- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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June 22

The Sun-Sentinel on Miami Beach’s 2 a.m. last call proposal:

In the aftermath of a Memorial Weekend shooting, Miami Beach officials want to make 2 a.m. the last call for alcohol on Ocean Drive, the city’s iconic hot spot for people who love the night life.

Never mind that the shooting happened at 10:35 p.m. Or the racial undertones in calling for a curfew after “Urban Beach Week” - an event that draws thousands of African-Americans to South Beach and has had some issues.

Miami Beach commissioners took the easy way out by punting the last-call question to voters. Think about it. Who turns out for municipal elections? Older people typically in bed by 2 a.m. The commission’s decision means that to save their bottom lines, businesses must pay to mount a campaign.

It’s our belief that nothing good happens after 2 a.m., but we also believe city leaders should make this decision after considering the data on public safety and the consequences for businesses and tourism. After all, they’re elected to make tough decisions, not pass the buck to the tyranny of the majority.

Plus, there’s history on last-call laws.

Three months ago in Boca Raton, city council members enforced a 2 a.m. curfew on alcohol sales after residents complained about noise and crime. The ordinance affects two clubs near Town Center at Boca Raton that were part of a land annexation in 2003 and allowed to serve alcohol until 5 a.m. But what’s good for a suburban community doesn’t likely translate to an entertainment magnet.

On the other hand, this month in California, the state Senate passed a bill to let communities serve alcohol until 4 a.m. If the Assembly agrees, a 1930s-era law that bans alcohol sales after 2 a.m. would be upended. Senators said ride-sharing apps, like Uber and Lyft, have made the roads safer. They also mentioned losing tourism to cities like Las Vegas and, yes, Miami Beach.

Now consider that two years ago in Fort Lauderdale, city commissioners proposed a 2 a.m. alcohol curfew, but changed course in the face of pushback from the business community.

“You go home at 2 in the morning in Dayton, Ohio,” said Parrot Lounge owner Tim Schiavone at the time. “You don’t want to do that when you’re in Fort Lauderdale.”

Fort Lauderdale now allows bars in two entertainment districts - the beach and Himmarshee Village on Southwest Second Street - to serve alcohol until 4 a.m.

But while Fort Lauderdale allows late-night sales in commercial pockets, Miami Beach proposes just the opposite. It wants to restrict only Ocean Drive establishments from serving alcohol after 2 a.m.

Hotels would get a waiver, not that hotel operators are happy. They wouldn’t be able to serve alcohol outside after 2 a.m., which affects popular hot spots like the Clevelander. No more sipping a late-night glass of wine and enjoying the ocean breeze. You’d have to go inside.

It’s short-sighted to single out Ocean Drive. South Beach has international pizzazz. Yes, it attracts a nighttime crowd that can make fuddy-duddies scratch their heads and wonder where these folks go during the day. But people who read the editorial pages are not its target market.

The city says it’s losing money on late-night alcohol sales - that the area generates about $197,892 in resort taxes, but the city spends $814,812 on late-night patrols, for a net loss of $619,920.

It’s a disingenuous argument. Ocean Drive visitors spend money beyond hotels. And more people visit the drive than rent hotel rooms there.

Last year, the city proposed a similar referendum, but held off after Ocean Drive businesses devised a 10-point plan to address more lighting, private security and the creation of a taxing district to enhance the area. The plan took effect less than a year ago and crime is down, according to police statistics.

Everyone in South Florida wants safety, but a 2 a.m. curfew on Ocean Drive will change the South Florida scene and hurt businesses.

The city should give the business community more time to fully implement the plan. If problems persist, a curfew can always be revisited.

“Little by little we’re implementing all these measures,” said Alexander Tachmes, attorney for the Ocean Drive Association. “Now it’s all in jeopardy.”

Miami Beach mayoral candidates Dan Gelber and Michael Grieco both support the 2 a.m. curfew. Grieco said he’s concerned about potential job losses and negative publicity, but still supports it.

