Thursday, August 31, 2006

Florida Panhandle Insurance Hikes

Today's New York Times wastes ink telling us what we already know:
"All along the coasts, from Texas to New England, insurers suffering from hurricane jitters are raising rates and cutting back on coverage. But nowhere is the situation more severe than in Florida, particularly here in South Florida and in the Florida Panhandle, where storms in recent years have added billions to the insurers’ losses."
Here's the money quote: "Some of the steepest price increases, industry officials say, have come in Pensacola and other towns in the Florida Panhandle that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Dennis in 2005."

Which brings us to the latest (unconfirmed) rumor sweeping the local area: a major insurance company has been telling local agents it is reclassifying all of Gulf Breeze -- that's all of it -- as a high-hazard flood zone. If true, that would mean local property insurance rates will skyrocket well beyond even the 150-200 percent hikes most have experienced already over the past year.

Wannabe Judges - Replay

Last night's candidate forum for circuit court judicial candidates who will be appearing on Tuesday's ballot is being replayed this coming Sunday morning, Sept. 3, on the local educational television channel, WSRE-TV (Channel 23), at 11:30 a.m.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Beltway Bandit Revealed

This is a thoroughly disgusting but highly revealing peek into how badly off-track the Republican leadership in Congress has taken our nation's finances. Now, after days of volunteer labor and expense put into it by liberals and conservatives alike, the full story can be told quickly and concisely.

U.S. Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill) and Tom Coburn (R-Ok) introduced a bill in April (S. 2590 - "The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act") that would require full, advance disclosure of congressional "earmark" and other spending sprees to the public. It would have created a nationwide searchable internet database, bringing sunshine into the dark corners of congressional finagling of appropriations bills before they pass.

But some senator placed a "secret hold" on the bill, which under Senate rules meant it could never come up for a vote. Then, the blogosphere -- that's you and us, dear reader -- leaped into action.

The rest is history as it unfolds. Read this ("Blogosphere Unites In Pursuit of Masked Senator") from TPM Muckraker. Then this from Wonkette ("Help Catch The Secret Pig Crook") and this from Pork Busters ("Who Is the Secret Holder?").

The mystery is solved here. And the culprit admits his guilt here. He offers a risible explanation and is unrepentent.

What remains is for voters to demand of each and every one of their congressmen and senators which side they are on -- will they vote to support Senate Bill 2590, the "sunshine" bill, or cast their vote on the side with those who want to keep citizens in the dark? And there's no better time for that than now, when they're begging us for our votes.

Calling the Wannabe Judges


We've already had our say about the wannabe judges you'll be voting on next week. Today it's your turn to talk directly with four of the candidates:
All four candidates for the judicial vacancy in the 1st Judicial Circuit, Group 15, are expected to appear on the "Your Turn" program from 4 to 6 p.m. today on WEBY 1330-AM.

The candidates are Terry Ketchel, Dixie Dan Powell, Michael Schofield and Michael Webster.
The call-in host is local attorney Terry Gross. He's not the Terry Gross (more's the pity). But callers are free to supply their own "smart, thoughtful questioning" that pushes the candidates "in unlikely directions" and "are revelatory in a way other people’s seldom are."

To call in dial (850) 623-1330.


As several readers have reminded us, all local judicial candidates also will be appearing at a public forum tonight from 7 pm to 9 pm at PJC's Hagler Auditorium. The forum is co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the local bar association. Pensacola Cox cable TV subscribers -- but unfortunately not Mediacom victims -- can see a replay on Sunday, Sept. 3 on WUWF-TV, the public access cable-only channel.


Pensacola Beach, Gulf Breeze, and Milton residents who subscribe to Mediacom cable will be able to see a replay of the judicial candidates' forum, after all. More information here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ernesto Poops Out

Tuesday evening, 7 pm CDT:

Alert Florida Closes Down

"It was forecast to hit hurricane-weary New Orleans as a Category 3. Then it aimed toward Pensacola. Then Tampa. On Monday, it moved over eastern Cuba and set its sights on South Florida, where it is expected to make landfall late tonight or early Wednesday."
-- St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 29, 2006
The governor of Florida has declared a state of emergency... state and federal courts ... schools and colleges... sporting events... a space shuttle launch... road construction... scores of professional events ... airports, cruise ship routes, scheduled hospital elective surgeries... early voting and poll watcher training for the state primary election... and meetings up and down the Florida peninsula were being canceled Monday, in anticipation of T.S. Ernesto. But politicians carry on.

