Behind the News, Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Lawmakers want the sun out of the sunshine laws

I’m a journalist and I love public records.

That’s my bias.

But even non-journalists should love public records, too. Without public records, you couldn’t find out how much your house sold for in the past. You wouldn’t know if there is a robber or rapist in your neighborhood. And you wouldn’t know if your child’s teacher had some unsavory past. Without public records, you would have no way of knowing if that nice mayoral candidate took money from developers or not. You wouldn’t know about the huge skyscraper or strip mall being planned for that vacant lot across the street. Without public records … you get the idea. Public records are not just the tools journalists use to get you important information — in many ways, public records are the tools for keeping this democracy, well, democratic.

So why is it that every year the lawmakers up in Tallahassee try to chip away at the Sunshine Laws little by little, hoping we won’t notice?

This session, several legislators from both sides of the aisle are attempting to gain several exemptions to public record laws. A few have decent, if wrong, arguments surrounding them; other bills are completely ridiculous.

Behind the News

I went to a teabagging party and all I got was an anti-Obama sticker

Well, I didn’t personally go. I have a friend in the hospital, which seemed a little more important at the time. But citizen journalists from around the nation did attend today’s teabagging events. And I think they were a little disappointed, too:

Ybor City Stogie has a nice slideshow of the Tampa teabagging party.

Wonkette does a nice re-cap of the D.C. protest with pithy captions.

Did you know that some of the teabaggers still think Barack Obama is not really a U.S. citizen? NO WAY!!! The same blogger also chased by teabaggers in Cleveland. has a particularly chilling video of a tea bag protest planning party featuring a conspiracy theorist convinced that the TV’s conversion from analog to digital is part of Obama’s master plan. Actually George Soros’ master plan. Actually .. nevermind, just watch it.

A Pensacola progressive blogger takes the mic at a teabagging event. You have to watch this.

Texas threatens to secede. Obama, can we let ’em?

I’ll have more after my neck stops twitching.

Behind the News, The Unemployed Life

Fear and loathing in the newsroom: How one editor copes

Great column from Tom Huang over at Poynter Online. Huang is an editor for the Dallas Morning News, and recently had to deal with layoffs at his newspaper.

A snippet:

A few days after the layoffs in Dallas, I talked with Jill Geisler, who runs Poynter’s leadership program.
We agreed that it’s hard to be a newsroom leader in these times. Not that we deserve much sympathy, or expect to get it. Reserve that sympathy for those who are forced out of jobs they love, as well as for those who remain and feel trapped.

What I told Jill is this: Every time I mask my anger and sadness with feigned calm and confidence, I lose a bit of my integrity. Every time I feel numb, I lose a bit of what makes me human. Every time I say goodbye to a friend, I lose a piece of my heart.

It’s our human side that makes us good journalists, isn’t it?

And so, it seems to me, our greatest challenge is that we stay human, as flawed as we may be, even as we walk toward our uncertain future.

Behind the News

Pinellas County forum: Kill dem cats or let ’em be?

Several weeks before my layoff, I was perusing some of the local rags and came across an interesting item in a weekly newspaper concerning the formation of a “feral cat committee.”

Ah, I thought, finally a government body our local cat ladies can get excited about.

The jist of the article was one well covered by newspapers in the area: Pinellas County has a huge homeless cat population. It’s getting worse. Nobody agrees on what to do about it.

Some interesting statistics on the county’s feral cat popuation:

A county formula based on our population estimates over 150,000 stray or feral cats roam our alleys and streets. In 2007, Pinellas County’s animal services department took in 12,878 cats. Of those, 4,148 were claimed by their owners or adoped out. The rest — over 8,000 — were euthanized.

Currently, the county offers spay and neuter services to try and control the homeless cat population. All cats adopted out are spayed/neutered, plus the county will sterilize cats free of charge for pet owners on public assistance. That’s not counting the low price they already charge ($20-30) for everyone else.

In addition to the county’s efforts, some organizations like the Human Society conduct TNR programs (that’s Trap-Nueter-Release for those not hip on the lingo) that sterilize feral cat colonies in the hopes that they will eventually die out. The argument for those TNR supporters is that if you just remove the feral cats, another group will move in, possibly one not sterilized, and create a worse situation.

(I’ve written about TNR here.)

But some government agencies and animal organizations say that’s just not good enough.

Back to the article.

So, the reporter for this story attended a 2008 county commission meeting where they were discussing the feral cat situation. The director of Pinellas County’s animal services department, Dr. Welch Agnew, presented these same statistics to commissioners along with information on the county’s policy. That policy is to screen all cats coming into the county shelter, save the healthy ones with good attitudes, and euthanize the rest. He added this adorable-as-a-kitten quote: “We don’t hate cats. We love cats and want to get as many home as we can.”