Gelber told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board it’s about more than alcohol - a plan is needed to clean up the area with the help of code enforcement, noise ordinances and law enforcement. But he said the curfew will help. “We need to regain control of our streets.”

The city should learn from others and give businesses time to address the issues.

And don’t use Urban Beach Week to justify an unpopular course of action.

And don’t turn South Florida into Dayton.

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

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June 23

The Orlando Sentinel on tackling homelessness:

Central Florida has made remarkable progress over the past few years in the battle against homelessness. But it’ll take sustained leadership, cooperation and investment across the region to maintain the momentum and avoid letting those hard-fought gains erode.

Just four years ago, Metro Orlando ranked No. 1 among the nation’s midsized cities in its number of chronically homeless people, defined as individuals who have been without permanent shelter for at least a year. Since then - with government, business and the faith communities engaging, coordinating their approach and kicking in resources - housing has been provided for more than 700 of the chronically homeless. This past week leaders in the battle celebrated their success over the past couple of years in housing 168 of the most vulnerable individuals, who suffer from serious physical or mental illnesses; the effort easily surpassed its goal of 100.

The number of homeless in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties identified in the annual “Point in Time Count” has fallen by more than half in the past four years, another metric by which progress in the battle is measured. The 2017 total actually moved in the wrong direction, rising 29 percent. But the count, conducted on a single day in January, can be easily skewed. In 2016, it rained heavily on the day of the survey, which almost certainly reduced the number of people on the street. This year, the weather was good, and better-connected outreach workers and volunteers had an easier time tallying the area’s homeless.

A more troubling sign came recently when the Osceola County Commission passed a local ordinance criminalizing homelessness along U.S. Highway 192, the county’s main tourism corridor. The measure threatens anyone who sets up a “temporary habitation,” such as a tent or cardboard shanty, with a fine of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to 60 days. While supporters of the new ordinance argued it was just a tool to prod the homeless to find a program providing shelter and services or relocate, there is no emergency shelter for homeless men in Osceola County, and other housing options in the county are few and far between.

Indeed, the battle against homelessness is more challenging throughout Central Florida because of a shortage of affordable housing. Metro Orlando ranked third in the nation in 2016 for its lack of housing for extremely low-income residents, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition study. There’s much more work to be done on expanding the supply of affordable housing in the region.

While we understand the frustration of business owners on Osceola’s tourism corridor who say tourists are turned off by homeless people, slapping them with fines they can’t pay or throwing them in jail for a couple of months is not a viable solution. In fact, incarceration is the most expensive and least effective way for a community to deal with its homeless. When they are released, they’ll have a criminal record that presents an additional obstacle for them to land a job and pay for permanent housing.

Incarceration is also the least compassionate solution. In the latest Point in Time Count, 22 percent of the homeless were children, 12 percent were families and 11 percent were veterans.

Supporters of Osceola’s ordinance said arrest would be a last resort. Sheriff Russ Gibson told the Sentinel that he would urge his deputies to use “the greatest amount of discretion possible” in enforcing the ordinance. Two weeks after it passed, no homeless person had been arrested under the new measure.

Yet Osceola’s measure represents a crack in the consensus adopted by leaders across the region to fight homelessness with a strategy of providing housing first before addressing other needs. This strategy was buttressed by a 2014 study that found that chronically homeless individuals on average ran up costs for their communities of $31,000 a year, including hospitalization and incarceration, while they could be provided with housing for about $10,000 a year.

The other two counties covered in the Point in Time Count, Orange and Seminole, have continued to focus their efforts on providing housing for the chronically homeless. Osceola leaders would be smarter to stick with that strategy. Their taxpayers would be better off, too.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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June 23

The Florida Times-Union on the lack of transparency among local legislators:

Pardon our cynicism, but when it comes to the Florida Legislature’s attitude toward open government, it is based on experience.

