Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Pensacola News Journal on accountability for a polluted bayou:
Santa Rosa County reporter Anne Delaney delivered an important story last week exposing unchecked pollution in a Garcon Point bayou and the feckless flock of state and local officials who have done nothing to stop it.
What’s more disgusting? Blatant contamination of what should be our community’s treasured natural environment? Or the unwillingness of government bureaucrats to do anything about it?
There’s plenty of disgust to go around in the story of how Indian Bayou has been repeatedly contaminated by red clay runoff for more than a year. When it rains, clay from nearby development washes into the bayou. It stains the waters red, clouding out natural light and literally choking plants and organisms in their natural habitat.
Delaney said the sediment has been traced to two sources, according to state officials: Florida Department of Transportation projects on I-10 and run-off from red clay on unpaved county roads.
Homeowners near the bayou and marine biologist Barbara Albrecht have blown the whistle on the pollution, which is supposed to be monitored, regulated and enforced by state agencies. Furthermore, there are supposed to be penalties for those who pollute our natural resources. None of that has happened in this case.
What Delaney’s reporting revealed is more of what residents near the bayou have experienced throughout this debacle - apathy, incompetence and shameless finger-pointing from multiple government agencies.
FDOT is violating clean water laws by contaminating the bayou through its I-10 work. The Northwest Florida Water Management District and Florida Department of Environmental Protection have failed to provide any oversight or enforcement on FDOT.
And guess what Santa Rosa County Commissioners did when they were alerted about the problem? Nothing.
At every level, these government officials have failed the people who pay their salaries.
Consider the outrageous reaction from bureaucrat Brett Cyphers who is director of the NWFWMD. While admitting his agency knows the causes of the pollution, Cyphers dismisses the contamination and citizens’ concerns by saying, “It’s not harmful to people, it’s just clay.”
It’s too bad taxpayers don’t have the ability to levee financial penalties on Cyphers for such an absurd statement. “It’s not harmful Mr. Cyphers, it’s just your paycheck.”
Meanwhile, Santa Rosa County public works director Stephen Furman totally denied the state’s determination that county roads contribute to the problem.
“Because the county has done nothing that would have increased the sedimentation from the roadways, we conclude that the majority of the sediment is coming from other source(s),” Furman wrote in an email.
What a display of circular bureaucratic fingerpointing. No solutions. No leadership. The buck stops nowhere, when it comes to polluting Santa Rosa County.
Fortunately, some residents aren’t putting up with it.
In response to her front page story, Delaney received a letter from Clark Partington attorney William Dunaway who is representing Santa Rosa County resident Judy Walker. Dunaway has written to DEP and the water management district as the entities who are “charged with the protection of the environment and oversight of FDOT and Santa Rosa County.”
Dunaway’s letter asserts that the state agencies are responsible for protection and “uniform” enforcement, “regardless of whether those violators are private citizens, corporations or State/County agencies. This has not, however, been the case with regards to Indian Bayou.”
The attorney makes the case that clay pollution during at least 25 rain events within the last year should have carried potential fines of $25,000 per event, or $625,000 total.
“It is time for you to issue a monetary fine and designate those fines to support restorative activities in the Indian Bayou Watershed. Without your leadership and action, FDOT and Santa Rosa County are likely to keep kicking this problem down the road,” Dunaway wrote.
He’s absolutely right. It’s time for these government agencies to face the same penalties any private citizen would for ruining our natural resources.
Our region’s economic success depends on our natural beauty. If Northwest Florida’s environment is tainted, we lose everything.
It’s especially shameful that local elected officials don’t get that. Santa Rosa County Commissioners should get their act together, stand up to the state agencies and get to work on the side of their constituents. If they don’t understand how special our local natural environment is and how much it deserves protection, then maybe they should pack up and move to Orlando with all the rest of the cartoon characters.
The Florida Times-Union on restoring voting rights to some ex-felons:
In this state, 1.6 million people are barred for life from voting, and it’s high time Florida gave them their rights back.
Florida has the highest disenfranchisement rate in the country, reports the Brennan Center for Justice.
The non-voters are former felons who have served their time, completed their punishment but still are prevented from being reconstituted as community members with full rights.
Here, 1 in 10 of the state’s adult residents is prohibited from voting due to a felony conviction - the highest ratio in the country.
Nationally, the average is 1 in 40.
Here in our state, there is also a disproportionate impact on minorities. More than 20 percent of African-Americans in Florida are barred from voting because of a felony on their records.
And even more astounding is that of the 5.8 million Americans prohibited from voting due to their status as former felons, one out of every four is a Floridian.
Such strict rules for restoring an ex-felon’s voting rights are something in which Florida finds itself nearly alone.
