- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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April 9

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune on

Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals has let stand a local judge’s narrow definition of the state’s open-government law. Unless the appellate court agrees to issue a written opinion at the request of the plaintiffs, Citizens for Sunshine, the case will most likely end.

No doubt many taxpayers in the city of Sarasota - who have funded Commissioner Susan Chapman’s defense against a lawsuit that has consumed more than three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees - will welcome that outcome.

But resolution of the case won’t end the political and legal debates over when, and under what circumstances, the state’s Sunshine Law applies to elected officials.

At the heart of the case was what the plaintiffs asserted was an Oct. 10, 2013, public meeting that included Chapman, fellow Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, City Manager Tom Barwin, other appointed city officials and about 20 merchants. As a result, Citizens for Sunshine contended, public notice, public access and the recording of minutes were required under state law.

In his July 2016 ruling, Circuit Judge Brian A. Iten said the following transpired at a downtown Sarasota restaurant: “Here, a gathering clearly occurred. Issues were discussed at said gathering that were reasonably foreseeable to come before the City Commission. The gathering was not open to the public. No prior notice was provided. Minutes were not taken.”

The judge concluded that the “gathering” did not meet the state’s definition of a public meeting under the Sunshine Law. Even though Chapman spoke to those assembled, and Atwell was in the room, Iten said the remarks were directed to the merchants.

He determined that Chapman didn’t engage in “deliberation” or “discuss” with her fellow commissioner a relevant report on homelessness - a matter that had been, and continued to be, the subject of debate among commissioners.

Those terms could be parsed differently. Chapman had written emails after the gathering that stated, in part, “there was a meeting last Thursday with area merchants to discuss the issue.” Another passage said: “Let’s have more of those meetings, so we can make sure we share information, strategies and solutions.”

Nevertheless, Iten ruled that the gathering was not a “public meeting” covered by the Sunshine Law. The appeals court agreed.

But the determinations by the courts are not consistent with other precedents involving the Sunshine Law and what we thought was a consensus that multiple officials from the same board should not participate in private meetings, even with constituents, on issues pending before that body.

The Florida attorney general’s longstanding interpretation of the law supports that view: “The Sunshine Law applies to all discussions or deliberations as well as the formal action taken by a board or commission. The law, in essence, is applicable to any gathering, whether formal or casual, of two or more members of the same board or commission to discuss some matter on which foreseeable action will be taken by the public board or commission.”

That assessment of the law led us to urge the City Commission, Atwell and Chapman to settle the case. The commission majority and Atwell did so, but Chapman decided to fight, as was her right.

Chapman’s vindication comes as she prepares to leave office, having lost a re-election bid. But future commissioners and other elected officials would be wise to note a caveat in Iten’s opinion:

“This court’s ruling in this case should not be deemed an endorsement of Commissioner Chapman’s decision to attend the … gathering … with full knowledge that another commissioner would be in attendance. Those entrusted to hold public office should always endeavor to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

Online: https://www.heraldtribune.com/

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April 10

The Miami Herald on its Pulitzer Prize win:

We don’t fake it.

The Miami Herald news pages traffic only in the truth. The opinion pages present well-grounded, fact-based commentary, either confrontational or comforting depending upon where readers fall.

That’s right, we’re bragging - after snagging two Pulitzer Prizes. The 101st edition of the most prestigious award for journalism, fiction and nonfiction writing, commentary, and more - was announced on Monday, and the Miami Herald won much-deserved recognition - twice.

The Miami Herald, which worked along with McClatchy and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, was awarded the Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting for its deep dive into the “Panama Papers.” The series of stories was a collaboration of over 300 reporters on six continents who threw back the covers on the hidden infrastructure and global scale of offshore tax havens. A Panama City-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, was the rotten core.

It was a powerful piece of work that got results: Investigations were launched, fines levied, resignations tendered and reforms put in place.