Every year the Legislature passes exemptions to the state’s proud open government and public records laws. The number has now reached 1,122.

It’s enough to depress Barbara Peterson, who leads the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

Every year more exemptions are passed. And every year the state’s newspapers through the First Amendment Foundation try to limit the damage.

Some bills have noble motives but are overly broad or poorly written. In those cases, Peterson works with legislative committees to try to sharpen the focus.

One example of a bad bill that seems to have noble intentions was House Bill 111 that would shield those who have witnessed murders.

The bill was based on fear, not on actual incidents.

It was not necessary since agencies like Crime Stoppers already shield witnesses from being identified. And judges in criminal trials already have the ability to protect identities of witnesses.

And it was overly broad and poorly written in that even the definition of witness was unclear.

Another unnecessary bill was a House Bill 351 that would make secret the identifying information of an applicant for president, vice president, provost, or dean of any state university or state colleges like FSCJ. In fact, Florida universities have had great success in hiring college presidents and leaders within our open government rules. In fact, those rules probably have prevented some bad hires dut to better ability to check out candidates in public view.

But we’re heading for the day of Shangri-La for public officials when the state has open government in name only but only for the convenience of public officials and their supporters.

This has come to light after the Florida Society of News Editors published its first annual grades of legislators based on a series of important legislative bills.

Sorry to say, most of the grades were poor. And even the C grades for some senators probably are overly generous since some of the bad bills in the House never came up for a vote in the Senate.

In an email to the Editorial Board, Peterson lamented the poor scores.

“We have a lot of middle-of-the-roaders who received average grades,” she wrote. “I suppose that’s to be expected, but what the scorecard makes unfortunately clear is that we have few open government champions in the Legislature - senators or representatives who are committed to reforming and improving our open government laws.

“There are some who contact me regularly asking for the First Amendment Foundation’s position on a bill and others who speak eloquently on the floor or in committee about the importance of open government.

“But very few bills that would enhance the right of access to government records and meetings are actually filed. And I don’t know why.

“Senate President Joe Negron was the last legislator to get a bill passed that improved the Sunshine Law - that was in 2013. Before that, we have to look all the way back to 1995 when the Electronic Records Bill was passed.

“We’ve had true champions - Anne McKenzie, Peter Rudy Wallace, Toni Jennings, John Carrasas, Doug Wiles - and we need champions again. Our hope is that the scorecard will bring attention to the sad fact that each year our Legislature chips away at the constitutional right of access while rarely doing anything that would enhance that right.”

The Jacksonville area, we’re sorry to say, has several of the worst legislators for open government.

We respect many of these legislators; we endorsed most of them, which makes their poor performance even more worrisome.

Leading the pack of open government opponents is Rep. Kimberly Daniels with an F-. After an undistinguished career in City Council, Daniels somehow managed to get elected to the Florida House where she was a co-sponsor of a bill that would allow two public officials to meet privately.

Thankfully, it was not considered by the Senate.

When asked about the bill, Daniels provided this emailed statement: “I am for transparency, but I am also for consistency. This bill does not get rid of the Sunshine Law - it only mirrors what I can do as a legislator in Tallahassee. There should not be two standards. This bill makes the sunshine in Florida more effective and efficient. I look forward to supporting it again next year.”

The excuse for the Legislature is that sessions only last a few months; City Council meets year round.

Daniels’ bill was irresponsible given the track record in Jacksonville where City Council members regularly meet in open, noticed meetings to discuss the public’s business. There is no inefficiency in this process. In fact, the openness results in more credibility and more acceptance of the final product.

In the future, the local legislative delegation ought to band together and use the power of numbers to support good open government bills and oppose the bad ones.

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson’s “No” vote on the floor should not have been so rare - nor so courageous.

When will legislators learn that government is not about them; it’s about the people?

Online: https://jacksonville.com/

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