The storm left the mountainous eastern region very early today and is now in the Gulf, in a substantially weakened and disorganized condition. At 5 am the National Hurricane Center was saying:

Privately, many are predicting the storm will amount to not much more than a very heavy rain storm, but no one wants to say so. And that's good.

We've seen this phenomenon before after Hurricane Opal devastated northwest Florida in 1995. Everyone goes on alert for the next bad storm. We're told to expect the worst. Government officials urge residents to evacuate early. Everything shuts down. Residents skedaddle. Tourists flee -- or cancel plans to arrive.

And then there's a big let-down when the worst doesn't materialize. Millions in business revenue are said to have been lost. Residents grumble they were inconvenienced. Schools complain they have to make up days.

Again it happens, and maybe again. Eventually, don'cha know, in a year or two people tend to slip back into a sense of complacency.... we relax... take our sweet time watching and waiting .... dismiss some new distant threat as just another false alarm.

And then a new version of Ivan or Katrina wipes everything out. And it starts all over again.

As one blogger puts it today:
[O]ur situation is precarious, wherever we live— on the fault line, in tornado alley, at the base of a volcano. We all could be the next New Orleans with little warning.
On this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the responsible reaction of Floridians to Ernesto is a reminder that we can't fool Mother Nature -- but she sure can fool us.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ernesto Heading for South Florida

Ernesto, back to only tropical storm strength for the nonce, may strengthen again and then filet the Florida peninsula from south to north, the Keys to Jacksonville.

Northwest Florida is unlikely to be affected. Instead of evacuating Pensacola Beach, hoteliers will be hanging out their 'Vacancy' signs.

The NHC says on Monday at 5 am:
* * *

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Errnesto Surprises Hurricane Experts

"If anything in this graphic causes confusion, ignore the entire product"
-- Legend below the 'official unofficial' NHC computer spaghetti models forecasting storms
After several days of hand-wringing by internet storm-watchers over the possibility that soon-to-be Hurricane Ernesto looked like it was heading for the central Gulf Coast somewhere between Port Arthur, Texas, and Pensacola, the early Sunday morning forecast contains some dramatic surprises. The Hurricane Center says at 5 am EDT:

* * *
Heads up Orlando!

While not quite out of the long-range forecast cone painted by various computer models, in less than 8 hours Pensacola has shifted from being on the far-eastern edge of the long-range warning cone to the far-western edge. Adding to the uncertainty is the unknowable effects on storm intensity if Ernesto has a significant or prolonged encounter with the mountainous regions of eastern and central Cuba.

This should be a humbling reminder that humankind has yet to get a grip over Mother Nature's intentions, much less how to change her mind.


Ernesto is officially a hurricane.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Judging Wannabe Judges

Florida appeals court judges never have to run against any human opposition. That indignity is reserved only for trial court judges... .
Northwest Florida voters, both Republican and Democrat, who turn out September 5 for the Primary Election will be asked, among other things, to choose three new circuit court judges. Eight candidates are seeking one of three judicial positions that appear on the "Non-Partisan Ballot" for Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa counties.

Voter's Dilemma

For most voters, being asked to select a judicial candidate poses a real conundrum: who to vote for when you don't have a clue what the candidates will do if they're elected -- and the very rules of the judicial system practically forbid them from telling you?

Unless you know a candidate personally, it always feels like a crap-shoot. That's why so many voters just skip over the judgeship lines.

Our view is that, nevertheless, voters have a civic responsibility to vote for any position that presumes to be filled by the democratic forces of the ballot box. If you don't know the candidates, then you should check them out. Hear them speak, if you can. Read their campaign literature. Spend time on their web sites. Pay close attention to their personal and professional biographies. Ask friends and family what they know about the candidate (some may have been clients). Check with local lawyer or judge friends to see what they think of your preliminary impressions.

This year, for what it's worth, our lawyer friends tell us we have it about right. Your lawyer friends may think otherwise, so as in all such matters you should do your own homework.

The Florida System for Picking Judges

Of course, there are judges and then there are judges. The selection rules in Florida differ according to the judicial level.

Florida appeals court judges never have to run against any human opposition. That indignity is reserved only for trial court judges; and only then in those parts of Florida -- like Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa counties -- which have decided under a local option to continue allowing sitting trial court judges to be opposed for reelection by another actual candidate.

Even here in Northwest Florida, however, incumbent trial court judges usually run unopposed. This is because no lawyer with any sense who hopes to put food on the family table would risk alienating a sitting judge by running against him (or her) and then losing. That's as foolish as kicking the dog and then expecting it to lick your hand.