And the Herald’s editorial cartoonist, Jim Morin, became a member of an exclusive club by being honored twice in his 38-year career at the newspaper. His 1996 Pulitzer win was followed up by his victory Monday “for editorial cartoons that delivered sharp perspectives through flawless artistry, biting prose and crisp wit.” The judges got it right on all three scores, omitting only that he’s a really nice guy, too.

As Morin said about his creative process in a Facebook Live interview with his colleagues on the Editorial Board: “It’s sort of like a bunch of people sitting at a bar talking: ‘Can you believe this thing that happened ?!” There’s always the same thing that everyone is talking about and that’s where cartoonists end up.”

“I want to determine how you feel about it and I want to be as literal in the cartoon about it as I possibly can.”

At a time when people - even a president - too easily dismiss the hard work of journalists as “fake,” it’s important to recognize and celebrate excellence in journalism that speaks truth to power.

Let’s be honest: There’s no alternative to the facts.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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April 10

The Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale on why Florida’s Senate budget is an investment in education:

A $4 billion canyon on spending divides the Florida Senate and House in their competing versions of the next state budget. And while the rival bottom lines reflect numerous policy differences, the most striking and consequential one might be in the level of support for Florida’s 12 public universities.

The Senate would increase overall state funding for the universities by $334 million next year, about 12 percent. The House would cut that category by $183 million, almost 7 percent.

The Senate also would make the universities accessible to more Floridians by expanding financial aid by $320 million. This total includes a $180 million increase in Bright Futures merit scholarships and a $126 million boost in need-based aid. The House, by contrast, would reduce Bright Futures by more than $11 million, though it would bump up need-based aid by $7 million.

Negotiators in the two chambers will need to reconcile these and any other discrepancies before passing a budget and sending it to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. But if lawmakers are truly committed to enhancing the quality and competitiveness of the state’s university system - and ultimately the state’s economy - the Senate’s position will prevail. A first-class higher education system is a critical component in attracting more high-wage jobs to Florida.

The Senate would give universities $75 million to hire top faculty to strengthen their research programs and $55 million to support top graduate programs. It would increase by $25 million funding to reward universities that meet performance goals. It would double annual funding from $10 million to $20 million for a program intended to help “emerging pre-eminent” universities move toward pre-eminent, or elite, status. The University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida are the two institutions that qualify under the program.

The Senate would partially offset its spending increases by cutting $55 million from state college remedial programs. It’s unfortunate, and unnecessary, to pit universities and colleges against each other for state funding. Both are good investments in Florida’s future.

But even the Senate’s reduction for colleges is modest compared to the total cuts the House would make in higher education funding. Those include wiping out the emerging pre-eminent program, cutting state funding for university foundations by $53 million, and zeroing out more than a dozen projects at campuses across the state. Colleges would be targeted with $61 million in cuts.

State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, who is spearheading the House’s higher education budget, told the News Service of Florida that state funding for universities has grown “exponentially faster” than other parts of the state budget, except for Medicaid. But while university funding has indeed climbed in recent years, it is only now returning to levels it reached a decade ago, before the Great Recession brought deep cuts. And state and local funding for higher education in Florida is still stuck below the national average, according to the College Board. Several of Florida’s key rivals for jobs and investment - including Georgia, Texas, California and New York - invest more per student in their public universities, giving them a leg up in attracting high-wage employers counting on skilled workforces.

Universities in some states with lower public funding make up the financial gap by charging higher tuition. New Hampshire, for example, with the lowest state and local funding, charges the highest tuition. But in Florida, university tuition has been frozen since the fall of 2013, and is the second lowest in the nation, according to the College Board. Low tuition can be an asset, but only if lawmakers don’t starve universities of state funding at the same time.

Ahern said universities and colleges could tap their reserves to make up for state funding reductions next year. The House budget assumes universities will come up with $120 million that way. This is ironic, considering House leaders have insisted they need to make deep spending cuts, despite a projected state surplus next year, to put more in reserve to prepare for future budget shortfalls. Why should universities and colleges be expected to raid their reserves next year while state legislators build theirs?

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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