Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Miami Herald on a push by lawmakers to remove public notices from Florida’s newspapers:
If anything should persuade misguided lawmakers in the Florida Legislature that the internet remains an unnavigable place for too many people desperate for basic public information, it should be these interminable months of COVID-19.
From the beginning, last March, Floridians have had trouble finding information about the basics, including how to secure unemployment benefits. Now, too many seniors are on their own — or out of luck — as they try to line up appointments for the COVID vaccine via the internet.
Yet, some lawmakers this year will continue to push to remove from Florida’s newspapers public notices, those often nondescript black-and-white boxes of text alerting residents what their local government is up to. They are prompts, or prods, for residents and others to get involved in the process, to attend a meeting of the zoning board, the city council, the school board. Attendance allows taxpayers to make their presence felt and their voices heard.
Of course, that’s the last thing the more devious lawmakers in the Legislature want. They would rather shut residents out of the process, pulling the shades and turning out the lights on open government.
After all, the year of the pandemic also affirmed Florida’s brazen attempts to hide vital information from a public that is starving for it.
HIDING COVID DATA
Remember, Gov. DeSantis took his sweet time revealing at which assisted-living facilities and other care centers for seniors the coronavirus had been found; the Department of Health fired data analyst Rebekah Jones for not playing along with attempts to restrict public access to certain COVID stats.
If anything shows Floridians that their state government does not want them to access public information — even that which can save lives — it has been this year of the virus. But they can fight back.
Florida House Bill 35 is a repeat of last year’s legislation. It would no longer require local governments to purchase space in newspapers — and on their websites — to announce meetings, public hearings, impending votes, etc. Instead, those governments could post the information solely on their own websites. The problem is, residents will have to be extremely motivated to look for information that they are much more likely to encounter in their newspaper and the newspaper’s website.
So the Editorial Board will repeat what it said on this issue last year:
MORE NEWSPAPER READERS
— More that 1.2 million Florida residents do not have access to the internet, according to a report by Nielsen Scarborough in 2018. Many elderly and minority residents — whom Republicans shamelessly target when it comes to voting and other rights — can’t afford a computer and the fees they incur.
— In addition to their print audience, newspapers’ web audience is typically 10 times larger than most city or county websites.
— Newspapers are required to post copies of the public notices on floridapublicnotices.com, which has more traffic than many city or county websites, is easily searchable and is available to the public for free.
— Notices posted exclusively online will only be seen by people who look for them. Currently, people find notices when they are looking for other information in a newspaper.
— Internet access is not as readily available in some rural areas or for some segments of the population, including many whose quality of life is already precarious.
— Newspapers provide a paper trail when new legal notices are published and added to the newspaper’s website. That paper trail likely will disappear if left to local governments.
The Editorial Board further stated: “Clearly, this is a years-long effort to keep Floridians out of the loop, less likely to petition their government at local government meetings or able to hold their elected leaders accountable.
“It’s another attempt, too, to gouge newspapers — which many lawmakers wrongly consider the enemy — by cutting into their revenue.”
This year, however, the companion bill in the state Senate, sponsored by Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Lee County, adds another befuddling element to this already-misguided legislation: Senate Bill 402 also would reduce the number of Floridians who see judicial notices by removing legal notifications from newspapers, instead posting them to a website established by the state Supreme Court.
Is that really where a resident will go and discover his home is about to be sold on the courthouse steps?
We urge Floridians to see this issue for what it is — and isn’t. In truth, it’s not about saving localities money. It’s not about newspapers’ revenue — and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
No, it’s about government accountability. It’s about transparency.
And right now, we can see right through these legislative efforts that would let local governments throughout the state conduct Floridians’ business in the shadows.
The Palm Beach Post on Florida's plan to allow one pharmacy chain to distribute COVID-19 vaccines:
Palm Beach County commissioners are justifiably furious at Gov. Ron DeSantis for deciding that Publix, and only Publix, will be the outlet for dispensing COVID-19 vaccine.
DeSantis, months ago, cut local officials out of all the important decision-making about the pandemic and claimed it for himself. Now, from that position of superior wisdom, he has decreed that Palm Beach County — an area twice the size of Rhode Island — is the perfect place for a “pilot program” that puts these life-saving inoculations for 400,000 senior citizens solely in the hands of the grocery chain.
Once again, our governor shows how tone deaf he can be when it comes to helping all Floridians — especially people of color, and those who are poor.
The decision sidelines the publicly funded county Health Department from battling the biggest public health crisis in 100 years. Apparently, its role is done when its dwindling doses are used up, probably within a week. The department has to scrap plans for setting up mass vaccination sites when new doses become available, using locations like the South Florida Fairgrounds and FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. It had planned to send mobile units to low-income areas, and to offer shots in municipal fire departments.
On Jan. 26, commissioners let their anger fly. “I’m absolutely, absolutely disgusted that the governor of this state has 100% taken the authority to administer the vaccination program out of the hands of the public health department and given that authority to a corporate entity,” said Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.
This decision is completely oblivious to the reality of economic disparity. Publix does not generally place its stores in poor neighborhoods. If you’re in Belle Glade or Pahokee along Lake Okeechobee, there’s no Publix for 30 miles. “There’s no way in humanity my seniors can make such a long drive, and I wouldn’t want them to,” says Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson.
