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 — Embrace proposed rules to protect manatees

It is a unique, Florida experience: Visitors to Three Sisters Springs in Citrus County are nearly guaranteed in the winter months to see crowds of manatees and even have a chance to swim or paddle alongside them and get a bit too close. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes that from December to March, there would not be any more paddlers pulling up beside the lumbering creatures in two-thirds of the springs and tour operators would face tougher regulations. The proposed rules stop short of what some animal advocates say the endangered animals deserve, but they are a reasonable first step.

This week the federal wildlife protection agency proposed banning canoes, kayaks and inflatable floats from the eastern and western sections of the springs known as Pretty Sister and Little Sister for the four winter months when the mammals are most desperate to leave the cold of Kings Bay and crowd into the springs, where underground vents constantly produce 72-degree water. In the part of the spring that would remain open, paddlers would only be allowed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from December to March, ensuring the animals are undisturbed during the coldest parts of the day.

Also on the table are tougher regulations on businesses who depend on access to the manatees. They would be required to have a local Crystal River business license or obtain an exemption. They would also have to provide insurance and a guide to accompany clients to the springs. Also proposed is a permanent ban on any flash photography, unless a permit has been obtained for educational or scientific purpose.

The goal is to limit the odds of the sea cows being harassed, even inadvertently — be it from a flash bulb or an errant oar from an inexperienced kayaker. Public comment is being accepted until Jan. 2. But the agency’s plan is a reasonable response to increasing public interest in the manatees as a tourist attraction. Permitted visitors to the springs have doubled from 67,000 in 2010 to 125,000 in 2013 — fueled in part by the increased access for tourists since the government constructed a boardwalk alongside the water and hired a single tour operator to provide guided access. Before that, the only public access to the springs had been by water. But there’s every reason to believe that pedestrian access is also fueling more return visitors who decide on a second trip that they want the view from the water.

The Bradenton Herald — Shame on Florida’s Public Service Commission for putting investment risk on FPL customers

Florida Power & Light paints a glowing portrait of a proposal to charge customers some $750 million a year over decades as an investment in natural gas purchases from an Oklahoma company engaged in fracking. The state’s largest utility company presented this idea to the Public Service Commission as a way to stabilize long-term costs of gas and avoid market fluctuations by investing in gas reserves.

On Thursday, the state utility regulators serving on the PSC set a precedent by approving this investment by ratepayers — not stockholders. Customers should not be forced to invest in a private venture by a monopoly. The PSC decision — not completely unexpected given the commission’s reputation as a lapdog to utilities — opens the door to future approvals that burden customers with the financial risk that properly belongs on stockholders and the company. Other utilities are expected to line up for similar approvals.

The PSC ignored the opposition to FPL’s request, from the legal experts who represent the public in these cases and environmental organizations to the state’s biggest industrial energy consumers and the Florida Retail Federation.

FPL contends the joint-venture investment in PetroQuest Energy Inc. will save customers around $52 million by securing fuel at a set cost for the lifetime of the natural gas wells, which the company says are already in production.

The reported rate of return to ratepayers: 50 cents to one dollar annually. And should this venture fail to produce the forecast results, what then?

Currently, Florida does not allow utilities to profit from fuel charges. Natural gas expenses are passed to customers at cost. But this new PSC decision changes that and allows FPL to profit from the fuel that powers plants — some 10.5 percent. The company and its shareholders will benefit at ratepayer expense. Utilities are already guaranteed a reasonable profit on investments, and this new deal fattens that return.

One of FPL’s vice presidents, Sam Forrest, has stated that the company’s “investment would actually reduce financial risk for customers by cutting out the middleman mark-up and serving as a hedge against fluctuating fuel prices.” If this is such a good deal, why isn’t the company and shareholders putting up the financial risk?

The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Make sure SunRail stays on track

Even as SunRail adds an additional train at night between DeBary and the Sand Lake Road station in Orlando, Volusia County officials are right to put the brakes on funding a long-planned link north to DeLand.

At their Thursday meeting, County Council members instructed County Manager Jim Dinneen not to pay a $762,000 bill due Jan. 3 to SunRail for engineering plans on the proposed extension to DeLand, which could be completed as soon as 2016. Although the county in 2007 committed to spending $88 million over 25 years for SunRail service, in recent months it has argued with rail officials over the characteristics of the track that would connect the two county stations.

