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Editorial Roundup: Florida

April 21, 2021 GMT

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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April 21

The South Florida Sun Sentinel on the guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin in George Floyd’s killing:

A murderer has been found guilty of his crime. That should not be cause for celebration. The arrival of justice should be expected, not greeted with a sense of palpable relief. And yet, in the case of Derek Chauvin, justice had been delayed or excused in so many other cases that Tuesday’s guilty verdict had to serve as a reminder that no one is above the law — something we should not need to be reminded of. Something that should be expected. The cause now is to make sure that it is.

For too long, guarded by a combination of policy and culture, abusive police officers have been allowed to violate the law. It continues today, and it is abetted not only by police officers who are loath to investigate their colleagues but by state and local governments run by elected officials who fear the consequences of not being seen as “tough on crime.”

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In Florida, that has meant a state legislature and governor who saw the cries for justice since the murder of George Floyd and felt that the best way to address them would be to shut them up. The day before the verdict in the Chauvin case came down, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 1, the so-called “anti-riot” law. The last section of the bill notes that it becomes law the moment it is signed.

We do not believe it was coincidence that DeSantis signed the bill quickly before the Chauvin verdict came down. Had the verdict gone the other way, authorities would have had a new, powerful tool to quell any dissent.

A reminder: Rioting was already illegal in Florida. Under DeSantis’ new law, anyone who participates in a protest at which anyone else gets violent could be arrested for rioting, a third-degree felony, and anyone who commits a battery in furtherance of a riot is now guilty of an additional third-degree felony.

Which raises the question: In Fort Lauderdale, when Officer Steven Pohorence shoved a protestor to the ground, touching off a melee in what had been a peaceful protest, was he committing a felony? And should the rest of the officers there have been arrested as participants?

Ridiculous, of course, but then, so is DeSantis’ “anti-riot” law.

This is the sort of legal reform the state offers us in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and it only illustrates how far we have to go.

What we truly need is a prosecutorial office dedicated to crimes committed by law enforcement, so that the prosecutor involved is not beholden to police.

We need an end to qualified immunity for police officers so that they can be sued for their misdeeds, a reform that is more achievable than it may seem, drawing support from both the left and the more libertarian-minded right.

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We need to curb the power of police unions, through which wildly guilty officers have been shielded from any scrutiny, up to and including an instance in Boston, reported doggedly by the Boston Globe, in which the Boston police commissioner learned of possible child sexual abuse on the part of an officer, but after pressure from the union, the officer was allowed to keep his badge and even investigated child sexual assault cases. The officer, Patrick M. Rose Sr., later became president of the union before finally retiring in 2018. In August 2020, he was finally arrested, charged with 33 counts of abusing six children over decades.

Police should have the right to collectively bargain, just like any other workers. But if the state can ban teachers from striking, it can certainly ban police unions from negotiating complicated appeals processes that guarantee bad cops return to the force, repeal the state’s police bill of rights and bar law enforcement agencies from hiring police who have been fired while on the job elsewhere.

We don’t need leaders who, like U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, encourage already-angry people to “get confrontational” if a court verdict doesn’t go their way. But we also don’t need leaders like DeSantis who suggested Chauvin was found guilty because of the threat of mob violence.

“I don’t know what happened with this verdict,” DeSantis was quick to add in his appearance on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle Tuesday night, “but if that’s something that can potentially happen, where you basically have justice meted out because the jury is scared of what a mob may do, and again, I’m not saying that’s what happened here … that’s completely antithetical to the rule of law.”

Viewers of Fox News should be all too familiar with guests and hosts couching their entirely inappropriate comments in such guarded speculation.

What we need are more people like Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who recorded Chauvin crushing the life out of George Floyd. Were it not for her actions that day, perhaps the Minneapolis Police Department’s account of the incident would be all we had. That press release was headlined “Man dies after medical incident during police interaction.”

While we wait — seemingly interminably — for action on the part of our government, we will need more brave Fraziers who won’t let incidents like Floyd’s murder be swept under the rug.

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

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April 21

The Daytona Beach News-Journal on funding for Florida’s tourism industry:

Florida’s tourism and hospitality sector took it on the chin in the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps more than any other industry: In 2020, the state’s leading industry hemorrhaged money, with 50 million fewer visitors than 2019.

We suspect that — unlike our governor — most hospitality business leaders understand that they were on the morally mandatory losing end of a life-saving sacrifice play. Shutting down travel early in the pandemic probably saved lives. Yes, Florida was host to some epicly stupid “ super-spreader” events. But we also saw many local hotels, restaurants — even big events like NASCAR races — slow down, space out. And make less money.

A lot less money: Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, calculates that hotels alone lost $65 million.

A banner sporting the “SaveLocalNSB” hashtag and illustration waves in front of the New Smyrna Beach Brewing Company on Canal Street in New Smyrna Beach. The bright banners can be seen in front of storefronts throughout New Smyrna, which indicate their partnership in the Save Local NSB project, a marketing initiative to support small businesses through the coronavirus pandemic.

