- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

March 18

Tampa (Fla.) Tribune on SEALS coming to the rescue:

Three cheers for the U.S. Navy’s courageous commandos, who Monday thwarted an attempt by a rogue Libyan militia leader to sell stolen oil on the black market. The Pentagon said President Barack Obama authorized the Mediterranean intervention Sunday night. Within hours, a Navy SEAL team on the guided missile destroyer Roosevelt had boarded and taken control of the Morning Glory in the Mediterranean near Cyprus.

No one was injured in operation, which was executed with the characteristic SEAL efficiency.

It was a rare show of resolution by an administration that has often appeared uncertain, if not impotent, during the recent international crises that have stretched from Crimea to Venezuela.

The action signaled rebels that the United States will defend Libya’s new government, which desperately wanted to keep the militia from selling the oil worth several million dollars.

The tanker, according to the Pentagon, had been stolen by three armed Libyans this month and then sailed into Sidra flying the North Korean flag, although the government in Pyongyang immediately denied any connection with the tanker or the plot to sell the stolen oil.

Apparently the militia had hoped to find a buyer somewhere in the Mediterranean and use the proceeds to enhance its standing in the ongoing conflict with the new government in Tripoli that has been struggling to restore Libya’s financial well-being since Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal dictatorship was overthrown in 2011.

The Navy described the capture of the tanker as a blow to the political ambitions of a militia leader named Ibrahim Jathran, who is said to portray himself as something of a latter-day Robin Hood, stealing from the government in order to improve the lives of those under his command.

For eight months, Jathran has led a blockade of Libya’s main oil ports, hoping to bring the Sidra area more political autonomy and a larger share of the country’s oil revenue. His reasoning included the fact that most of Libya’s reserves are in Sidra.

Jathran’s antics put the shaky Libyan government at risk because it badly needs the oil revenue to help it meet operating expenses.

But the crisis was also a threat to Americans and other foreigners with a financial stake in the Libyan oil business.

That the U.S. Navy stepped in to thwart Jathran’s bold scheme is a welcome triumph for the United States at a time when success on the international front seems increasingly hard to achieve.

But the action should not mislead anyone. The president needs a foreign policy that demands respect even when the SEALs are not involved.




March 18

Gainesville (Fla.) Sun on open government:

Requesting public records in Florida can be such a long, costly and cumbersome task that the process seems designed to discourage records from being obtained.

State universities are particularly adept at creating obstacles to open government. The Sun faced a fight from the University of Florida in getting email and other information on the search for a new law school dean. Now that the search has failed, UF is shutting the media out of a meeting today between university administrators and law faculty.

The problem goes beyond UF. To mark the open government campaign known as Sunshine Week, The Sun requested three years of sexual assault reports from the police departments of the state’s 11 public universities.

A story published Sunday demonstrated that the departments lacked a consistent policy for handling records requests. Some responded immediately while others took weeks and needed reminders. Some delivered free reports while others charged as much as $140.

The story showed the need for the Legislature to strengthen Florida’s public records law. Thankfully this session, there’s a bill under consideration that would do exactly that.

SB 1648 includes provisions to limit fees for record searches. An agency that charges for the use of staff would be limited to the cost of the hourly pay of the lowest-paid person capable of doing the task.

Universities, in particular, drive up costs for records by charging fees for attorneys and bureaucrats to review them. Florida Atlantic University, for example, tried to charge a student newspaper editor $17,000 for records of sexual assaults on campus. An attorney helped reduce the costs to $900 for 681 pages of documents.

In The Sun’s case, FAU quoted a price of nearly $89 for 99 pages of records - a more reasonable cost, but still a hurdle to obtain information that the university is required to report under federal law.

SB 1648 also stipulates that agencies can’t ask that records requests be made in writing unless specifically allowed to do so under the law. Other provisions include requiring training of agency employees who deal with records requests.

The bill passed a Senate committee vote Thursday. The timing coincided with the death of former Gov. Reubin Askew, a champion of open government who fought to pass a 1976 ballot initiative requiring financial disclosures by public officials.

The Senate is scheduled to consider SB 1648 on its special order calendar Thursday. It would be a fitting tribute to Askew for the Senate to pass the measure, followed by the House and governor taking action to make it law.

As we mark Sunshine Week, state universities are an example of how public entities can flout the intent of Florida’s open-government laws. By passing SB 1648 into law, the Sunshine State would show that it remains committed to government in the sunshine.




March 13

The Miami Herald on state’s champion:

Reviewing the life and accomplishments of former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, who died early Thursday at 85, the most enduring thought that comes to mind is that they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

His death provokes mourning for the passing of a man whose devotion to the cause of good government did so much to improve Florida and the lives of its residents. It also arouses nostalgia for an era when leaders prized a reputation for integrity and worked hard to uphold it.

Askew was born in a hard-scrabble town whose very name evokes the American heartland - Muskogee, Okla. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Pensacola and was raised there amid a political environment steeped in the ways of the Old South and a belief in rural control of the Legislature.

That did not stop him, after he was elected to the Florida Senate in 1962, from helping force the pork-chop senators to surrender political power under the principle of one man, one vote. Nor did his roots in a conservative region of the state keep him from championing progressive causes designed to push Florida into the modern era.

He was a new kind of Southern politician, battling not only to increase representation for urban areas like Dade County, but, more courageously, upholding the principle of equality and pushing for desegregation.

When he ran against Gov. Claude Kirk in 1970, the acerbic incumbent called him, among other things, “a momma’s boy,” ”a nice, sweet-looking fellow,” and - horrors! - a liberal. Askew’s victory by a margin of 57-43 showed that Floridians were eager for new leadership.

Askew served two four-year terms as governor, a remarkable and productive eight-year period in the 1970s that created laws that changed Florida forever and gave Floridians a reason to have faith in government.

His signal achievement was turning Florida into the Sunshine State, etching transparency into the state’s legal code and Constitution over the opposition of many in his own Democratic Party. In the end, he was forced to turn to the voters to win approval for the “Sunshine Amendment” - it carried by 78 percent of the vote - forcing financial disclosure by public officials.

He gained passage of the state’s first corporate income tax, modernized the judiciary and, in his last year, 1978, stopped a push for casino gambling. He also named the first black Justice of the Florida Supreme Court (Joseph Woodrow Hatchett) and appointed Miami’s Athalie Range secretary of the Department of Community Affairs.

Throughout it all, he maintained an unequaled and enviable reputation for personal integrity that allowed him to avoid a number of government scandals that tarnished others in Tallahassee.

It is hard to avoid the stark contrast between Askew and our own time.

As noted, he introduced the state corporate income tax; Gov. Rick Scott wants to abolish it.

He supported transparency in every realm of government; Scott flies around the country and won’t reveal where he’s been or whom with.

Askew fought against disenfranchisement of black voters, despite the angry voices that wanted to turn the clock back. Today, Florida voters in black precincts face a series of obstacles, from reduced early voting days to fewer voting sites and shortened hours.

They don’t make ‘em like Reubin Askew any longer. More’s the pity for us.



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