Volusia believes its original agreement guarantees a double track the entire 12 miles from DeBary to DeLand, which would let trains run more frequently between the two stops and possibly accommodate a future station in Orange City. State-operated SunRail says it is planning for the route to narrow to a single track for about 2 miles.

The state says the single-rail configuration still could accommodate a train every 15 minutes, which would satisfy the county’s concerns about efficiency. Nevertheless, Dinneen said Thursday he wants to see the Florida Department of Transportation make that guarantee in writing.

He’s absolutely right, especially since the two sides apparently can’t agree on the content and meaning of the original 2007 deal. When this many tax dollars are at stake, there should be no misunderstandings or ambiguities about how they will be spent.

The Florida Times-Union — The face of poverty worldwide is female

It’s tragic and ironic that a group of people who offer such hope for the world find themselves in such hopeless situations.

That is too often the plight of the world’s female population. Around the globe, women often are solely responsible for their families’ welfare yet are utterly unable to make a living wage.

The solution for many of these families is education. In poor countries, education can lift a female-headed household out of poverty in one generation, some studies have shown.

In comparison, a lack of education and social standing often doom these households to poverty and their inhabitants to indifference if not outright hatred.

A case in point is Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. This Pakistani teenager advocated education for girls in a country where some believe the teaching of women and girls is immoral and unnecessary.

The courageous Malala had fought for the rights of other girls to go school since she was 11 via an online blog. For her outspoken campaign, the girl was shot in the head when she was 15 by followers of the Taliban.

This year she became the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize, a global vindication of her continuing efforts to champion schooling for girls. How ironic, though, that she and other girls and women face hatred and marginalization every day.

Florida Today – Cuba deal, viewed from the gulag

Floridians are deciding which voice to believe after the United States moved to open diplomatic relations with communist Cuba.

Republicans and older Americans are likely to side with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, son of Cuban immigrants and a hardliner in foreign affairs.

“The entire policy shift is based on the illusion — in fact, the lie — that more commerce and access to goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” Rubio said.

Democrats may side with U.S Sen. Bill Nelson, the Brevard native who helped facilitate this week’s prisoner exchange of aid worker Alan Gross and an unnamed U.S. spy for three Cuban spies held here.

“The success of this monumental development depends on Castro’s willingness to grant basic democratic freedoms for the Cuban people,” Nelson said.

Catholics and young Cuban-Americans side with Pope Francis, who brokered the truce and urged the U.S. and Cuba to “strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the well-being of their respective citizens.”

Then there’s my go-to source, an Indian Harbour Beach writer-turned-Key West taxi driver who spent nine years in Fidel Castro’s gulags.

Rick Townson experienced firsthand the regime’s oppression and system of political indoctrination. He came to know and sympathize with Cuban guards and service people and the poverty and ignorance they suffered.

The Gainesville Sun – Season of giving

‘Tis the season for giving gifts to family and friends as well as donations to charities.

Charities tend to see a spike in donations with the approach of the holidays and a last chance to get tax deductions for the year. One-third of all online giving for the year occurs in December, according to the Network for Good, a site that lets donors give to more than 10,000 charities.

Florida residents, unfortunately, aren’t as giving as some of their neighbors in other states. A recent study by the personal finance site WalletHub found that Florida is the ninth least charitable state.

The study was based on factors such as the volunteer rate and percentage of taxpayers who donated to charities, with Florida ranking among the bottom 10 states in both those categories.

This is despite a glaring need in the Sunshine State. About 45 percent of households in the state struggle to afford the basic necessities, according to a report released last month by the United Way of Florida.

Groups such as the United Way have long relied on large employers to encourage their workers to give to nonprofits. But with workers increasingly employed by smaller businesses and more freelance workers in the so-called gig economy, those traditional ways of giving face challenges.

Alachua County is fortunate to be home to a large number of nonprofits. The United Way report ranked the county tops in the state for both the size of its nonprofit sector and income inequality, both due in part to the University of Florida’s presence here.

Nonprofits rely on help from the public. Don’t be a Grinch this holiday season. In addition to giving gifts to family and friends, make sure to donate to a local charity or two.

