea for votes at a Lakeland bar packed with young partyers. The video of his rant — which went viral this week — showed Morgan joking about smoking pot, calling opponents “whores,” and using other language that would make a sailor blush. Medical marijuana backers have portrayed their campaign as a sober effort to deliver compassionate care to sick people. Morgan stepped on that message.

The Ocala StarBanner —End-of-life debate

Determining a patient’s wishes for end-of-life care is one of the most challenging issues in medicine. Too few people discuss or complete advance directives while they still have the mental and physical capacity to do so. Then if illness strikes, medical staffs and loved ones are forced to make crucial decisions for patients without their guidance.

That is a recipe for heartache, family dissension and questionable medical interventions. Many Americans are aware of these potential nightmares, yet they continue to avoid the task of filling out the directives. Some people don’t trust them; others are overwhelmed by the complexity or simply prefer not to dwell on thoughts of future sickness and death.

Because end-of-life preparations can be so daunting, efforts should be made to simplify, demystify and encourage them.

To meet those goals, public policy changes are being explored but they, too, have hit resistance. A New York Times article this week detailed a controversy over Medicare and insurance reimbursements to doctors who counsel ailing patients on end-of-life care. In another disputed approach, a U.S. senator has proposed legislation that would pay patients to fill out advance directives. Another bill, in the House of Representatives, would provide reimbursements for voluntary palliative care planning.

The Pensacola News-Journal —Solar subsidies rob Peter to pay Paul

According to many of Florida’s decision-makers and aspiring political leaders, understanding the state’s energy market is as a simple as looking at the state’s nickname — The Sunshine State.

Many individuals maintain that the laws regarding how we collect sunlight are sure to foster greater competition and better choices for energy consumers. Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, for example, has specifically advocated for more solar power subsidies as a part of his effort to tout renewable energy.

However, reality reveals just how misleading it is to claim that expanding solar subsidies enhances choice or competition. The solar industry and its advocates are, in actuality, seeking favored status within the current monopoly system — at the expense of non-solar customers. This is hardly competition.

Since the advent of solar technology, roof-top solar systems have been relatively expensive. An array of state and federal tax incentives were created to encourage consumers to use roof-top solar. Despite falling prices, without generous subsidies roof-top solar is not competitive with other methods of generating electricity.

The subsidies permitted in Florida are some of the most egregious nationwide, leading to intensely unfair and distorted costs and pricing schemes. Artificially underpinning the solar market has created a scenario in which roof-top solar users benefit at the expense of taxpayers and consumers who don’t or can’t own solar.

The Palm Beach Post — To stop campus rape, victims must feel safe to report

A White House task force states that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, a statistic that prompted U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, to declare the problem an “epidemic” and convene a local round-table discussion at Florida Atlantic University last week on how to cure it.

Though the one-in-five statistic and the study behind it are the subject of controversy – it apparently includes unwanted touching in the definition of sexual assault – it’s clear that women who are victimized once often feel twice victimized by the system that should be protecting them. That shouldn’t happen. Efforts are underway in Palm Beach County to standardize the way multiple police agencies respond to rape. These efforts should expand to include local colleges. Meanwhile, on the federal level, a bipartisan group of members of Congress, including Frankel and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have introduced the “Campus Accountability and Safety Act,” a bill that would strive to bring uniformity to how campus rape investigations proceed.

The Panama City News-Herald — County should look for lasting project

It will take some time, deliberation and effort before Bay County settles on a project for the $6 million the commission obtained through the RESTORE Act.

That’s a good thing and it hopefully will give all the stakeholders time to ponder, discuss and decide on the best use of the funds.

The RESTORE Act was created to help the Gulf of Mexico’s environment and economy recover from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Bay County has a citizens committee in place to help outline goals and objectives for how the money is to be spent. The money must go to one of these areas: restoration of natural resources, ecosystems and fisheries; coastal flood protection projects; the promotion of recreational fishing and seafood harvested from this region; or workforce and job creation.

Commissioners also are right to focus on the money they have in hand instead of the possibilities of future funds. The RESTORE Act dollar amount coming to Bay County could be up to $120 million, officials say. The Florida Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against BP and Halliburton to recover $5.5 billion in damages for Florida’s economic losses due to the oil spill.

The Tallahassee Democrat – Presidential search

So far, so good.

This past Tuesday was the deadline for applications for the position of president of Florida State University.

To the surprise of many — including, to be honest, the Tallahassee Democrat’s Editorial Board — FSU drew some very strong candidates.

Now everyone needs to take a deep breath and let the process play out.

Since shortly after President Eric Barron announced in February that he was leaving FSU for Penn State University, the search for a new leader has been dominated by one name: John Thrasher.

In March, while the Legislature was still in session and before the presidential search advisory committee had even held its first meeting, the rumor mill had pegged the Republican state senator as a top candidate.

In May, the presidential search advisory committee voted to make Mr. Thrasher the sole candidate — even though he hadn’t even formally applied for the job.

What followed were howls from faculty and students, the hiring of a new headhunter and a re-set of the whole process.

The Tampa Tribune — Rare panther’s arrival a sign of progress

The recent discovery of a Florida panther track in the Green Swamp is an encouraging sign for the species and another reminder of the need to establish a wildlife corridor linking one end of the state to the other.

It also underscores the need for voters to support Amendment 1, which would ensure adequate land conservation in rapidly developing Florida.

As the Tribune’s Keith Morelli reports, it’s been decades since a Florida panther track was spotted this far north in Florida. The rare panther was near extinction in the 1970s and is making a slow but steady comeback thanks to efforts dedicated to their survival.

Fewer than 20 panthers were in the wild 40 years ago. Today, as many as 160 are thought to be roaming across Southwest Florida. Experts think male panthers may be moving north up the state as they look for suitable habitat. Sightings have been reported as far north as Lake Wales in southeastern Polk County. But not until this recent discovery by a retired state wildlife officer has one been placed as far north as the 870-square-mile Green Swamp. The tracks were found north of Polk City. Panthers live off deer, which are plentiful in the Green Swamp.

But to get there the panther had to traverse major highways, risking a fate that has claimed too many panthers as the state absorbs its relentless population growth.

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.