Sun Sentinel. April 27, 2021.

Editorial: A rare victory for openness, thanks to 14 Democratic senators

As the annual session of the Florida Legislature enters its frantic, final days, Democrats have had very little to celebrate. On issue after issue, they have fought valiantly but lost. They are reminded on an almost hourly basis that elections have consequences.

But Senate Democrats struck a rare blow for transparency and accountability on Tuesday, and they proved that a unified minority can still wield clout in an era of one-party dominance. The credit goes to Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point and 13 of his colleagues, who rejected more secrecy at state colleges and universities.

Republicans wanted to toss a broad blanket of secrecy over the politically charged business of choosing the presidents of Florida’s 12 state universities and 28 state colleges. The bill (House Bill 997) rocketed through the Republican House on a lopsided vote of 101-16, with, sadly, most Democrats voting for it. To the benefit of Floridians, senators closely weighed the benefits and drawbacks of this misguided idea and kept it from becoming law.

This broad new exemption to public record and public meeting laws would have kept secret the names of all presidential candidates until 21 days before a vote, when only the names of finalists would be made public. Students, staff and faculty members would be kept in the dark. The bill contained a glaring loophole to allow an outside search firm to recommend just one finalist, and college and university boards of trustees could vet candidates in secret.

Supporters, led by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said more secrecy would result in broader, more diverse pools of candidates. Brandes argued that the Sunshine Law creates a chilling effect because applicants fear losing their current jobs or alienating employers if their job-hunting becomes public.

Backers did not cite a single example of that in several committee hearings and floor debate. But opponents, led by the First Amendment Foundation, cited several examples of another problem: University presidents who caused serious problems after being vetted in secret. The foundation cited specific cases at Auburn, East Carolina, Oregon State and elsewhere.

The people of Florida favor transparency more than Tallahassee politicians do. Voters proved it in 2002 when they passed Amendment 4, which played a huge but mostly overlooked role in Tuesday’s Senate vote.

That amendment, placed on the ballot by a more centrist Republican Legislature, requires any new public records exemptions to pass both houses by a super-majority of a two-thirds vote, which means 27 senators if all 40 are voting.

The Senate includes 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats. All 24 Republicans supported the bill. Democrat Jason Pizzo of Miami voted for it, and Democrat Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville did not vote. If just one other Democrat voted yes, the cloak of secrecy would have fallen over 40 campuses. The official roll call vote shows every Democratic senator from South Florida and Central Florida voted no except Pizzo.

The highly political nature of university president searches in Florida makes a compelling case for them to be conducted in the sunshine.

The narrow defeat of this expansion of government secrecy comes at a time when one of the state’s premier institutions, Florida State University, is searching for a president to replace John Thrasher. He announced his retirement last September but agreed to stay until his successor is chosen. Among the names that has been floated is Richard Corcoran, the state education commissioner, former Republican House speaker and ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appoints the FSU trustees who will hire the next president.

Like Thrasher, Corcoran has a law degree, not a Ph.D., and he often showed a confrontational style as House speaker in clashes with a statewide teachers union. As education commissioner, he has been a critic of face masks in schools and has spoken in favor of a state takeover of low-performing schools. If anyone requires a thorough public vetting for the FSU job, it’s Corcoran.

Thrasher, a former Florida House speaker, state senator, prominent lobbyist and chairman of the state Republican Party, is praised far and wide as a strong leader at his alma mater, FSU (class of 1965). Thrasher has been a very effective fundraiser, and the university’s stature has risen dramatically, from 26th to 19th among public universities ranked by U.S. News & World Report. He greatly exceeded most people’s expectations.

But it’s worth remembering that Thrasher’s initial selection in 2014 was greeted with deep skepticism among students and faculty because of his partisan political profile. It was seen as another Tallahassee insider deal — a sinecure for a well-connected politician.

The public spotlight on Thrasher’s candidacy was beneficial and made him a better president. Decisions of that magnitude should not be conducted in secret. Thanks to Senate Democrats, some much-needed transparency was preserved.


Miami Herald. April 27, 2021.

Editorial: Too many of Florida’s long-term care workers are unvaccinated. That’s irresponsible

A majority of workers in Florida’s long-term care facilities and nursing homes still had not gotten the COVID vaccine as of April 22, according to state numbers.

That’s not only a startling fact, it’s a scary one, too. These are the people in charge of caring for some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, and Florida has already lost more than 10,000 residents and staff members to COVID-19 in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.

The enormous relief when those facilities finally were able to vaccinate residents was palpable. Why, then, have only 35 percent of nursing home workers and 42 percent of long-term care workers — according to numbers provided to the Editorial Board by the state Agency for Health Care Administration — gotten the life-saving vaccine themselves?

It’s irresponsible. It runs counter to compassion. And it has to change, quickly.

The dangers, to the facilities’ elderly residents, and to society at large, are real. The virus is mutating. The longer it takes to get most people vaccinated, the more chances the virus has to change, perhaps to a point where vaccines don’t work fully — or at all.

And people who have been vaccinated can still get the disease — though it is usually much milder — from others.

Just last month, an outbreak in a Kentucky nursing home was traced to an unvaccinated worker, resulting in dozens of infections, including 22 among people who were fully vaccinated. One vaccinated and two unvaccinated residents died.

