A round-up of Sunday editorials from Florida’s leading newspapers:
Tampa Bay Times — Tampa’s use of informers needs review
Confidential informants play an important role in helping law enforcement solve crimes. But an arrest of a Tampa police officer and the investigation of others accused of colluding with an informant sheds light on how those relationships can go wrong. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor needs to move quickly to complete the investigation of the officers and conduct a thorough examination of her agency’s use of informants. She must ensure that the conduct of a few officers are isolated occurrences and not evidence of a systemic problem.
In April, Castor fired veteran homicide detective Eric Houston after investigators alleged that he accessed state and federal databases to steal information that was later used to commit tax fraud. The IRS found that Houston ran thousands of searches in databases between 2010 and 2012. At least 4,600 of the people whose information Houston allegedly accessed had fraudulent tax returns filed in their names. Some of those people were involved in cases that Houston investigated.
Last Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times’ Peter Jamison revealed that $27,000 in tax refunds issued to people whose names were gleaned from searches done by Houston and other Tampa officers was delivered to the home of Rita Girven, a registered informant. Girven has helped to secure an estimated 30 to 50 arrests by Tampa police. She apparently was so connected in the department that family members dropped her name to get out of traffic tickets. Girven, who has been arrested 34 times, says she could count on the department for up to $150 to help with personal expenses.
Houston and his wife, La Joyce, a Tampa police sergeant, became legal guardians for one of Girven’s children. In October, the trio’s unusual relationship began to unravel. Police overheard jailhouse conversations between La Joyce Houston and Girven in which Houston planned to use Girven’s food stamps and put money in her jail canteen. Houston was fired and arrested on charges of food stamp fraud and grand theft. That incident led to questions about her husband and an investigation uncovered the tax fraud scheme. Eric Houston, who has not been charged, maintains his innocence and says he did not commit a crime.
The Bradenton Herald — Manatee County beach condition flags now flying along roads
Thank goodness that West Manatee Fire & Rescue District began displaying flags that communicate the status of the waters off Anna Maria Island at the district’s Cortez Road and Holmes Beach stations.
Beach-goers can forgo driving across the Cortez Bridge and avoid searching for a parking spot at Holmes Beach upon seeing a red flag indicating high hazards.
Previously, those various flag alerts only flew at the lifeguard stations at Coquina and Manatee public beaches — seen too late for a hasty retreat.
West Manatee Fire Rescue will receive water condition reports twice a day from the lifeguard stations. Double red means water closed; yellow, medium hazard; green, low hazard; and purple, marine pest in water (jellyfish, stingrays, dangerous fish).
Better yet, there’s this: You don’t have to drive anywhere to find out conditions. Check the rescue unit’s website (wmfr.org) to find the link to the Mote Marine Laboratory beach alert site (http://coolgate.mote.org/beachconditions).
Then click on one of the flags to get a note about the water clarity, wind direction, surf conditions and whether there are respiratory irritants and dead fish fouling the beaches.
The site includes beach postings from the three coastal counties south of Manatee as well as Pinellas (Fort Desoto and Caladesi Island) and several Panhandle and Big Bend counties.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal — Scott’s grandstanding on VA not needed
Gov. Rick Scott isn’t alone in his paradoxical pursuit of state inspections of federal Veterans Affairs facilities. Earlier this week, five other governors joined him in asking President Barack Obama to grant states jurisdiction to inspect VA hospitals within their borders.
It’s no coincidence that all six governors are Republicans, four are up for re-election, and two are exploring presidential bids. That’s par for the political course.
Nevertheless, although Scott’s objective is laudable, his method is misplaced. Even if Florida and other states were granted inspection access, they’d still have no authority to do anything about problems they found.
Should states also inspect military bases for safety, or review Homeland Security as it responds to terrorism threats within their borders? Anyone who’s passed a fourth-grade civics class can tell you those duties are the purview of the federal government.
Granted, there appear to be serious issues within the nation’s 1,700 veterans facilities, including six in Florida. The average wait time for veterans seeking an appointment at the Gainesville VA is reportedly 50.8 days — ranking it among the worst 10 in the nation.
And last month, the VA’s Inspector General’s Office ominously visited Tampa’s VA, but has yet to comment on what it found. nstead of advocating such inspections — followed by appropriate action — Scott is leading a sardonic sextet of state executives as they inject themselves into a federal issue.
The Florida Times-Union — Seventy years later, D-Day remains a towering moment in history
Some anniversaries remain popular because the people make it so. That is the case with June 6, the anniversary of D-Day in 1944.
The news media sometimes notes historical anniversaries on round numbers, like 10, 20 or 25.
But for June 6 and Dec. 7, Americans keep those dates alive.
So we asked members of our Email Interactive Group, many with military backgrounds, for their comments.
WHAT MAKES US GREAT
Today’s society spends so much of its decreasing time focusing on the demise of our society that it’s crucial we remember what makes us great.
It’s been said that the ultimate act of love is laying down one’s life for a friend, and that’s what this nation did on D-Day many times over.