In the entire history of Florida, no sitting judge has been turned out of office on a retention ballot where the ballot question is framed as "yes" or "no".

It happens that this year, however, two new trial court judgeships for the area were created by the Florida legislature -- far too few, given the skyrocketing caseloads, but it's a start. A third one is vacant because of mandatory retirement rules.

Since there are no incumbent judges in these three positions, vigorous contests with actual, human opposition candidates have arisen at the Circuit Court level. That doesn't make the voters' job any easier. Instead of paying attention to a sitting judge's decision-making record, you're being asked to guess how well a lawyer you probably don't know who's never done it before might perform as a trial court judge. It's not easy, but it's possible to make some educated guesses.

Circuit Court Groupings

Merely as a matter of convenience, candidates for circuit court judge are placed in numbered "groupings" by election officials. The group numbers are arbitrary; each pertains to a single judicial vacancy. None bears any necessary relationship to a subject matter specialty or anything else.

To win outright on Primary Election day, a candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the votes cast. Otherwise, the top two run-off candidates will appear on the General Election ballot in November.

The locally contested groupings and opposing candidates for the three judicial slots are listed by the Pensacola News Journal here. On that page, the newspaper provides hyperlinks to campaign web sites for all but one of the candidates. (The mysterious exception is Terry Ketchel, about whom we have more to say below).

Candidates also answered a few questions put to them by the PNJ. You can read their answers here.

The information provided on various "candidate" web sites ranges from sketchy (see Jim Messer, below) to high-tech digital video clips (Michael T. Webster). For the most part, candidates offer straight-forward biographical stuff -- law school attended, academic achievements (if any), military service (if any), past professional work, civic volunteer record (if any), occasional mention of a past or present client of note, and sometimes a soaring generality or two about "serving justice" or blasting "judicial activism."

Of all of those things, what we pay the least attention to are the military records. We're electing a trial judge, after all, not a field general.

We also tend to be skeptical of platitudinous paeans to Lady Justice. Although the ability to write clearly and with precision is important for a circuit court judge, we're not electing a novelist or poet here.

Frankly, too, we're offended when a judicial candidate makes cutting remarks about other judges "legislating from the bench" or decries "judicial activism," as too many candidates did in their answers to the Pensacola News Journal. That's just political clap-trap, nowhere more so than when it comes to the daily grind of a Circuit Court trial judge position. It demeans the candidate who uses such rhetoric as much as it wrongly diminishes the judiciary as a whole.

This year, all eight candidates are men. No women have sought to be on the ballot. Only one of the eight candidates has demonstrated a creative grasp of modern technology by including digital clips of himself talking to you, the web viewer, about his background and philosophy. That's Michael Webster, and you can see and listen to him here by clicking on "Mike Webster Answers Specific Questions."

Group # 15 Candidates

There are four candidates running for this one trial court judicial position. We have listed them, below, in the same order as they appear in the PNJ article and on your ballot. In parentheses, we indicate each candidate's current city of residence. That, too, is of little consequence when it comes to where in the 3-county area the judge eventually may wind up wielding his gavel.

(1) Candidate Mike Shofield (Pensacola). Essentially, the 47 year-old Shofield's background looks to us like that of an insurance defense attorney. Nothing wrong with that -- if you're an insurance company.

We've seen and heard little else that's remarkable about his academic or professional record, much less anything that leads us to conclude he has the temperament, sensitivity, or patience required of a circuit court judge. Quite the contrary, actually. Something about a temper tantrum in front of other lawyers shortly after he was pinched for a minor traffic offense.

(2) Dixie Dan Powell (Crestview). Among a few Yankee transplant voters we've spoken with, the joke about Dixie Dan Powell, age 49, is that the name says it all. Someone we know very well says he's already used the name in a novel he's writing which is set in the deep South.

Mr. Powell is a general practititoner, which is not surprising in the small town of Crestview. He heads up what looks to be a classic small town law firm that's had a Powell family member in the firm's name for generations -- and, we would hazard to guess, a Powell Family Farm on its client list for almost as long.

Powell may be right when he told the News Journal "I have tried more civil and criminal jury trials than all of my opponents combined." One of our lawyer friends says Mr. Powell is a genial fellow who, he believes, would give the little guy as fair a shake as large corporations. A Crestview local tells us he mostly thinks of Dixie Dan Powell as a substantially diminished version of his well-liked father. Given the widely recognized family name, who knows? He might be the front-runner.