The Lakeland Ledger — UF Student Alcohol Abuse: New Leader Must Keep Same Effort

As University of Florida President Bernie Machen retires, a major part of his legacy should include his success in curbing student alcohol abuse. Incoming President Kent Fuchs must remain vigilant in those efforts, but he’s going to need help beyond the campus to take them to the next level.

The start of Machen’s tenure at UF coincided with five student deaths in alcohol-related incidents during a 15-month period. Machen formed the Community Alcohol Coalition to curb binge and underage drinking. The rest of his tenure has been marked by a lack of those kind of tragedies in Gainesville and a drop in binge-drinking rates among students.

Dangerous drinking by college students is a national problem. More than 1,800 students die each year of alcohol-related causes, according to a recent examination of college drinking by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle found that education and research efforts have failed to cut a binge-drinking rate among college students that has remained above 40 percent for two decades.

One story placed the blame on the failure of colleges to address environmental factors such as lenient attitudes toward underage drinking, booze-soaked traditions, and cheap and easy access to alcohol. The good news is that hasn’t really been the case at UF. The bad news is there are limits to what university and city officials can do.

Some of UF’s efforts are the same kind of things happening at most universities. All incoming students take an online alcohol education program. A marketing campaign aims to show that binge drinking isn’t the norm. But as the Chronicle points out, “that’s the relatively easy, noncontroversial stuff” unlikely to upset alumni or the alcohol industry.

The Miami Herald — Jeb Bush, on the brink

Former Gov. Jeb Bush all but formally announced last week that he will enter the 2016 presidential race, fixing Florida ever more firmly in the center of the quadrennial political drama and — more important — ensuring that a pragmatic, experienced conservative will be heard.

Mr. Bush’s decision to step into the fray came in a statement that he would “actively explore” a 2016 presidential run, a preliminary step toward a formal declaration. The dramatic developments involving the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba overshadowed Mr. Bush’s decision, yet it has a dramatic dimension of its own.

Most significant is Mr. Bush’s prominent role in the race at this admittedly early stage. Simply by announcing, he became the most serious presidential candidate from Florida in recent memory, perhaps ever. Former Govs. Bob Graham and the late Reubin Askew also waged embryonic presidential campaigns, but they never gained the traction that Mr. Bush enjoys today even though he is still weighing the odds.

A McClatchy-Marist poll last week found that the former Florida governor is a close second in the Republican field behind former GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who has yet to make his own decision. Mr. Romney has hinted that he might stay out if Mr. Bush made the race. Either way, Mr. Bush is poised to become the leader of the pack once all candidates make their own choices.

Florida hardly needs more political attention in a presidential election race. It has a perennial claim on being the biggest toss-up state in the country, and it’s also a primary battleground that has put an end to the hopes of more than one early frontrunner, going back decades. Remember Rudy Giuliani (2008)? Or, for those with long memories, the late Democrat Scoop Jackson (1972)?

As a favorite son, Mr. Bush would be the automatic frontrunner in a Sunshine State primary. And what the 61-year-old former governor brings to the race is a badly needed, serious approach to politics, an antidote to the embarrassment created by the birthers, deporters and moat-builders of recent campaigns.

The Orlando Sentinel — SeaWorld mimes and Pam Bondi: Champ & Chump

Champ

SeaWorld mimes: Their distinctive comic genre might not be everyone’s favorite, but the mimes at SeaWorld — Jim Hackworth, Lynn Frey and Tom Munson — wordlessly amused appreciative crowds for more than 20 years. Last week the three apparently got swept up in a larger layoff after a corporate shakeup that also cost the company’s CEO his job. A SeaWorld spokesman was mum on the performers’ fate; how ironic is that? But Munson left a gracious message for fans on his FaceBook page, and even thanked SeaWorld for the opportunity to entertain people. We offer a silent ovation to all three.

Chump

Pam Bondi: Florida’s attorney general continued her dead-end crusade this week against gay couples tying the knot; she appealed to the nation’s highest court to block the state’s ban from expiring, only a couple of weeks after a federal appeals court rejected the same request. Bondi has fought — and lost — against same-sex marriage at every turn. While wasting her office’s time and resources, she’s denied the protections and benefits of marriage to committed couples across Florida. On this issue, it’s past time for Bondi to take a lesson from the SeaWorld mimes, and go silent.

