A top editor at the Tampa Bay Times fired back Wednesday after Pinellas legislators slammed the paper for calling them “Disciples of Darkness” because of transparency-related and public records measures passed this year.
“I understand why they are not happy,” Tim Nickens, the Times editor of editorials, wrote in an email. “They have no respect for open government, and Florida voters have strongly supported open government for decades. They also do not like it when they are held accountable for their own voting records.’’
A recent editorial criticized twelve Tampa Bay-area Republican House members for voting this year “to keep more public records secret and allow public officials to discuss the public’s business in private.”
“They all received D’s in a legislative scorecard on open government produced by the Florida Society of News Editors,” the editorial said. “Even those low grades are generous, because Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws would have been gutted if all of the terrible bills they voted for would have become law.”
On The Times’ dishonor roll are House members Ralph Massullo of Lecanto, Chris Latvala of Clearwater, Jamie Grant of Tampa, Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, Larry Ahern of Seminole, Dan Raulerson of Plant City, Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills, Jackie Toledo of Tampa, Ross Spano of Dover, Amber Mariano of Hudson, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes.
The Times editorial focused on the House members because the Senate did not consider bills that would have allowed two public officials to meet in secret and would have closed searches for university and college presidents from public view.
The paper also has editorialized in praise of seven Bay area House members back in May for voting against a bill (HB 843) that would have allowed two members of any school board, county commission or city council to meet in secret to discuss public business without any public notice or record of what was said.
“That is a rare win for transparency and accountability in Tallahassee, and voters should check the scorecard,” read that editorial, which featured the photos of those lawmakers in the print edition.
“So it cuts both ways,” Nickens said.
But, at the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce’s legislative breakfast at Ruth Eckerd Hall, a disgusted Sen. Jack Latvala inveighed against the Times before an audience of several hundred.
“We wonder why there’s such nastiness in politics?” asked Sen. Latvala, who got a ‘D’ from FSNE. “We wonder why people have the attitude about politics, whether it’s national or whatever? It’s headlines and editorial like that.”
Latvala said his grade was based on just two votes, one of which was to protect murder witnesses’ identities from being publicly disclosed. “If I had to vote on that 100 more times, I’d vote yes 100 more times,” he said.
His son, state Rep. Chris Latvala, also deadpanned: “I will say something about the Tampa Bay Times. They have a very fine sports section,” giving a shout-out to the work of Tom Jones and Marc Topkin, before getting deadly serious.
“In the last couple of years they’ve called us immoral, and now, twice, they’ve insinuated we’re going to hell over policy positions,” the younger Latvala said.
Referring to the tensions in the body politic that saw the attempted assassination of Louisiana GOP Congressman Steve Scalise earlier this month, he said the Times editorial was “the height of hypocrisy.”
Sprowls said the “hyperbolic nature” of the piece “raised the toxicity level of politics,” and said that one of the bills he supported that got a poor rating from FSNE was the vote that Jack Latvala referred to regarding witnesses to a murder.
He said that the bill came to him in the House Judiciary Committee from Ranking Democratic Member Cynthia Stafford, an African-American from Miami.
She had told Sprowls, a former prosecutor, there are people in her community who are reluctant to go to the police and share knowledge of a crime “because they’re scared we’ve got robust Sunshine Laws that allow someone to get somebody’s home address—where they live—and go knock on their door and intimidate them as a witness.
“So the fact that anybody trying to be intellectually honest would say that is in any way a bad vote really shows the level of disconnect of that editorial article and reality,” Sprowls added.
Regarding that bill, the Times editorial said, “Keeping the names of murder witnesses out of public records will not make those witnesses safer, and there is no evidence of the need for expanded exemptions for public employees.”