(3) Terry Ketchel (Ft. Walton Beach/Shalimar). The PNJ article does not have a link to any web site for this candidate. But we found one for his law firm here --

It includes an extensive biography of the man. As we checked out Ketchel's "fed contract law" web site, we saw several things of interest; few of them, to our way of thinking, in Ketchel's favor as a judicial candidate.

First, there's nothing either manifestly spectacular, or obviously bad, about this 50 year-old's academic or professional background. Just so-so, as near as we can tell.

Second, he makes much of his G.O.P. political connections. Indeed, his resume is peppered with almost as many mentions of his Republican Party political affiliations as of his professional lawyering work -- a particularly odd choice when you appreciate that this is a law firm web site and not one specially created for the judgeship race.

Mr. Ketchel candidly tells readers that he was an aide to some (unnamed) Republican congressman in a "leadership" position in Washington D.C. Then, he says, he became a branch managing attorney with two (also unidentified) large law firms 'with a national presence' (i.e, a D.C. branch office). Oddly, however, he doesn't say who they were or what he or the law firms did. Nor why he left each after a relatively brief time.

Twice, it seems, he has been an unsuccessful candidate for Congress. We don't know where because he doesn't say. We have to assume he lost both times.

His law firm's "fed contract law" web site is a turn-off for us. The web site makes it clear that Ketchel does a heavy amount of business negotiating defense procurement contracts and appealing U.S. agency procurement decisions when his Pentagon procurement clients don't get everything they might want. (When do they ever?)

In our view, federal contracting work often is less "litigation" than paper-shuffling desk work, congressional and Pentagon lobbying, and occasional brief writing. Mostly lobbying. As one of our lawyer friends says, this kind of legal business is just about the worst preparation one could have for a state circuit court judge position that deals primarily with a large volume of cases concerning the daily agonies of average, powerless American citizens.

Ketchel told the PNJ that he has "conducted numerous trials ... as well as complex construction cases" in Florida and "throughout the Southeastern United States." Maybe he's tried those cases. But the judges conducted them.

(4) Michael T. Webster (Ft. Walton Beach/Shalimar). Mr. Webster, 58, may be the dark horse. An annoying song lyric some fan composed greets visitors to his web site, claiming that Webster is the "most qualified." Surprisingly, perhaps, there's ammunition to back that up.

Webster graduated "with honors" from Florida State University Law School and he has an undergraduate degree in mathematics. Mathematics! For a lawyer that is unusual. On the face of it, then, he's no dummy.

He also has what appears to be a very impressive record as a Navy pilot. But unlike some candidates in other races he doesn't make too much out of that. That comparative modesty is a plus, as far as we're concerned.

He is one of the few candidates who has achieved the highest possible Martindale-Hubbell rating for lawyers, if you put stock in such things. Martindale-Hubbell is a law directory whose ratings for individual lawyers are based on random sample ratings by local peers. It's far from perfect (among others, Ralph Nader has bitterly criticized it) but it's about the only rating system available.

In our view, what distinguishes Webster as a judicial candidate compared to the other three are two things: (1) he has specialized in family law for many years; and (2) in one of the campaign "interview" tapes which you can view on his web site he mentions quite off-handedly that he has the support of a lot of "social workers" and teachers in the area.

We called a few and they say it's true.

Our choice for Group # 15: Michael T. Webster

Reasons: A circuit court judge over time will spend a very substantial part of his time handling family law and family-related cases. Legal scholarship, raw brains, and even litigation experience are less important in that job, we think, than sensitivity to ordinary people's needs and the lives they lead. A circuit judge should have a very acute sense of equity as well as a sound understanding of the law governing average folk.

Mr. Webster appears to be qualified in the brains department. And he's the only candidate with an abundance of experience in the family law area.

We will vote for Michael Webster. You can make your own mind up.

Group 23 Candidates

Two lawyers are running for this slot. Both appear qualified.

(1) Jeff Lewis (Pensacola), age 51, is working on a second career. He first became an industrial engineer, as you can read on his campaign web site. Later, he returned to attend the University of Alabama Law School in the early '80s. His father apparently was a distinguished UA law school graduate and editor of that school's law review. Oddly, Lewis mentions nothing about his own law school accomplishments, from which one might assume his academic career wasn't quite as sterling as his father's.

He spent six years with Curtis Golden's office as a prosecutor, then 5 years as a solo practitioner, then worked as juvenile public defender in Milton, and now is back in Pensacola with the Public Defender's Office. Altogether, none of them great career moves, perhaps, but presumably they have given him quite a bit of useful experience in criminal and juvenile law matters, which is very nearly the other half of a circuit court judge's job.