How do workers justify potentially bringing that risk through the door of an assisted-living facility each time they go to work? These workers must come into close contact with residents to help with daily tasks such as dressing and bathing. Masks work, but one slip-up can be enough. Some of the variants are more transmissible than before.

Employers should step up. Nationally, some companies already are. Atria Senior Living said all staff members must be vaccinated by May 1. But Florida companies have mostly shied away from requiring vaccines, in part because they say they don’t want to drive away qualified workers.

And there is broader debate over whether a requirement can or should be imposed while the vaccines are still administered under an emergency-use authorization, or EUA, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Meantime, some companies are turning to bonuses or education to overcome hesitancy. For example, LeadingAge Florida, an association representing about 250 long-term care facilities, is hosting calls for members about the science and safety behind the shots., according to Nick Van Der Linden, a spokesman for the association. Another facility, in Naples, produced a video in which residents who’ve gotten the shots encourage staffers to sign up, too. These are all good starts.

In a political environment where the most basic scientific concepts have been the subject of wild attacks from the highest levels, it’s understandable that some people are filled with doubt. Just a year ago, then-President Trump, incredibly, encouraged health officials to look into whether injecting bleach into humans could fight COVID.

But at last count, 218 million doses of vaccine had been administered in the United States alone. Doctors continue to say that the risk of getting COVID is far greater than having any potential side effects from the vaccine. Those who work in healthcare have a responsibility and a duty to educate themselves on the vaccines. And then get the shot.


Orlando Sentinel. April 27, 2021.

Editorial: Sparing The Villages, Florida’s Legislature shifts growth burden to taxpayers

Tallahassee hasn’t been interested in managing Florida’s growth since Rick Scott got elected governor more than a decade ago. If you had any lingering doubts about that, consider House Bill 337.

That proposal to benefit a mega-retirement community called The Villages, will fundamentally change the way Florida pays for growth.

It’s going to shift growth-related costs for roads and other infrastructure from developers to, well, everyone else. Someone has to pay for growth, and this bill means you, the taxpayer, will pick up more of the tab, while developers pick up less through so-called “impact fees.”

The bill, co-sponsored by a Villages executive who moonlights as a state representative, has gotten through the state House and Senate is is going to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is certain to sign it. He loves The Villages.

Impact fees have long been an important part of Florida’s growth management landscape. If a development requires building a new road or widening an existing one, part of that cost falls to the developer, who pays a one-time fee on homes and commercial space.

Yes, those costs get baked into new home prices but it also means the working stiff who’s lived in a place for years is less likely to get dinged with higher property taxes to help pay for a developer’s road.

Some Florida counties, like Osceola, have tried to stay ahead of the game by steadily increasing impact fees to keep up with their explosive growth.

Other counties, like Sumter, have been giving developers what amounts to a free pass for years. Sumter — just west of Lake County — is basically a throwback to the old company mining and textile towns where one powerful person or corporate entity called all the shots.

In Sumter, the company that controls the county (until recently, at least) is The Villages, a sprawling community of look-alike homes, businesses and recreation centers for seniors.

The developers have serious pull in Sumter County, where commissioners kept impact fees for roads in The Villages artificially low, under $1,000 per home. That’s about one-tenth the amount developers pay in Osceola County.

That wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with road demands created by The Villages’ relentless expansion. So commissioners in 2019 raised property taxes across the board by about 25%. Voters rebelled and three incumbent commissioners were booted from office, replaced by candidates who promised fairer taxation through higher impact fees.

Unlike other politicians we know, they kept their promise and in March voted 3-2 to raise impact fees on homes in retirement communities like The Villages from $972 to $1,701, an increase that’s in line with what some other fast-growing counties charge.

New Villages homeowners can easily afford it. The community has a higher per capita income than Winter Park.

But The Villages’ development company was having none of it.

A bill was introduced in the Florida Legislature earlier this year to put the brakes on impact fee increases across the state. One of the co-sponsors was Brett Hage, who earns six figures as a Villages vice president in charge of — we’re not kidding here — residential development.

The bill would limit impact-fee increases in several ways, and it sailed through the Legislature, with plenty of Democrats in the House and Senate marching in lockstep with Republicans to once again chip away at the ability of local governments to make their own decisions.

Lawmakers weren’t satisfied to just stop future impact fee increases. The original bill was amended to make the new limits retroactive to Jan. 1, and it required a two-thirds vote by counties to approve increases.

That does two things: It would revoke the Sumter County increase approved in March and makes it all but impossible for commissioners to pass the more modest increases allowed by the bill since they now need four of five votes instead of a simple majority.

The bill also will undo Orange County’s recent increases, passed by the County Commission in March in anticipation of the bill passing. Nice try, but this Legislature is determined to micromanage local government, particularly when a company town like The Villages needs a favor.

We’re painfully aware this 2021 lawmaking session has been dominated by sexier, potentially more destructive issues, like making it harder to vote and trampling First Amendment rights.

This impact-fee bill got far less attention. But the consequences for taxpayers could be expensive.

Because a day will come when roads, schools, fire departments and other services can’t keep up. And when the payment comes due, it won’t be the developers who get stuck with the tab, it’ll be you.

Because, just like Sumter, Florida is a company town for developers. Always has been.