Only two others states - Iowa and Kentucky - also bar former felons from voting for life.
Florida, Iowa and Kentucky also stand alone throughout the modern democratic world. No other democracy strips its felons of voting rights for life.
Now, however, a group is working hard to gather enough signatures to place a constitutional amendment on this state’s ballot in 2018 that would automatically restore voting rights for non-violent ex-felons.
The only felons not included under the amendment would be murderers and sex offenders.
These ex-felons would still be required to ask the governor and the Cabinet for restoration of their rights.
The effort has met with success, and advocates are confident they’ll be able to gather the 766,200 signatures needed by Feb. 1.
The amendment’s language has already received the approval of the Florida Supreme Court for placement on the ballot.
If the amendment makes it to the November ballot and is approved by voters, it would mean that the state’s archaic laws on felons and voting, which have been in place since just after the Civil War, would be vacated.
As it stands, Florida has one of the most restrictive voting rights laws in the nation. It bars ex-felons from voting for life although there are mechanisms that allow for appeals to the governor to have voting rights restored.
But the rights-restoration process is onerous and can take years or even decades before a decision is issued by the state.
The process became more difficult with the election of Gov. Rick Scott, who enacted exceedingly restrictive clemency rules.
Florida’s current law is also burdensome because no distinction is made based upon the severity of a person’s felony.
Driving with a suspended license, for instance, becomes a felony on the person’s third conviction.
Yet that convicted driver loses the right to vote as surely as does someone convicted of murder.
It’s high time all Floridians take a stance on the state’s out-of-date laws on former felons and voting rights.
When Floridians have paid their debt to society in every other way, the right to vote should follow as well.
Such archaic laws push whole segments of the population into a sort of shadow citizenship where they must meet all the requirements of citizens, such as taxation, but have no input through voting.
It’s time for laws in Florida to enter the 21st century.
The Orlando Sentinel on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program:
President Trump’s decision to roll back President Obama’s order protecting the 800,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation has put the onus for the issue back where it belongs - on Congress.
Now it’s critical for House and Senate members from both parties to resolve in the next six months - ideally much sooner - to prevent immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children from losing their right to live and work legally in this country under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Failing to revive DACA wouldn’t just deliver a cruel blow to these immigrants, who are Americans in all but their paperwork. Terminating their work permits would cost the U.S. economy $460 billion over the next decade, according to FWD.us, an immigration advocacy organization founded by technology industry leaders. In Florida alone, home to an estimated 33,000 Dreamers, the hit to the economy would amount to $1.5 billion a year.
Even some hardliners on immigration, including Gov. Rick Scott, have revealed a soft spot for Dreamers. “I do not favor punishing children for the actions of their parents,” Scott said last week, before Trump’s decision was announced. “These kids must be allowed to pursue the American Dream, and Congress must act on this immediately.”
Obama’s executive order, issued in June 2012, offered renewable two-year work permits and protection from deportation to immigrants who arrived in the United States before their 16th birthdays, were 30 or younger at the time of the order, and had lived in this country for at least five years. Eligibility was restricted to students, high-school graduates or honorably discharged military veterans who registered with the government, paid a fee and cleared a criminal background check.
It’s hard to imagine a group more deserving of a break than the Dreamers. Trump said many are “incredible kids.” But Obama issued DACA after Congress deadlocked on legislation that would have accomplished the same objectives. And federal court rulings strongly suggest the order might not have survived a lawsuit looming from 10 state attorneys general, which could have forced a sudden and disruptive end to the program.
The policy on which Trump settled, announced Tuesday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, stopped short of immediately terminating DACA. The Department of Homeland Security will consider any applications already in the pipeline to obtain or extend DACA benefits. The department also will give people in the program whose benefits expire before March 5 a one-month window to renew their status for two more years.
There are worthy bipartisan proposals in both chambers that would supply the solid legal foundation missing from Obama’s order to protect Dreamers and their ability to build their futures while contributing to their communities and the nation’s economy. In the House, Miami Republican Carlos Curbelo is the lead sponsor of a bill that would let Dreamers stay as long as they meet educational or military requirements and steer clear of any trouble with the law. His co-sponsors include two fellow South Florida Republicans.
If legislation like this is to have any hope of passing, leaders in both chambers must make it a priority. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said he favors a “permanent legislative solution” to protect Dreamers, needs to wield the power of his position to make it happen. Ditto for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And top Democrats in both chambers will need to work together with them.
For more than a decade, Congress has failed under both Democratic and Republican control to pass badly needed reforms to U.S. immigration policy. Here’s hoping a six-month deadline for saving DACA - after which 1,000 Dreamers a day will begin losing their work permits - will concentrate minds in the U.S. Capitol.
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