Behind the News

The St. Pete police chief interview I’d like to see

chief-harmonI like St. Petersburg Times‘ columnist Bill Maxwell.

As a dorky newspaper-lovin’ teen in the mid 1990s, I often read Maxwell’s columns. When I moved back a few years ago, I was oddly comforted by seeing his mug again in my daily paper. I’ve always enjoyed his frank demeanor, to-the-point writing style, and mostly, his conservative, tough love approach toward St. Pete’s racial problems.

But his recent interview with St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon? Gag me.

Maxwell’s fluffed up interview with the city’s top cop is so PR-friendly, I’m tempted to call police PR flack Bill Profitt and ask if he’s retiring. Is Maxwell positioning for a job as the newspaper industry falters?

Here’s why a tough interview in the city’s top daily is important:

Behind the News

Developers lobby to dispute county impact fees

There’s an oft-used addage in community activism thrown out by pessimistic folks of both political persuasions: “You can’t fight City Hall.” This nugget of civil wisdom comes from the belief that taking on your city government is cumbersome, complicated, tiring and, ultimately, expensive.

After all, city governments seem to have a limitless supply of money to throw at any lawsuit. It’s money from taxpayers, and by extension, money from the person seeking justice. In short, they get you coming and going.

But I think there is an even better truism for 21st century community activism: “You can’t fight Big Business, not even City Hall.” My reasoning? For as much money as a city can throw at a lawsuit, Big Business seems to throw even more and it sticks better. In Florida, I’m specifically refering to developers. Any local community activist knows that developers and their lawyers not only spend big bucks on any challenge to their plans, but they buy politicians as well.

This is why House Bill 227 is a real problem for community activists. Sponsored by four House representatives (including local Rep. Ed Hooper from Clearwater), HB 227 (SB 580 in the Senate) seeks to allow developers to challenge impact fees imposed by local governments.

What are impact fees? They are imposed by local governments to hold developers partially responsible for the infrustructure needs brought on by the developer’s project. Impact fees typically go to building or widening roads, installing more traffic lights and sometimes building a school. Community activists and governments see the fees as promoting smart growth. Some developers see it as unnecessary taxation.

Most county governments have some sort of impact fee, though many times the amount has lagged behind present-day costs. So, during the nationwide housing boom, many counties raised their impact fees. Some developers have sued.

In these legal challenges, HB 227 would put more of a burden on city governments to prove their impact fee assessments are correct. It gets a little complicated, but the Florida League of Cities has a good overview:

SB 580 (Haridopolos), HB 227 (Aubuchon) change the burden of proof in a legal challenge to impact fees and remove any judicial deference to the local government’s decision. The bills were amended in committee to provide that the government has the burden of proof in an impact fee challenge.

An impact fee ordinance is a legislative decision that should be accorded the same level of deference given other legislative decisions – including decisions of the state legislature to impose fees and taxes. The change proposed by these bills means that even if reasonable minds could differ about the wisdom of the legislative decision, the city could lose the challenge. Neither bill proposes to change the burden of proof with respect to any fees or tax levied by the State of Florida, or any permit conditions imposed by the State of Florida or its agencies – all of which are legislative decisions.

But HB 227 isn’t the only bill involving impact fees moving through the Florida Legislature. SB 630 wants to put an outright moratorium on impact fees, something Hillsborough County is already looking at. For more on the complete idiocy of that move, read Mariella Smith’s recent blog post: “Your county’s solution to the housing glut: more houses.”

Behind the News

The South loses again (but this time Confederates sue)

FloridaConfederateFlagThis was a small story early in the year, but garnered few headlines. After all, with the huge Confederate flag at I-4 and I-75, Tampans are probably tired of hearing about the Civil War.

But, alas, the Sons of Confederate Veterans are angry again. This time over license plates.

Last year, the SCV petitioned the Florida Legislature to approve a license plate bearing the Confederate flag. They found a sponsor — Panhandle Rep. Donald Brown, who, by the way, looks like a 19th century throwback himself — and the race was on to join other Deep South states with similar license plates. The money would have funded “educational and historical programs” from the SCV.

The bill never made it out of committee. So, in January, the SCV sued the state of Florida.

Talk about sore losers!

But, what can you expect from a group still angry over the Civil War, right?

In a press release, the SCV says it “did everything that was required by Florida Statute to have the Confederate Heritage plate approved by the Legislature and we were not given the time of day by the Florida
Legislature.”

They are being represented by the Rutherford Institute, whose biggest claim to fame was representing Paula Jones in her suit against former President Bill Clinton. Big players, these guys.

But lest you think this was some crazy conspiracy on the part of intolerant legislators who HATE Confederate veterans, puppies, the Gandy beach, and all things sacred … the SCV wasn’t the only organization snubbed by lawmakers. Last year, a number of organizations petitioned for their own license plates: Tennis players, Christians, horse lovers. Choctaw Indians wanted free license plates, but they didn’t get their wish either. Considering the U.S. government committed genocide against them, I’d think they’d deserve a few free license plates. But no, and surprise, they aren’t suing over it.

Get the full text of the federal lawsuit here.

Behind the News

Baywalk loses its protesters

Looks like Baywalk is losing more than just its tenants. Downtown St. Pete’s bastion of corporate America is now without its most frequent patrons: the protesters.

For the last four years, St. Pete for Peace has rallied on the sidewalk in front of Baywalk protesting everything from the Iraq War to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. But, as the crowds around the downtown hotspot diminished, the protesters decided to move on.

In a blast to like-minded souls on their e-mail list, St. Pete for Peace announced the decision:

Due to the dramatic drop in business at Baywalk, we no longer find it to be the best use of our time and energy to continue our monthly protests there.  We believe we can reach more people in venues other than Baywalk, but if business at Baywalk increases or there are future attempts to restrict demonstrations on the public sidewalks near Baywalk, we will then reevaluate our decision.

There is no doubt lots of folks who will happy over this, but the store owners at Baywalk have to be sweatin’. By my account, the protesters are the proverbial canary in the coal mine.