For what it's worth, several of our local lawyer friends all say they're voting for Lewis.

(2) Gary Bergosh (Pensacola). Friends report that Bergosh is gaining a lot of name recognition because his campaign signs and billboards are visible everywhere. It appears he has invested far more money in this campaign than any of his opponents.

Judging from his web site biography he, too, has extensive criminal law experience. But much of it has been inside the JAG Corps, which isn't the most pertinent training ground we can imagine. He also makes a big deal out of one year in private practice representing the Navy in civil litigation, which seems to us of no particular consequence.

Bergosh's current position sounds like a good reason to go looking for another job: "working with the Department of Defense Education Activity." On the other hand, he chairs the local Legal Aid board of directors, which we consider a plus.

Bergosh, age 39, currently serves as a member of the Escambia County School Board. Hard to say if that's a plus or a minus. Without a doubt, it has a reputation of being one of the least effective school boards in the known Universe.

Our choice for Group # 23: Jeff Lewis

Reasons: We don't know either candidate personally. Neither one has a knock-out resume. Nor has either one had the kind of outstanding career that would make the choice easy. Both have spent most of their professional years working as subordinate lawyers in highly controlled, restrictive bureaucratic agencies -- one mostly with the Navy JAG and the other mostly with local prosecutor and public defender offices.

Both stooped to judiciary-bashing in their answers to the News Journal. Bergosh, however, takes that balderdash to a ridiculous level when he feverishly claims that supposed "judicial activism" is "the most important issue facing the judiciary."

What tips the scales in favor of Lewis, for us, are three things:

(1) He has broader and much longer local state court experience in both Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, working with both adults and juveniles. If done right, that kind of work would have brought him into frequent, extensive contact with many local state court judges and law enforcement officers as well as medical, psychiatric, education and other professionals who will be appearing frequently as court resources or appear as witnesses in a great many Circuit Court cases. He's had extensive experience with the criminal law from all three sides (prosecution, defense, and juvenile). By contrast, Bergosh's experience is related somewhat more to federal law -- and even that appears to have been fairly narrow in its scope, mostly military law.

(2) Our lawyer friends all report they intend to vote for Lewis. They have a strong aversion to what they see as Bergosh's cyncial use of the military uniform during his campaign. While not dispositive, we think it is important that a new judge have the respect of the lawyers who will be appearing before him.

(3) Lewis' opponent, Bergosh, has overdone it with the political endorsements, in our view. Out of seven prominent endorsements he claims on his web site, not one comes from a local lawyer or legal professional. Instead, they're mostly from politicians like Jeb Bush, Jeff Miller, GOP candidate for governor Charlie Crist, and military brass.

We will vote for Lewis. You can make up your own mind.

Group # 24 Candidates

If we didn't know better, we might suppose the judicial position presently known as Group # 24 is reserved for candidates with a close connection to powerful Pensacola lawyer Fred Levin. Both candidates have toiled within Levin's chambers. One toils on as his son-in-law as well as a firm partner.

Jim Messer (Pensacola) has the most distinguished military record of all the candidates. He is a Vietnam War vet who in 1969 earned the Silver Star for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action" and the Bronze Star for "heroic achievement in connection with combat operations against the enemy." If he were running for the most courageous veteran soldier on the ballot, he'd get our vote hands down.

His professional resume, however, is undistinguished; neither bad nor particularly outstanding. After Vietnam, he eventually enrolled and graduated from law school at the University of West Virginia. He burnished that with a Master's in Law from George Washington University five years later. Normally, a Master's in Law is at most a two year program. What happened in between? He isn't saying on his web site.

Messer, age 59, does report that he worked "as a Federal Prosecutor in the Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Section, Criminal Division, U. S. Department of Justice" but he doesn't say when or for how long. He also worked "as the Chief Litigation Attorney for Escambia County" but, again, he doesn't say when or for how long.

What we do know is that a year ago Escambia County was happy enough to retain Messer as the county's alternate "conflicts" lawyer. Thus, he became the go-to guy when the county attorney himself "is precluded from representing the county and/or its employees." That's a plus.

Messer's web site doesn't mention that he once worked as a Levin Firm attorney. We have no idea why. Altogether, he claims "thirty years experience as a trial attorney" but discloses few details that would help determine the nature and breadth of that experience.

Is Jim Messer merely a journeyman lawyer, neither good nor bad? Or, has he tried important or complex cases that would shed light on his vast legal knowledge and skills? As with so much else he isn't saying, at least not on his one-page web site.