But the end is in sight, we hope. Many Floridians, and would-be visitors, have been vaccinated and are ready for some fun after months of quarantine followed by months of mask-wearing and social distancing. Across Florida, local and state tourism authorities are plotting the way back to the time, just 13 short months ago, when tourism business was booming.

Much of that work is taking place at the county level, where tourism development agencies are planning (or have already launched) campaigns that often play up Florida’s potential as a friendly state that can accommodate many (for the most part) safe vacation activities.

Tourists walk beachside next to a landmark spot along the Boardwalk in Daytona Beach. The destination has endured record-setting declines in tourism numbers at the height of the pandemic and tourism officials are using a gentler approach to reach potential visitors.

Leaders in the Florida Legislature should be cheering them on, and consider using a portion of the federally-funded manna — aka coronavirus relief aid — to help augment the massive marketing campaigns that will be needed to get Florida back on track as people slowly emerge from their bubbles and start to dream about vacation again.

Instead, a majority of the House voted to draw a giant target on tourism development tax funding, opening up the local portion to be diverted away from Florida’s No. 1 industry and toward flood mitigation and control projects.

There’s little doubt that more investment in flood control might help many parts of the state weather the threat of climate change, or at least delay its effects. This has to be a priority for state lawmakers. It’s too late to deny that it’s happening; in some parts of the state, streets routinely flood with the tides even on sunny days.

But why are state lawmakers pitting one of the state’s top environmental challenges against its No. 1 industry?

Then consider this: For the first time ever, lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide seem united on the imperative to do something about the ever more virulent pollution that is devastating aquatic ecosystems across the state. It’s another massive job that includes replacing ailing septic tanks and stopping the flow of wastewater, pesticides and petroleum byproducts into rivers, lagoons and springs.

Where do lawmakers intend to find that money? Right now, many are lining up behind a plan to raid the state’s innovative affordable housing fund.

That’s right. They’re targeting affordable housing just as Florida’s real-estate market is going insane, with home prices and rents rapidly climbing out of reach for many middle-class Floridians like teachers and police officers.

Why are lawmakers setting up death matches between the state’s top priorities instead of looking for ways to fund them both — while, in the meantime, many lawmakers remain committed to boondoggles like the unnecessary, multi-billion-dollar plan to ram toll roads through sensitive and now vacant land?

We’d love to hear an explanation. Right now, we’re baffled.

Online: https://www.news-journalonline.com

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April 20

The Gainesville Sun on lasting transparency issues with Florida’s release of COVID-19 data:

Gov. Ron DeSantis regularly bashes the media over the way that his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been covered, claiming he isn’t being treated fairly.

Yet, the DeSantis administration has made it more difficult for news agencies to gather vital information on the state response to the pandemic. As the governor highlights successes in fighting the virus during regular news conferences, data and other information that reveal a mixed record have been kept hidden from the public until news organizations sue the state.

State agencies have refused or slow-walked public records requests for such information as infection rates at nursing homes and schools, vaccine agreements with grocery stores and pharmacies, and data on COVID-19 variants, as Jeffrey Schweers of the USA TODAY Network – Florida recently reported.

Florida is supposed to provide broad access to public records, as one of the few states where the public’s right to this information is embedded in the state’s constitution. But DeSantis has continued a trend toward secrecy that started under his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott, and also can be seen in public records exemptions that keep growing in number each state legislative session.

Such secrecy is particularly troubling during a public health crisis. Timely access to information about coronavirus outbreaks and variants helps people understand risks and prevent themselves and their loved ones from catching the deadly COVID-19 virus, which has claimed more than 35,000 lives in Florida.

The DeSantis administration’s tactics include stonewalling or outright ignoring records requests, failing to provide records in a timely manner and charging excessive fees in violation of the law. A recent request for emails about “pop-up” clinics by the Fort Myers News-Press, a member of the USA TODAY Network – Florida, initially came back with a $13,000 price tag.

“It’s basically a ‘so sue me’ kind of attitude, daring the requestor to enforce the law,” said Pam Marsh, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit First Amendment Foundation of Florida.

The White House COVID-19 Task Force’s weekly advisory reports on Florida, which recommended stricter measures than DeSantis was enacting, are an example. The Orlando Sentinel unsuccessfully requested the reports for two months before its parent company finally sued to obtain them.

The state eventually agreed to provide the reports within two days of their release and pay the newspapers’ legal costs – expenses that get passed to taxpayers over a request that could have been easily fulfilled.

Vaccine information also has been withheld by the state, such as breakdowns by ZIP code that help show how the vaccine is distributed among different demographic groups. And when Orange County officials recently released this information to Central Florida media outlets, the state Department of Heath punished them by shutting the county out of its database.

State officials say they closely track the distribution of vaccines to different providers, but have refused requests for the information even as they criticize coverage of these efforts. The state’s actions only serve to shake public confidence at a time when building trust is critical to increasing vaccination rates.

COVID information has been difficult to obtain for journalists across the country, but Florida is supposed a standout in openness and transparency. For DeSantis’ record during the pandemic to be judged fairly, his administration needs to follow the law and release information showing the full extent of that record.

Online: https://www.gainesville.com