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15 posts from August 22, 2014

August 22, 2014

Records show governor’s office put up barriers to public records

Text messagesGov. Rick Scott launched Project Sunburst two years ago to give the public easy access to his emails and those of his staff and promised it would become a “unprecedented, transparent window into how state government works.”

He also created a web site to show state employee salaries and held more press conferences flaunting his open government record than any governor in recent history.

But, in practice, the Scott administration has erected barriers to public records, marginalized the use of Sunburst, and interpreted the state’s Sunshine laws in a way that open government advocates say has set the clock back on Florida’s open records tradition.

“They don’t turn over anything unless they get caught,’’ said Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer whose two-year legal battle over a property dispute with the state produced thousands of documents raising questions about many of the administration’s practices.

Andrews spent 18 months getting copies of text messages that he was repeatedly told by the governor’s staff did not exist. He is suing the governor’s office for violating the state’s public records laws, alleging the records he has received are incomplete and, in some cases, altered.

The governor acknowledged for the first time last week that he uses a private email account but issued a blanket denial that he uses it for public business. He also accused Andrews of harassment. 

“We follow the law,” Scott said told reporters. “This is just an individual that sues the state, tries to cause problems.”

The governor’s office “code of conduct” states that employees should not use personal email accounts “unless such use is necessary upon a reasonable evaluation of the circumstances at hand” and then must forward the public record to his or her state account “or otherwise retain them in accordance with the Department of State retention policy.”

Scott spokesman John Tupps said the governor’s office “now discourages the use of text messaging by employees because text messages are hard to catalog due to the digital nature of the message.”

But thousands of records obtained by Andrews and the Herald/Times indicate that the governor’s staff may have violated that policy when dealing with communication about politically-sensitive information, or when lobbyists and well-positioned Republicans want to communicate with the governor’s top advisers.

For example, when Department of Environmental Secretary Herschel Vinyard met the governor and staff from the governor and attorney general’s office at the governor’s mansion on a Sunday in February 2012, he arranged and discussed it with Scott’s then-deputy chief of staff, Carrie O’Rourke via text messages. Records show they were meeting to discuss, among other things, a potential settlement regarding the BP oil spill. Story here. 

In Miami congressional race, GOP rivals spar over key issues

@PatriciaMazzei  Photo (22)

With four days left until Tuesday’s election, differences over key policy issues emerged Friday among Republicans running for Florida’s 26th congressional district primary, as the candidates made their final pitches to primary voters.

Questions on sea-level rise, immigration and gay marriage revealed divisions among the four contenders who taped Facing South Florida, which will air Sunday on Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4. A fifth candidate, ex-Congressman David Rivera, declined to attend.

By the end of the taping, Carlos Curbelo, Ed MacDougall, Joe Martinez and Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck had agreed on plenty. But there was dissent in the very first question from investigative reporter Jim DeFede, who asked if all the candidates vying to represent Westchester to Key West would concur that — whatever the cause — seas are rising.

Yes, said the candidates — except for one.

“I’m not exactly sure,” said Martinez, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner. “I’m not a scientist, Jim.”

More here.

Judge approves legislature's fix for congressional maps, calls no special election


Florida’s flawed congressional districts may remain in place for two more years and newly drawn boundaries for seven north and central districts don’t have to take effect until 2016, a Tallahassee circuit court judge ruled late Friday.

Judge Terry Lewis upheld the revisions to the state’s congressional map approved by the Florida Legislature during a three-day special session earlier this month. But he said the current configuration, which he ruled unconstitutional a month ago, could stand for the 2014 election.

“An election in 2015 is not a viable option,’’ Lewis wrote in his four-page order. “The 2014 elections will have to be held under the map as enacted in 2012.

That will come as a relief to U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, whose congressional districts were the target of the court’s criticism. Brown and Webster feared being elected to a new term in November only to have to face a special election possibly next year under the newly configured boundaries.

Lewis ruled on July 10 that congressional districts 5 and 10 violated the state’s Fair District rules against political gerrymandering. He then gave legislators until Aug. 15 to modify the map and fix two districts in particular. Lawmakers responded by calling a rare summer-time special session and modified seven of the state’s 27 districts, then appealed to the court to approve it.

Although the judge validated the legislature’s map, the fight is not over.

David King, lawyer for the League of Women Voters, one of the voters groups that challenged the districts drawn by the GOP-led Legislature, said they were disappointed in the ruling and will appeal.

Anticipatingn a protracted dispute, Webster recently set up a legal defense fund to help him finance any court fights that may emerge over his district.

Lewis wrote that he disagreed with the voters coaltion that argued the changes made to the original map were superficial and did not cure the flaws to Districts 5 and 10 and concluded that the Legislature’s “remedial plan adequately addresses the constitutional deficiences I found in the Final Judgment.”