Remember that Black and Latino people are among the groups most decimated by COVID deaths. Yet of the 123,789 people in the county who had received the first dose of the two-shot vaccine as of Jan. 26, only 2.8% are black and 3.4% are Hispanic.
African-Americans represent nearly 20% of the county’s population and Latinos account for 23.4%. Together, that’s nearly half the county.
State Rep. Omari Hardy, D-Lake Worth Beach, put it bluntly: “This is more evidence that DeSantis doesn’t care about Black people. Not one bit.”
So far, the arrangement hasn’t been a big public-relations win for Publix. Because supplies of vaccine are so limited — a problem in all 50 states — the daily online race for appointments ends soon after the 6 a.m. starting bell goes off. On Jan. 27, Publix said, 37,350 vaccine reservations were snapped up in 90 minutes.
Some have happily reported that Publix pharmacists administer the shots efficiently and professionally. But many thousands more being shut out — if our Letters to the Editor are any indication — are surely pairing the name “Publix” with curse words.
DeSantis has not fully explained why he chose the all-Publix route for Palm Beach County nor said how much Publix will receive for the contract. His office is adamant that the decision had nothing to do with Publix donating $100,000 to the political action committee Friends of Ron DeSantis.
Yet let it be noted that Walgreens made just one $25,000 contribution to the governor’s PAC, in February of 2020. CVS is not on the PAC’s list of contributors. Either pharmacy chain, overlooked by the governor, has more stores in Florida than Publix. And either one is easier for poorer people to reach.
To be fair, it must have been tempting for DeSantis to fob off the heavy work to a private company that has its own computer system for making appointments — no more complaints to the state about that! Publix solves logistical problems all the time, getting frozen goods and fresh vegetables to hundreds of stores. And Publix has ample experience giving annual flu shots.
The idea sounded reasonable even to county Health Director Dr. Alina Alonso when DeSantis first mentioned it. Publix, after all, has a lot of pharmacy departments. But she says she never dreamed that DeSantis intended for Publix stores to be the only locations for vaccine distribution. Who would?
The outcry has had an effect. On Jan. 29, state emergency managers said 5,000 vaccines would be diverted from Publix to county health officials, who plan to dispense them at clinics in Belle Glade and Lake Worth Beach. It’s a welcome correction.
Now it needs to be sustained to make sure that thousands more of the lifesaving doses reach people in low-income areas in such places as Riviera Beach and Delray Beach, as well as the Glades.
The Gainesville Sun on longstanding efforts to breach a dam and restore an endangered Florida river:
Fifty years ago this month, President Richard Nixon ordered an end to an environmentally destructive barge canal that would have bisected the Florida peninsula.
Yes, Richard Nixon. Before he resigned office in disgrace, Nixon had a respectable environmental record that included creating the Environmental Protection Agency, signing the Clean Air Act into law and canceling funding for the financial boondoggle known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal.
Other Republican leaders who followed took a similar approach when it came to removing the barge canal project’s most damaging legacy: a dam that backed up the Ocklawaha River and flooded about 7,500 forested acres, creating the Rodman Reservoir.
Gov. Jeb Bush called for the dam’s removal and vetoed a bill that would have protected it, and then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist advocated taking down the dam. Democratic Florida governors Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles also sought to remove the dam, all to no avail.
Today the Kirkpatrick Dam — named after the late Sen. George Kirkpatrick, R-Gainesville, who long fought efforts to remove it — and the Rodman Reservoir remain. The reservoir is a weedy mess filled with submerged stumps but is still a draw for hardcore bass fishing, so some Putnam County residents still fight to keep the dam intact.
A renewed effort now seeks to finish the grassroots campaign against the barge canal started by the late Marjorie Harris Carr of Micanopy by breaching the dam and restoring the Ocklawaha. Land acquired for the canal is now a linear park named after Carr, and restoring the river would similarly provide environmental, economic and recreational benefits that far exceed the limited appeal of the reservoir.
The benefits include allowing access to the “lost springs” submerged due to the dam, resurrecting wetlands, allowing the migration of manatees and other aquatic wildlife to Silver Springs, and letting cleaner water flow to the St. Johns River.
There is also a financial argument. Environmental groups have banded together as the Free the Ocklawaha Coalition to make the case that removing at least part of the aging dam would be smarter than paying for its continued maintenance and upkeep. They cite an economist’s findings that a restored Ocklawaha would bring more outdoor recreation than the reservoir’s declining fishery.
Such economic benefits should appeal to Republicans such as Gov. Ron DeSantis. Yet Florida Defenders of the Environment, the group started by Marjorie Carr and now led by her granddaughter Jennifer, had hoped for engagement with the DeSantis’ administration but so far has gotten little other than a few talks.
“We will, of course, continue to work closely with interested stakeholders to ensure that all perspectives are considered,” DeSantis’ science officer, Tom Frazer, told the Orlando Sentinel.
DeSantis’ naming of Frazer, former director of the University of Florida’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, as the state’s first science officer was among the governor’s early moves that suggested he would take environmental protection seriously. He would burnish his environmental credentials by taking a stand for removing the reservoir.
Enough time has been wasted already. In April, the Ocklawaha was named one of America’s most endangered rivers by the national American Rivers group. Fifty years after Nixon cancelled the Cross Florida Barge Canal, it’s time to finish the job and free the Ocklawaha.