The Ocala StarBanner — Guards for guardians?

There are, sadly, all too many ways to exploit the elderly, from complex investment scams to simple theft. That is one big reason guardianship laws were created — to protect a vulnerable population. But a recent series of articles by our sister paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, exposed the reality that guardianships themselves sometimes become a form of abuse, draining elders’ crucial financial assets in the twilight years.

Though such cases don’t represent the majority of guardianships, there are enough troubling examples to reveal a system needing reforms. Steps should be pursued that would reduce escalating legal costs, strengthen independent oversight, resolve family conflicts before they get to court, and — when feasible — choose protections that are less invasive than full guardianship.

As the Herald-Tribune reported, Florida’s guardianship statute “is considered one of the best in the world, but its practical application has been criticized by advocacy groups and elder law scholars as paternalistic, ruthless and even corrupt.”

The series focused on cases in which elders were swept (often with little or no warning) into a court system that deemed them “incapacitated,” taking away their opportunity to control their own lives. Their assets were sold off or depleted in order to pay for care, nursing homes, attorneys’ fees and such, services that are often necessary when people present a danger to themselves or others. Yet there is a risk that less charitable motives, such as gaining income from the ward’s assets, can enter into the push for guardianship.

It would be unfair, of course, to paint the entire guardianship system with the sins of a few cases. They can be painfully difficult for courts to sort out, because of conflicting evidence, family feuds, and ambiguity concerning a ward’s true mental state.

The Palm Beach Post — Audit housing agency to build confidence, catch fraud

Government agencies are notoriously bad at auditing themselves.

Rooting out fraud or waste is tough, especially when bad publicity could put an agency’s budget at risk. But it’s the accountability part where things get really messy, especially if a co-worker, church friend or political ally is involved.

That’s why the waste and mismanagement at the West Palm Beach Housing Department, highlighted by Palm Beach Post investigative reporter Pat Beall, demands an inquiry from an outside, independent investigator — one with law-enforcement powers.

The city’s housing department has rightly been under scrutiny for a long time, and there’s no question it would prefer to look forward at this point. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently agreed to a wrist-slapping $1.5 million penalty against the city for shoddy record-keeping and poor oversight. The money will come out of the city’s operating budget, and then HUD will return it back to the city, but only for use on housing projects, with tougher contracting restrictions in place.

Meanwhile, the city has hired an experienced new director, Armando Fana, who previously headed HUD’s Miami office. He’s seen both the best and worst of affordable housing programs around the state, and after just a month, is already taking needed steps to ensure that West Palm Beach isn’t ripped off any more.

He told The Post Editorial Board Thursday that he has frozen existing projects, is prepared to replace the city’s pool of contractors, and has tightened the process for approving change orders. He said new contractors will have to guarantee their work for 10 years, and face penalties for finishing more than 10 days late. Meanwhile, he’s adding a position, an inspector, to ensure the city’s getting what it pays for.

We applaud the city, for these are much-needed reforms. But the accountability piece is still missing.

The Panama City News-Herald — Property rights should win out despite the cost

Did downtown Panama City lose when Joey Chapman, the owner of the Marie Hotel, won?

We certainly hope not but the future is unclear.

The plan to demolish the Marie Hotel and build a new structure with affordable housing for seniors on the top levels and retail space on the bottom floor was approved by the Panama City’s Community Redevelopment Agency in a 4-1 vote. The CRA is made up of the current city commissioners and it is expected that the commission will also approve the development in January.

Chapman spent much of this year wrangling with the commission over his plans for his property. The commissioners said they were attempting to make sure Chapman followed the city’s ordinances but their reluctance to sign off on the plan came just as city officials were finalizing a massive redevelopment of the Panama City Marina. City officials also heard from several business owners in the area who felt that affordable housing would be detrimental to growth in downtown Panama City.

While affordable housing is important — a report from Freddie Mac says the typical monthly mortgage payment for a Bay County home is out of reach for the typical Bay County family — Panama City is already carrying too much of the county’s affordable housing burden. So we’re sympathetic, and shared the hopes of those looking for The Marie Hotel to be transformed into a shopping center or a chic residential space for affluent residents.
But we aren’t the owners of the property, and neither are the project’s detractors.