Ross Goodman has a much more impressive academic background. Vassar undergraduate. Top academic honors at the U. of Florida law school, law review editor (which many lawyers would consider a big deal).

He also is married to Circuit Court Judge Marci Goodman. Although he mentions her as his spouse, he doesn't exactly disclose her own judgeship on his campaign web site. But he has given interviews about it.
If he wins the judgeship, Goodman said he expects that the only problem with serving in the same courthouse as his wife would be logistical. For example, if the family went on vacation, Santa Rosa would be without two of its three judges.

Goodman said a husband and wife serving as judges is "not unprecedented," citing a couple in South Florida.
Also going unmentioned is that the Honorable Mrs. Marci Goodman is the daughter of Fred Levin. We can't hold that against him. To the contrary, the Honorable Judge Marci Goodman is an outstanding member of the local bench. If her service has inspired her husband to try for a judgeship, so much the better.

In addition to being a civil trial lawyer and a partner with the Levin firm, Ross Goodman has been a "visiting professor" in the University of West Florida's Criminal Justice program the last couple of years. By all accounts he's done a solid job.

He must be held in high esteem by many other local lawyers, as evidenced by his being selected to join the state Board of Bar Governors. He contributes his own time as well as the usual money to several worthy local causes, including anti-delinquency programs where he's been a volunteer for many years.

Our choice for Group # 24: Ross Goodman

Reasons: Again, both candidates have plenty to offer as a circuit court judge. But on academic record, breadth of experience, civic volunteer spirit, and professional reputation within the local lawyer community we'll be voting for Ross Goodman. You can make your own mind up.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Three Liebermans

Face The Nation, October 26, 2003:
"The worst thing about Don Rumsfeld's time at the Pentagon, the uniform military feel deeply that he doesn't respect them, doesn't listen to them. That's not the kind of relationship that we need between a secretary of Defense and the military.

"Judgment about whether he stays or not is up to President Bush, but if I were president, I'd get a new secretary of Defense."
Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2004:
"Many argue that we can only rectify the wrongs done in the Iraqi prisons if Donald Rumsfeld resigns. I disagree. Unless there is clear evidence connecting him to the wrongdoing, it is neither sensible nor fair to force the resignation of the secretary of defense, who clearly retains the confidence of the commander in chief, in the midst of a war. I have yet to see such evidence. Secretary Rumsfeld's removal would delight foreign and domestic opponents of America's presence in Iraq."
Face The Nation, August 20, 2006:
"I... said that we needed a new secretary of defense, that things had gone so badly after Saddam was overthrown that we would benefit from new civilian leadership that the military--our uniformed military had confidence in."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

JonBenet Index

It is not just the electronic media.

Josh Marshall adds up the JonBenet Index:
Number of reporters contributing to Friday's front page New York Times story on the JonBenet Ramsey case: 13

Number of reporters contributing to Friday's front page New York Times story on the federal court ruling that the NSA warrantless wiretapping program is unconstitutional: 2

Friday, August 18, 2006

"Help Is On The Way"

Billmon says bitterly that this is the news:It's actually more depressing than his facetious sub-headline suggests. Following his link to the Los Angeles Times we learn --
The Bush administration is scrambling to assemble a plan to help rebuild Lebanon, hoping that by competing with Hezbollah for the public's favor it can undo the damage the war has inflicted on its image and goals for the Middle East.

* * *
A major rebuilding investment would put the United States in the position of subsidizing both the Israeli munitions that caused the damage and the reconstruction work that will repair it.
We are so screwed. From Afghanistan to Lebanon and from the budget to our now-broken U.S. Army, the Bush administration has shown time and again it knows how to lay waste but it can't figure out how to build.

Rush Review: Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a plane. (phr.) A simple existential observation that has the same meaning as "Whaddya gonna do?" or "Shit Happens". Taken from the upcoming Samuel L. Jackson movie of the same name... .
The rush reviews are starting to fly in from yesterday's world premier of Snakes on a Plane. Mr. Wizard's was the first we've seen.

There are others. For example, here ("an instant, if minor, classic"), and here ("the best bad movie I have seen), and here ("Samuel Jackson battling anacondas with a spork"). Already, there's even a movie cheat-sheet here.