The invasion at Normandy was world changing in a number of ways, and the lives we sacrificed should always be remembered and respected with patriotism and pride.
The youth of today need to realize that freedom is indeed not free but was earned by the sacrifices of ancestors now mostly gone. It’s up to those of us today to ensure that these brave people never be forgotten for the legacy they left us to enjoy. Put simply, we owe it to them.
Bill Hehn, Jacksonville
The Gainesville Sun – One-stop success
Gainesville’s one-stop homeless center offers great promise, but expecting too much, too soon will only set it up for failure.
The center, known as GRACE Marketplace, this month started offering meals and other services during the day. Beginning July 1, it is expected to provide 24/7 services including shelter. Eventually a host of social services will be offered to help the homeless find jobs, get medical treatment and meet other needs.
People are understandably anxious for the homeless to move from the downtown plaza and tent encampments to the center. But it won’t happen immediately and will require efforts to garner goodwill from the homeless rather than antagonizing them.
It’s also going to take more community support to help the center succeed. While volunteers have been working hard to get the center into shape and the new state budget provides $300,000 for renovations, that’s only the beginning.
Theresa Lowe, director of the group running the center, told city commissioners Thursday that she expects a $200,000 budget shortfall. Commissioners rightly asked hard questions about the financial viability of the group’s plans. Leasing facilities on the site to nonprofits would provide needed funding, but the community must also provide additional help.
The Lakeland Ledger — Jesse Keen Elementary: Help Parents Learn More
On Sept. 30, parents protested at Jesse Keen Elementary in Lakeland. The majority of those protesting the school were Hispanic, but the participants covered a spectrum. Among its student population, 56 percent are Hispanic.
The protesters complained of three problems: the school breakfast, including spoiled milk; bullying; and an insufficient number of Spanish-speaking teachers, along with discrimination against those who speak Spanish.
The protest led to an Oct. 14 meeting with Superintendent of Schools Kathryn LeRoy. She moved out Principal Faye Wilson and brought in Crystal Lake Elementary Principal Joe Griffin. At Crystal Lake, in Lakeland, Griffin did “a wonderful job with the Hispanic community, and has a calming effect with children,” said LeRoy at the time about his performance at Crystal Lake Elementary. That school’s student population is about 32 percent Hispanic.
Following the quick-turnaround changes made at Jesse Keen Elementary early in the school year was a promise of a parent resource center to encourage more parental involvement at the school, reported The Ledger’s Greg Parlier in an article May 26. Additional promises included more Spanish-speaking personnel and more instructional opportunities for parents.
The Miami Herald — Bringing Bergdahl home
The emerging picture of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was exchanged for five prisoners held at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo, indicates he’s no hero, no all-American G.I. Joe, and might even be a deserter.
But what no one disputes is that he was an American soldier held by the enemy, and that alone justifies the U.S. effort to bring him home.
That is what the armed forces do. It’s part of unwritten but fundamental code of solidarity in the uniformed services. No one is left behind, and no one should seek, or offer, apologies for bringing soldiers home.
The circumstances of this particular case make the prisoner exchange contentious. The initial sense of relief and joy over his return quickly vanished when it was disclosed that PFC Bergdahl — he was promoted to sergeant during his five-year absence, as per military protocol — apparently walked away from his post in Afghanistan voluntarily.
That is a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, if it turns out to be true.
Article 85 defines desertion, in part, as anytime a member of the armed forces “quits his unit, organization or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service.” But the statute also requires intent “to remain away therefrom permanently.” Without such intent, it might still qualify as “absence without leave,” also a military violation.
The Orlando Sentinel — Ensure summer campers experience fun, not fear
School’s out for summer. That means hundreds of thousands of children soon will be belting out “On Top of Spaghetti” and other classic ditties as they troop off to summer camp.
Every summer in Florida, however, parents sing a song of anxiety. Because of dithering lawmakers, parents can’t be sure whether they’re entrusting their precious kids to summer camps staffed by saints or sinners.
Blame indifference, not ignorance. After all, a series of Palm Beach Post investigative reports — first in 2010 and another in 2012 — exposed a perilous loophole: the vacuum of licensing and regulation of Florida’s summer camps. Florida is one of five states that fails to license summer camps.
As the Post reported, the Department of Children and Families since 2011 has required universal “Level 2” background screening — fingerprinting and state and national criminal background checks — for everyone associated with the camps who puts in more than 10 hours a month. Good, right? Problem is, DCF says short of receiving a complaint, the agency can’t really impose the rule on camps for which licensing isn’t required. Compliance is spotty.
The Post recounted unnerving accounts of camps overseen by outfits whose boards included felons. A convicted child molester operated at least one camp.
The Ocala StarBanner — New energy focus
The Environmental Protection Agency’s newly proposed rule — designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions at existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030 — faced predictable cries of “job killer” from some Florida lawmakers and industry officials.
Yet it appears that the rule won’t severely hurt Florida. To the contrary, it could especially benefit the state in a variety of ways — from public health to the environment to the economy.
