Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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June 12

The Ocala Star Banner says government agencies are in some cases increasingly taking punitive steps to punish and discourage records requests:

Floridians have a constitutional right to access public records. Unfortunately, governments and their agencies increasingly are viewing the exercise of that right as a nuisance, and in some cases are taking punitive steps to punish records requests and discourage others.

GateHouse Media's John Kennedy recently reported about a case in which the South Florida Water Management District sued the Everglades Law Center, a nonprofit environmental law firm that had requested records from a closed-door meeting. That meeting led to an $18 million taxpayer-funded settlement for a mining company, from the district and the Martin County Commission. A judge sided with water managers who refused to turn over the transcripts, and the decision is on appeal.

"We didn't sue them. They sued us. All we did was ask for records," said Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center.

Attorneys for the water management district defended their action, saying the records request was designed to make the district pay the legal fees of the requesters if the documents were not surrendered quickly.

That's been a common excuse from governments, and there is some validity to it. There are gadflies who file a blizzard of records requests hoping to overwhelm public agencies and catch them in a technical violation of the state's Sunshine Law, so they can sue them and then collect remuneration.

In 2017, a bill in the Legislature attempted to combat that tactic by changing the law from requiring that the person requesting the records be entitled to attorney's fees, to making it an option for judges to award fees. Such a change would have discouraged private citizens from pursuing action against a government agency, fearing the potential costs they cannot bear financially. And governments might have been emboldened to withhold documents if there's a chance they won't be held accountable for such a transgression. Thankfully, a compromise passed that addressed truly frivolous requests without gutting the law.

The South Florida Water Management District suit represents an alarming escalation of that tactic, turning the government into the aggressor in denying citizens their rights to access records. It's punitive, and it is designed to bully others into reconsidering filing records requests.

Exercising your rights shouldn't come with a threat to receive a punch in the mouth and financial hardship.

At least one chamber of the Legislature recognizes that. A bill sponsored earlier this year by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, would have prohibited governments from filing lawsuits against those seeking public records. The measure was approved by the House 108-0, but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, after the Florida League of Cities raised concerns about the measure's potential sweep.

Lawmakers should revisit the matter in next year's session and address the cities' issues, with the goal of crafting a bill that ultimately will protect the integrity of the open-records law.

The lawsuit threat turns on its head the state's Sunshine Law, which is aimed at limiting government power to conceal information while guaranteeing citizens access. The attitude of the water management district, and of other government entities employing the same tactic, seems to be: You have to give us a good reason to comply with the law. Or else.

That's absurd, and chilling. Governments are custodians of records, not the owners. The records belong to the public. They shouldn't have to beg or sue to get them — or fear reprisals for requesting them.

Online: http://www.ocala.com/

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June 10

The Gainesville Sun on legalizing marijuana in Florida:

Too many lives have been ruined over marijuana arrests. Decriminalizing the possession of marijuana is long overdue — but doesn't go far enough.

Nine U.S. states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Another 20 states have legalized just medical marijuana, including Florida, which did so through a state constitutional amendment that received the support of 71 percent of voters in 2016.

Florida officials have done a terrible job implementing the amendment, putting roadblocks in the way of patients seeking to use marijuana to treat pain and other symptoms of debilitating diseases. The state had prohibited patients from accessing marijuana that can be smoked, before a Tallahassee judge last week put the ban on hold as a lawsuit is pending.

Florida's U.S. Senate candidates have conflicting stands on the issue, with incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson favoring allowing smokable medical marijuana and Gov. Rick Scott opposing it. While we agree with Nelson, he should go much further and advocate for wholesale changes to the state's drug laws.

Officials in Alachua County, particularly County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson, have worked in recent years to end marijuana arrests here. State Attorney William Cervone implemented a program this year in which his office can keep minor offenses, such as the possession of small amounts of marijuana, out of the court system under certain conditions.

Such a program gives too much discretion in still allowing criminal penalties for marijuana possession. It also adds to a patchwork approach to marijuana in Florida, with some areas giving civil citations for possession and others using the full force of the law.