He also rejected calls from the plaintiffs to create an east-west minority district that would stretch across North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. They argued it would allow minority voters to elect two blacks to Congress instead of one but, under the plan, Brown’s districtg would be dismantled and a new Orlando-based minority district would emerge as a coalition district for both Hispanics and African American voters.

“The Legislature is not required, however, to produce a map that the Plaintiffs, or I , or anyone else might prefer,’’ Lewis wrote. “The Legislature is only required to produce a map that meets the requirements of the Constitution.”

He noted that the plaintiffs “have not offered convincing evidence that an East-West configuration is necessary in order to comply” with the terms of the Fair Districts amendment approved by voters in 2010.

Lewis also rejected calls for a special session to implement the new map. He said that the plaintiffs “offered absolutely no evidence” to support their arguments that a special election could reasonably be held in time for the 2014 elections and thereby allowed the invalidated districts to remain in place until 2016.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was thrilled with the ruling and even sounded happy the Legislature got a do-over.

“I am pleased with Judge Lewis’ speedy, thoughtful and conscientious decision,’’ he said in a statement. “I am especially relieved that our overseas military voters and those Floridians who cast their ballots early will have their votes counted this election. You know, sometimes life affords you second chances; I am glad we got it right on the second round.”

Here's the opinion:  Download Romo.Order Approving Remedial Redistricting Plan



Pup patrol among the politicos




Politicians easily out-numbered pets at Friday's "ground-breaking" ceremony of Miami-Dade's new animal shelter, which is set to open in the fall of 2015. But there were a handful of four-legged guests that naturally stole the show from camera-loving elected officials. 

"This is Princess Leia," Lawrence Percival said of a docile shepherd-lab mix sitting by his feet amid the crowd at the packed reception in Doral. "She just turned two in August. She came from Animal Services as an eight-pound puppy." 

Leia and Percival took a seat in the front row as county officials touted the planned $13 million shelter, which will feature retail-esque adoption areas, quarantined and air-conditioned kennels to prevent disease infestation, and outdoor play areas for cats and dogs.

The 70,000-square-foot facility will replace the county's lone animal shelter in Medley, which will be sold as surplus to help cover the construction costs, said animal-services chief Alex Munoz. The new facility includes 25 percent more space for homeless dogs, and twice the space for cats, he said. The new shelter is being built in a retro-fitted warehouse, with renovation work already underway. 

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Happy Birthday to PolitiFact

On Aug. 22, 2007, we launched an experiment in accountability journalism just because we thought American politics could use more fact-checking. We called it PolitiFact.

Today, our fact-checking website is still going strong. The most exciting thing we did in the last year: We launched PunditFact, our website devoted exclusively to fact-checking the pundits. In 2010, we launched PolitiFact Florida

In honor of our seventh birthday, we’re counting down the 7 most popular fact-checks of the past 12 months from both PolitiFact and PunditFact.

- This was written by PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan.

After $300K campaign, SkyRise polling 'very positive'


With just days to go until Miami voters consider a proposal to build a 1,000-foot tower behind Bayside, the marketplace’s operator and developer Jeff Berkowitz have unleased a campaign blitz.

Together, they’ve invested more than $300,000 into a committee that has poured most of those funds into radio spots, mailers and robocalls. The cash has gone to Friends of Bayside, which is also polling voters.

The ballot question will go before voters Aug. 26. It seeks to amend Bayside’s lease with the city of Miami by extending it to 99 years, requiring at least $27 million in improvements, and allowing a sublease with Berkowitz to build SkyRise Miami on a spit of land that juts into the bay. If the item passes, Miami's coffers get a $10 million injection, plus increased payments through the life of the deal.

So what are the chances the item passes? Political consultant Steve Marin, who is conducting the polling, would only say “we’re trending very positive.”

Education spending continues to dominate gubernatorial race


Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist released a new TV ad on Friday, accusing Republican Gov. Rick Scott of lying to a constituent about his education record.

"We thought it really important to remind Floridians that you cannot trust Rick Scott about public education," said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, speaking for the Crist campaign. "You cannot trust him to care about your school children or to fund your schools properly."

The ad will debut in Orlando this weekend, campaign spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said.

It was the latest strike in the war over education funding.

Last week, Crist toured the state in a yellow school bus, reminding Floridians that Scott cut $1.3 billion from the state education budget in 2011.

The Scott campaign responded Thursday with a plan to pump millions of dollars into public schools and boost per-student spending to historic levels. (Democrats point out that the $7176 figure Scott proposed still lags the high watermark set in 2007-08 when you account for inflation.) 