Before politicians get carried away with fighting the rule, they should consult energy companies and energy experts at universities to get the facts about likely impacts.
The rule, which will undergo a year of public comment before taking effect next June, is being proposed under the Clean Air Act, which allows each state to formulate its own plan for meeting the goal. States will have until 2016 to submit their plans.
Because the rule will be based on carbon dioxide levels in 2005 — a year when carbon pollution was at its peak — reductions will be less onerous than if measured against current levels.
The Pensacola News-Journal — Pipes not politics
The city of Pensacola and Escambia County need to work as one to reduce the chance of damage by the next flood. That means putting aside boundaries and other disputes to solve a chronic problem.
Escambia Commissioner Gene Valentino’s idea for a task force has merit: Gather water experts, engineers and others – political types need not apply – to find out how best to prevent the widespread damage we saw in late April. Starting from scratch, they should identify the problem and find a reasonable solution.
The task force must be a joint venture. Rain that floods the northern end of the county heads south. It doesn’t know boundaries. There is no “county flooding” or “city flooding.” It’s flooding and it’s happening more frequently. The search for a solution isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. Parts of downtown Pensacola flood whenever there are more than a few inches of rain on a summer afternoon. It affects the businesses that generate a large portion of the tax money the county receives. When heavy rain closes downtown the county suffers.
To be sure, any effective remedy means money. As Valentino said earlier this week, he’s not sure of the price tag, but it’s likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars. It is a wise investment to prevent the heartache and misery that comes with a flood. Besides, being known as a flood-prone community will give pause to business owners considering a move into the county. Also, we don’t want existing businesses, particularly those downtown, to move because of the lost revenue, repairs and higher insurance that comes with flooding. As a community, we have an obligation to prevent flooding, not pass it off saying it was a once-in-500-years occurrence. It wasn’t.
The Palm Beach Post — Florida’s method flawed for assessing murderers’ intellect
The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down Florida’s method for deciding whether a murderer is too intellectually disabled to face the death penalty, and rightly so. The state’s inflexible standard reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of how IQ tests work and ignored the inherent difficulties of measuring intelligence.
Considering that Florida was just one of a handful of states that applied such a rigid rule, last month’s 5-4 ruling portrayed the state in a rather retrograde light. But for once, don’t blame state lawmakers who set up this system. Blame the Florida Supreme Court, which interpreted the system’s rules so narrowly that a divided U.S. Supreme Court was forced to strike them down as violating the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Panama City News-Herald — Dumb laws need a second look
We’re not picking on Destin. Honest, we’re not. Cities and towns everywhere have dumb laws on the books.
But when The Destin Log’s Savannah Chastain wrote about a website that highlights Destin’s “dumb, stupid and ridiculous” laws, we paused to ponder just how such ordinances are approved and how they stick around.
For instance, there’s a regulation against giving away ducklings in front of businesses. Sounds silly. Turns out, though, it’s intended to discourage businesses from using young animals in promotional events.
And there’s this one: “No bicyclist shall leave a bicycle lying on the ground or paving, or set against trees, or in any place or position where other persons may trip over or be injured by it.” Seen simply as a law against leaning bicycles against trees, this could qualify as dumb. But it’s all about safety.
The website also cited Destin laws against selling ice cream in cemeteries and requiring that beachgoers put on their swimsuits in their hotel, not on the beach.
The Tallahassee Democrat – Healthy babies
Any news that fewer babies are dying is welcome and a cause for celebration. So local public health officials were excited at the end of May, when statistics released by the Florida Department of Health showed a marked decline in Leon County’s overall infant mortality rate and an especially sharp decline in the deaths of black babies.
However, the encouraging numbers come with a note of caution, a hint of what might be helping and an assurance that the struggle to save children is far from over.
According to the state Department of Health, from 2012 to 2013, the infant deaths per 1,000 births in Leon County fell from 9.3 to 5.3. For black babies, it fell from 15.7 to 4.8, which is well below the state rate.
There are several reasons this might be so.
There has been an all-out effort to combat the causes of infant deaths, by such groups as the Capital Area Healthy Start Coalition, Whole Child Leon, the Leon County Health Department, Brehon Family Services, the March of Dimes, Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare and Florida State University’s College of Medicine. The Tallahassee Democrat has made “Healthy Babies” a priority in its reporting and community outreach for more than six years.
The Tampa Tribune — Seeking tranquility at Gandy Beach
Gandy Beach is a throwback to an era when one could drive up the Florida shore and go for a swim without encountering condominiums, admission fees or a litany of rules.
But rules are coming to this little strip of Tampa Bay shoreline on the Pinellas County side of Gandy Boulevard.
And that’s a sad necessity.
Our region is no longer a sleepy rural community. Thriving West Central Florida now has more than 3 million people, and that growth, along with boosting the economy, has boosted the likelihood of public places being overused or trashed.
Rules may be an annoyance, but they also help avoid conflict and abuse.
As the Tribune’s Josh Boatwright reports, the Florida Department of Transportation recently posted signs where people pull off Gandy Boulevard onto the waterfront with a list of prohibitions.