Even if it isn't the only one, or the best, Mr. Wiz' review will serve our present purposes, which is to take a peek at the latest turn in American culture, post-911. About the movie, he writes:
It’s crude. It’s gory. It gleefully travels well beyond traditional standards of decency. But it’s also.... quite a lot of fun, the most, in fact, you’re likely to have at a cinema this year. * * * [E]very "flaw" serv[es] only to enhance the campiness of it all. Know that going in, and you’ll have a ball.
If you're old enough to remember the Iranian hostage crisis, then you probably don't know much about this latest cultural wildfire. But your kids do. On the other hand, if you're so old you remember dressing down and slapping on cosmetics to see Rocky Horror Picture Show then you'll have some idea of what's going on.

Since both occurred within a few years of each other, maybe it's not an age thing so much as a cultural mind-set. In any event, here's a quick synopsis for fellow cultural curmudgeons out there:
  • It all started one year and one day ago, shortly after Hollywood film writer Josh Friedman (Black Dahlia, War of the Worlds) started a blog titled, "I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing." In the second entry, on August 17, 2005, he blogged a wry report describing how he'd been asked to doctor a movie script whose movie title producers wanted to change from "Snakes on a Plane" to the far more prosaic "Pacific Air 121."

  • The name change story turns out to have been almost apocryphal, as director David R. Ellis has explained.

  • In any event, the B-movie idea of an airplane disaster movie with snakes antedates 9-11. Eight years ago, the original producers were considering "Venom" as the original title.

  • After Friedman's blog mentioned the pending title change other bloggers across the planet took a fancy to the sardonic saga of Samuel Jackson signing on to star in the movie, script unseen, just because of its title. They joined him, as they believed, in a fight to restore the (second) original title to a bad movie that hadn't even been made yet.

  • Purported scripts for trailers advertising the movie began popping up on the Internet.

  • Parody movie posters, first draft movie script reviews, and musical satires sprang up.

  • A "meme" had developed, as they say. For those in the know, the short-hand for "Snakes on a Plane" became "SoaP."

  • As the "fan base" grew exponentially, New Line Cinema, recognizing profits when they smelled them in the making, recalled the cast and shot new scenes, as suggested by bloggers themselves, and added dirtier dialogue to earn a coveted R-rating.

  • Long before the movie was ready for release, "Snakes on a Plane" was being promoted through all the Internet "pipes" as well as on T-shirts, books, coffee mugs, and other merchandise.

  • As one blogger put it, "This movie has spawned an entire online community which shows no sign of slowing down. There are thousands of blogs and fansites dedicated to this movie with regular updates, trivia and all kinds of silliness... ."
  • Our favorite spin-off is the newly released music-video by the newly-named Cobra Starship. Definitely worth watching and hearing.
Ironically, despite the central role the Internet played in promoting the movie, the best way -- really the only way -- to fully enjoy the film is to attend with a lot of other extroverts in the audience who can join you in screaming and throwing things at the screen. Meet-ups to ensure a boistrous crowd are even being organized.

"Don't wear open-toed shoes" is the best advice we've seen for movie goers. Rubber snakes, snake balloons, and flashlights are optional.

The blog "Snakes on a Plane" has posted an interactive audience script for those lame enough to need it. Here's a short sample:

__When:__ Whenever "Flight 121" is mentioned.

__When:_Whenever anyone orders a drink on the plane
__What:_Scream out "lets get legless!!"

Sure, what's behind all the hype is yet another instance of unbridled capitalism cheapening our culture. But it's forgivable.

Humor, psychologists tell us, is a great antidote to fear. When the "crayons come out at election time," as Why Now? puts it, we should all have a meet-up and take in the show.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Saving Jill

Via Josh Marshall we read in Part 4 of the Christian Science Monitor's Jill Carroll kidnapping series how, as her life hung in the balance, her family was faced with a terrible dilemma: Whose advice should they trust? That of the F.B.I. or of the newspaper's Baghdad correspondents?

If you had been Jill Carroll's parents, what choice would you have made?
Have the father record a 'John Wayne' statement calling the kidnappers thugs and murderers
Have the mother make a 'sympathy statement' to get the kidnappers on a human level
Other (please leave a comment)
Free polls from

Murder by Media: The JonBenet Case II

“I want to have only very limited comment on today’s arrest because I feel it is extremely important to not only let the justice system operate to its conclusion in an orderly manner, but also to avoid feeding the type of media speculation that my wife and I were subjected to for so many years."
-- John Ramsay, in a formal statement issued August 16, 2006
(reported by the Atlanta Constitution)
John Ramsay's sensible statement, above, is a welcome counter-point to the revolting coverage of the arrest in Bangkok, Thailand, of John Mark Karr . Both, in their own ways, remind us that the presumption of innocence -- a cherished fundamental of Western justice for centuries -- was murdered by the media some time ago.