Crist unveiled his latest ad on Friday morning.

The Scott campaign said Crist, a former Republican governor, was suffering from "education amnesia."

"While Rick Scott has funded education at record total levels –- and is proposing record per-pupil funding next year –- Charlie Crist left schools in worse shape, with his last budget giving each student $550 less than his first budget," campaign spokesman Greg Blair said. "And when Crist was in office, Florida Democrats said his cuts to education were 'harmful.' We give Crist an 'F' in both math and history."


Democrats to Scott, Bondi: Stop fighting against marriage equality

A day after a federal judge struck down Florida's ban on same-sex marriages, the state Democratic Party urged Republican Gov. Rick Scott to let the decision stand.

"While we had a great victory yesterday, we are hoping to see that change be implemented quickly," Florida Democratic Party Political Director Christian Ulvert told reporters on a press call. "It is now on the attorney general and Gov. Rick Scott to stop their efforts to appeal, in hopes that we can achieve the full equality that all Florida residents deserve."

Attorney General Pam Bondi has not said whether her office will appeal the federal decision.

Her office is, however, appealing similar rulings in other courts.

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, noted that Thursday’s ruling was the fifth in Florida to declare the same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional.

Saunders called on Scott to support gay and lesbian couples and families.

"For too long, we've seen Gov. Scott bob and weave around the issue of marriage equality in Florida," Saunders said. "I think voters want to know. They want to know whether he's going to stand on the right side of history."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, a former state senator from Weston, released a similar statement in January, before any of the court cases were decided.

"Florida’s same-sex marriage ban will ultimately lose in court, and it should," Rich said at the time. "Governor Scott and Attorney General Bondi should embrace equality for all Florida families and let this law die."

Miami Gardens candidate denies altering slate cards


A candidate in a Miami Gardens City Council race has been accused of attempting to mislead voters outside of an early-voting site.

Francis Ragoo has been blamed for tampering with an endorsement list for Tuesday's primary election prepared by Abraham Thomas, a Miami Gardens resident and former County Commission candidate. Ragoo has denied any involvement.

A campaign worker outside the North Dade Regional Library first noticed a Ragoo volunteer passing out the lists, which look exactly like Thomas’s lists but switch the endorsements for the two Miami Gardens council seats and for the Florida House District 107 race.

As reported in The Miami Times, Thomas’s list endorses the incumbents for the Miami Gardens seats, Vice Mayor Lisa Davis and Councilman Erhabor Ighodaro, and state Rep. Barbara Watson. The altered list endorses their opponents, Ragoo and Charlene Butler in the respective council races, and Watson’s opponent, Michael Joseph.

Ragoo said he doesn’t know who printed the duplicates and said the volunteer for his campaign doesn’t know who gave her the duplicates.

“My camp was set up and taken advantage of,” Ragoo said. “Somebody gave her that document and she didn’t know what it was.”


Scott camp seeks signs of Democrat enthusiasm gap

Gov. Rick Scott's deputy campaign manager issued a memo Friday forecasting that Democrat Charlie Crist will defeat rival Nan Rich by a margin of 81 to 19 percent or better on Tuesday. The memo by Tim Saler also seeks to forge a post-primary narrative that Democrats face an "enthusiasm gap" in the upcoming general election campaign.

Saler writes: "Judging by history, if Democrats have any enthusiasm at all on their side in 2014, they should be able to bring in several hundred thousand more primary votes compared to Republicans. The last time a Republican governor ran for re-election (2002), Democrats had 40% more votes in their primary than did Republicans. This is the baseline performance for Democrats in the 2014 primary. If Democrats fall short of that metric, it would be a dangerous sign for their base enthusiasm entering the general election, and we are watching that metric closely."

Saler is right that Democrats should turn out in bigger numbers than Republicans because they have two statewide contests (Crist vs. Rich and George Sheldon vs. Perry Thurston for attorney general), and Scott faces two no-name GOP challengers.

But Saler's comparison to 2002, the year Jeb Bush became the first Republican governor to win back-to-back terms, is flawed for a couple of reasons.

The only race on the Republican primary ballot that year was a down-ballot three-way primary for attorney general -- won by Charlie Crist, by the way. Democrats had a spirited and extremely close primary for governor in which Bill McBride narrowly defeated former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for the right to face Bush.

Reno, a Miami native, ran a South Florida-centric strategy in that race while McBride focused on the I-4 corridor and North Florida, so two well-financed candidates were aggressively pushing Democratic turnout in different regions. The year 2002 was also the first midterm election in the presidency of George W. Bush, who was in the White House because of his disputed 537-vote Florida victory. Those wounds were still raw and Democrats were angry and in a fighting mood, but in the end, Jeb Bush easily won re-election.