But Dr. Bruce Rinker, the county’s environmental lands manager, had a different take. Feral cats are invasive species, he told commissioners, just like Brazilian peppers, air potatoes and Cuban tree frogs. Plus, they kill birds. And he does not like TNR. He calls it: “Trap, neuter and re-abandon.”

Next up at this commission meeting was Mike McDonald of the Clearwater Audubon Society who agreed with Rinker. He feels all feral cats should be euthanized. A life on the streets is much more harsh, he argued.

The county commissioners didn’t vote on any new policy — you can imagine the public outcry over rounding up little kitties and gassing them. Instead, the commissioners allowed stakeholders to create a committee to talk about the issue. I’ve been eagerly awaiting any news since. Earlier this month, that news came.

Today, April 15 from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., the feral cat committee will host a forum to gather public input on what to do with feral cats. Kill ’em or TNR ’em?

This is one issue that has fallen by the wayside over the last few months. But if you’re a cat lover, and especially if you have experience in solutions, you might want to speak your mind.

Behind the News

Quick hits: Rush Limbaugh, teabagging tax day party, IRS audit suggestions, mascot recession and cougars on Facebook

I’m a little bogged down with applications, resumes and a friend in the hospital, but in the interest of being a regular blogger, I thought my readers should check out these links:

Frontline’s executive producer David Fanning, political commentator Cokie Roberts and local journos galore!

Tomorrow, “teabaggers” rally across the state. (h/t to Blast Off! for the teabagging reference and check out Pushing Rope’s analysis on a certain Florida politician)

Did Rush Limbaugh give away his show for free to gain top ratings?

For all my procrastinators: Consumerist gives 16 ways to get the IRS to audit you. Now that you’ve successfully wasted 10 more minutes, here’s how to get an extension.

From now on, if you plan on getting arrested in Polk County, don’t keep any money in your wallet.

The recession hits sport team mascots. There goes my next dream …

Journalist: “This is America. Pound Sand.”

Gina Vivinetto joins the “Will Report for Food” club. Again.

And finally, cougars are taking over Facebook. At least thinks so.

Behind the News, Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Denying financial aid to visa-carrying students

Most states, with the exception of maybe Vermont, revel in their diversity. It’s a quality that state leaders sell to the citizenry, prospective businesses and the federal government. Although many institutions strive for more diversity, none seek it out more than universities and colleges. Diversity in the student population is a major selling point for institutions of higher learning.

That’s why SB 1294 is such a surprising bill to propose.

This law would prohibit any university from using state funds (directly or indirectly) to provide financial assistance to students with a F-1 or M-1 visa. The legislation, introduced by Ronda Storms (of course!), is couched in saving money and providing more assistance to Florida residents seeking a higher education. The irony is the bill would also require universities and colleges to provide a detailed account of where their funds go every year, which would create another layer of bureaucracy and erode any money saved.

Rating: 2 bong hits bongbong

(Read about my rating system here.)

Behind the News, Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Expansion of warrantless arrest laws

Next up on my running series about the absurd bills debated in the Florida Legislature is SB 1428. This bipartisan bill, sponsored by Republican Thad Altman in the Senate and Democrat Adam Fetterman in the House, would expand warrantless arrests in Florida.

What are warrantless arrests? The definition is self-explanatory: any arrest without a warrant. Obviously, officers arrest people every day without a warrant. The reason? Most state laws allow police to make a warrantless arrests if 1) the criminal act is a felony, 2) the officer sees the crime committed or, in some cases, if probable cause is obvious (like if an officer sees a huge stash of cocaine in the seat of your car).

Warrantless arrests aren’t necessarily bad. In cases of murder or armed robbery, for example, you need to get the suspect off the street immediately. A case can be argued for some misdemeanors, too, like domestic violence. But some states have gone a little overboard and given officers the right to conduct warrantless arrests on all misdemeanors without any requirements. For example, the testimony of a citizen could be enough to garner an arrest.

SB 1428 would expand warrantless arrest laws to include the unlawful public exhibition of sexual organs and DUI. The first part seems OK; just think of some perv in front of a school. Just because the perv might be clothed when officers arrive, you would like the police to have enough probable cause to haul him away just by the words of a few students who saw him do his dirty deed. But warrantless arrest laws and DUI could have larger implications.

I’ll let Frankie the Law Dog explain:

The current version of the warrentless arrest statute allows officers to arrest a person on misdemeanor DUI without a warrant in only three circumstances:  (1) when the officer witnesses each element of a prima facie case of DUI, (2) when the officer is investigating an accident and develops probable cause to charge DUI, or (3) under the so-called “fellow officer” rule – when one officer calls on another officer for assistance and the combined observations of the two officers together establish probable cause for the arrest.