Three Democrats running for Florida governor — Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — have called for the full legalization of marijuana in the state. A fourth, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, supports decriminalizing marijuana for personal use.

Graham's position represents progress, ending the marijuana arrests that can keep someone from getting a job or college education. But Florida should go further and completely legalize marijuana.

Research has shown marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and its medical benefits don't come with the addictive nature and nasty side effects of prescription painkillers. State that have broadly legalized marijuana have actually seen a decrease in violent crime — and created huge new revenue sources.

Gillum, who grew up in Gainesville, has said that taxing marijuana would generate up to $1 billion in new annual revenue in Florida. He has suggested using the money to bring the salaries of Florida's public school teachers up to the national average.

Before the state figures out how the spend the money, marijuana legislation first needs to be passed. Levine said that if the Legislature wouldn't do so, he would work to pass a state constitutional amendment to let the people decide.

A poll this year found that a majority of Florida voters now support legalizing marijuana under a similar regulatory framework as alcohol. It's time to stop implementing half-measures and make marijuana legal in Florida.

Online: http://www.gainesville.com/

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June 11

The News-Journal of Daytona Beach says long-term care facilities should eventually have on-site generators and adequate fuel:

The horrific scenes from a South Florida nursing home, where 12 residents perished in the sweltering heat after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the facility, will haunt Floridians for a long time to come.

But the broad, sweeping rules Gov. Rick Scott mandated — and their hasty timeline — were unrealistic. An administrative law judge ruled in November that the Agency for Health Care Administration didn't have the authority to force every nursing home and assisted-living facility in the state to invest in emergency generators and fuel by Nov. 15. That deadline sailed by, but in the spring, the Legislature adopted a modified version of Scott's plan. The new law doesn't require permanent installation of generators, but does mandate that every facility secure enough emergency power to cool 20 to 30 feet of space per resident for at least 96 hours.

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As of May 25, 102 of the state's 686 nursing homes had adequate equipment available, and another 348 had asked for six-month extensions, which certifies them as compliant under the law. The numbers are far worse for assisted-living facilities, which typically offer less-intensive services. In that category (which covers 3,102 locations across the state), only 205 have equipment lined up. Another 344 have approved extensions.

That leaves state regulators with a hairy decision. Do they level harsh fines against roughly two-thirds of the state's long-term care facilities? Or do they simply throw up their hands and declare the entire mess "too big to succeed"?

Neither option makes much sense. The best option may be for Scott and legislative leaders to negotiate a little wiggle room, understanding that the state must keep driving toward the goal of making each of these facilities as safe as possible, and as soon as reasonably achievable.

That starts with prioritizing nursing homes, where residents are usually frailer and, for the most part, incapable of doing anything to get themselves to safety during and after a natural disaster. That was one reason the death toll at ... The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was so high; there was a hospital just across the street with room for the elderly patients, but home administrators didn't move them, focusing instead on trying to have the facility's power restored. According to a report by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, by the time nurses at Memorial Regional Hospital realized how dire the situation was, patients were dead and dying.

That should never happen again. Those nursing homes that can't provide on-site generators and air conditioning must have a workable plan to get their frail charges to safety. Fortunately, they can access Medicaid funding to do so. State regulators should focus their efforts on a continued push to prepare for emergencies in the most practical ways, saving punitive fines for those facilities that simply defy the law.

The situation at assisted-living facilities is more complex. For starters, many of the residents at ALFs are still alert and agile; some still drive, and very few are confined to their beds. Furthermore, ALF administrators don't get help from Medicaid in prepping their facilities for storms. The Legislature gave those facilities slightly more flexibility, but they will probably need more. As with nursing homes, the focus should be on crafting workable plans that fit each facility's residential mix and access to safe alternatives.

Eventually, all long-term care facilities should have on-site generators and adequate fuel, safely stored. But the state's accelerated timeline was too tight to be realistic, and driving facilities out of business with harsh fines and license sanctions could only make matters worse.

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