Everybody hopes that downtown Panama City will be as successful as Pier Park and in our view that can’t happen until someone is willing to take a big risk on developing Harrison Avenue. As we have often stated the marina project seems to be that risky venture that will hopefully pay off.

The Pensacola News-Journal — Jailing children in Florida is costly

If anyone needs more proof that Florida’s practice of incarcerating thousands of children is a truly bad idea, look no further than a new report that quantifies the real cost to taxpayers and concludes that cheaper, proven alternatives would lead to safer communities and better outcomes for young people and taxpayers alike.

According to the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute, confining a single child in our state costs Florida taxpayers about $152 a day – or $55,407 a year. Although Florida spends less per child than most other states, that still works out to more than $110 million for the roughly 2,000 in state custody.

If this vast expenditure were making us all safer and helping children get their lives back on track, one could argue that it’s worth the cost.

But here’s the rub: It’s not.

In fact, study after study points to the opposite conclusion: Incarcerating children makes them more, not less, likely to commit crimes in the future. It therefore makes us less safe, not more.

It’s not just the JPI making that point. The National Academy of Sciences last year released a comprehensive review of juvenile justice policy and reached the same conclusion. And the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s own Roadmap to Excellence report recognizes that removing children from home and confining them with other delinquent youths only leads to more crime.

Not only does the data show there is a better way, common sense does, too.

The Tallahassee Democrat – My parents’ best gifts didn’t come wrapped

My parents didn’t spend too much time worrying about how my brother and I would turn out as adults. If we were happy doing whatever we were doing when we were kids, that was enough for them.

We were not, in other words, taught to think only of our future achievements. There was never a “Do this now, even if it makes you unhappy, because you will be a better person for it,” rationale.

My grandmother’s house, where my brother and I spent our earliest youth, was anything but childproof. To be honest, it wasn’t even adult proof.

There were rooms that nobody went into, because they were purely for show, roped off as if in a museum. True, the rope was invisible but it was still there. That was fine. The spaces to which I had access were all mine. My mother didn’t worry about neatness, although she did worry about cleanliness, and the rooms opened to everybody were safe places for everybody to be.

I was never spanked or hit. If we did something strictly against our family’s rules, we were yelled at, but not embarrassed, and rarely shamed in front of other people. We weren’t told that we were bad, although it was driven home that whatever we did we shouldn’t do again.

We were usually allowed to explain our side of things. I learned early on that if I could explain why I did something or why I wanted something, I had a much better chance of being successful. Language seemed to be the key. It got me attention: It permitted me to defend myself, and even to protect myself in advance.

I was put to sleep every night by playing word games with my parents. One or the other of them would tuck me in and recite a string of unrelated terms. If it was a good word, like flower, kitten or princess (it was 1958 — what did you expect?) I would respond by shaking my head once. For words I didn’t like — garbage, bug, subway — I’d shake my head twice.

The Tampa Tribune — St. Petersburg City Council members should reconsider Rays stadium vote

The five members of the St. Petersburg City Council who voted against the stadium search agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays can’t be faulted for raising valid concerns in the interest of the taxpayers.

But, in the end, their vote to kill the stadium agreement was shortsighted and may very well lead to the departure of a regional asset that feeds our economy and raises our national profile.

We urge at least two of those five members to reconsider the decision and call for another vote. Perhaps the legitimate concerns raised about the Rays participating in future development rights on the Tropicana site, as per the existing contract with the city, can be allayed with assurances from the team that those terms can be negotiated when, and if, the team finds a site more to its liking than Tropicana.

What is certain is that the City Council’s decision to schedule a workshop on building a new stadium in St. Petersburg is not the answer to keeping the team, as Rays owner Stu Sternberg has made it clear he wants to explore other sites.

The deal Mayor Rick Kriseman struck with the Rays, and that the council rejected Thursday, gives the team the best chance at finding success in this market. Had the council approved it, seven frustrating years of uncertainty about the future of the team in this market could have been put aside while team officials explored sites in and around Tampa and St. Petersburg, including the Tropicana site.

This was the position voters in St. Petersburg favored when they went to the polls a year ago and elected Kriseman over former Mayor Bill Foster, who soured relations with the team by taking a hard line on allowing the team to explore other stadium sites. Kriseman promised to restore relations with the team and find a way to end the stadium stalemate.

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.