Importantly, under the current version of the statute, the fellow officer rule does not impute the knowledge of citizen informants to law enforcement officers.  However, if HB 793 becomes law, any citizen could walk up to an officer and relate the commission of misdemeanor DUI by someone, and the officer would have probable cause to arrest.

I can think of a dozen instances where “citizens” could unfairly blame DUI on someone. DUI is a serious crime, no doubt. But just like sex offenses, a DUI arrest — even if the suspect is not ultimately convicted — can have major implications on someone’s professional and family life. Shouldn’t we keep the tough warrantless arrest safeguards we have now?

(P.S. I fully admit I don’t have a law degree and I’m open for debate on this one from someone who does.)

Rating: 1 bong hit bong

Behind the News, Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Florida lawmakers want to ban novelty lighters


There are few bills that reach the absolute absurdity of SB 806, a proposed law banning lighters that resemble “a cartoon character, animal, toy, gun, watch, musical instrument, vehicle, food or beverage, that plays sound or musical notes, or that displays flashing lights or other visual effects.”

No, really — that’s a quote from the bill, which is sponsored by Republicans Senator Lee Constantine and House Rep. Scott Plakon.

But what’s really ludicrous is Florida isn’t the only state trying to enact novelty lighter bans. All across the country, state legislatures are lining up to snuff them out. Even at the national level, politicians are waging a war against lighters; this year, senators Ron Wyden, Susan Collins and Chris Dodd introduced the “Protect Children from Dangerous Lighters Act.”

The impetus for the bill is, of course, children — children who (somehow) grab a hold of these lighters and start setting people aflame. Of course, alternatives to this bill could be banning kids under 18 from buying any lighter, or — and I admit this one is a little crazy — calling on parents to take responsibility for their kids.

And I always heard Republicans were against larger government intrusions into our lives …

Rating: 5 bong hits bongbongbongbongbong

(Read about my rating system here.)

(Photo courtesy of New York state’s Department of State)

Behind the News

What will save newspapers?

Another day, another several resumes go out.

After the first few hours of scouring the Internet for job opportunities, I check my Google Reader only to find another newspaper is shrinking, closing or just getting crappier. Sometimes, in between my tuna sandwhiches and blog posts, I can almost hear print media let out a pitiful groan. Honestly, it’s a little depressing.

Then, I find something like this: Jonathan Mann and the folks over at the East Bay Express have finally found the answer to saving newspapers. And, in true digital fashion, they’ve put it to music and developed a YouTube video.

We’re saved!

Behind the News, Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation

Bipartisan Guide to Ridiculous Legislation: Ronda Storms hates public art

stormsThat State Senator Ronda Storms is a very talented woman. I mean, what other Florida politician can create such disdain among large swaths of the state’s population? She’s pissed off gays, First Amendment champions, librarians, science teachers and now, art lovers.

SB 1104 seeks to repeal the 30-year-old Art in State Public Buildings Program, a state provision that requires a small percentage of money for public buildings go into artwork for said structures. In an interview with a Tampa Tribune reporter, Storms says the bill is only fair while the state deals with a tough budget crisis:

“While I certainly believe art and culture provide wonderful benefits to Florida, I do not believe that at this time most Floridians want to continue this luxury when people are losing their jobs and seniors and children are losing health services.”

But is the outlay of money for public art really harming the state’s coffers? The Tribune had some interesting findings:

Under the program, the cost of the art can’t be more than half of 1 percent of the total cost of the building or $100,000, whichever is less. The average the state paid for a work of art was $7,955. The state spent a total of $406,725 for public art in 2005; $294,069 in 2006; and $701,389 in 2007.

The statute applies only to buildings with public access. It excludes prisons, secure areas, maintenance sheds and other structures the public normally would not visit.

Under the statute, more than 1,000 works of art have been purchased and installed in state buildings, including universities, state parks, Department of Transportation district offices and state agency buildings.

Just like parks, recreational facilities and libraries, art adds a quality of life to a city. Considering public art money is a fraction of Florida’s budget, and may even generate money by impressing tourists and possible new businesses, this bill is positively ridiculous.

That must be why Storms recently added a sunset clause to the bill that would allow the public art program to return in 2011. A huge outcry among art lovers probably prompted that change of heart. Maybe repeated calls and e-mails to her office (and to your own state lawmaker) would nudge her away from the bill altogether.

(By the way, the House sponsor is Republican Rich Glorioso from Plant City. I don’t want him to get off the hook either. Contact his office here.)

Rating: 4 bong hits bongbongbongbong