The motive? Greed, of course. Cable TV News wants your eyeballs. The more you watch, the more ads they can sell for automobiles and (ironically) prescription drugs for attention-deficit disorder.

Unfortunately, sensationalism is not confined to the electronic media. Publications like Rupert Murdock's print imitation of Fox TV news, The New York Post, goes after your pocket, too, by vibrating with pretend outrage like this:

As Mustang Bobby says over at Bark Bark, Woof Woof, "It's summer, so it's about time for another Missing White Girl story... . Hezbollah and Iraq are so last week's news."

Ten years ago, as Antonia Zerbesias writes in the Toronto Star:
It was the Ramseys' great misfortune that both Fox and MSNBC had been born in the wake of the last "true crime" media feeding frenzy, the mother of all cable coverage marathons, the O.J. Simpson case, and they were determined to cash in on JonBenet's murder.
Then, the media rushed to convict someone -- anyone -- in the Jon Benet Ramsay slaying. Now they're doing it again with Karr:
  • Suspect in JonBenet Ramsey Murder Case Admits to Killing, Says 'Sorry' ( Fox News)
  • Suspect Admits Killing JonBenet (ABC News)
  • Suspect: JonBenet Death An 'Accident'( CBS)
Same crime, same media, different person to convict in the press.

Sitting here in Florida, we have no idea who killed Jon Benet. All we know for sure is that no one else knows who did it, either, because there hasn't been a trial yet.

If the news media and the viewers who continue lapping up this sensational bilge can't abide by the presumption of innocence, at least they might try to muster a little self-respect and adopt the "presumption of skepticism." When it comes to news from far-away police states like Thailand, there's plenty of reason to doubt the authenticity and accuracy of nearly every story.

For one thing, our own U.S. State Department reports that authorities in Thailand routinely engage in human rights abuses, including:

* arbitrary and unlawful killings by both security force personnel and insurgents as well as deaths in police custody
* torture and excessive use of force by police
* poor conditions in some prisons and immigrant detention facilities
* arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without charge
* impunity for human rights abusers
* intimidation of the press leading to self-censorship
* widespread corruption
* mistreatment of foreign migrant workers

That's why, as Dana Priest reported in the Washington Post last year, U.S. intelligence agencies have created a secret "black site" there, with the undoubted cooperation of Thai authorities, for interrogating and quite probably torturing detainees.

Another reason to be skeptical, as a Seattle newspaper is reporting, is that the suspect's ex-wife, Lara Karr, claims her ex-husband was nowhere near Colorado when JonBenet Ramsay was slain. She told a local television station, "In December 1996 when JonBenet was killed in Colorado, the couple was living in Alabama, and Lara Karr said she was with John Karr throughout the Christmas season."

A lot of headlines are screaming that Karr has "confessed" to the crime. As most media outlets are not reporting, but British-based Reuters was saying earlier today, in actual fact the suspect "said nothing when asked if he had killed the girl, but appeared to shake his head and made no further comment in a brief appearance before the media."

Still, even the normally sedate National Public Radio news reader Renee Montagne claimed today that Karr has "confessed" to the crime. That's highly misleading and unworthy of NPR. Reports of a supposed confession at this point are at best second-hand. Most appear to be based only on suggestive, but ambigous, remarks Karr has made in response to multiple questions being shouted at him by a room full of reporters.

The principle source for the "confession claim" is the Bangkok chief of police, as quoted by one of several Associated Press stringers in Bangok. But in Thailand, as Ms. Magazine reported years ago, the police are deeply complicit in the local pornography and child sex industry. It generates more foreign currency for Thailand than ordinary tourism:
Male tourists and business travelers from around the globe come to Thailand to indulge themselves at bargain prices in a freewheeling atmosphere, unconfined by taboos against sex with minors or the threat of arrest. The money they spend on sex, hotels, meals, gifts, transportation, and tourist extras is a major source of Thailand's foreign currency exchange.
Thai police tolerance of sex crimes and child pornography has become something of a political football in Thailand's politics, too, and there is a campaign for governor going on right now. Coincidental or not, just a week ago two Bangkok elementary school teachers were accused of raping students about the same age as JonBenet Ramsay was when she was killed. The Thai defendants replied that "the police have framed them on charges of having forced sex with minors."

From this distance, it's hard to put much trust in any side of anyone's story. Many reports contain ample basis for speculating that Karr is a goof-ball or possibly crazy. He has said on videotape that JonBenet was "accidentally" killed, although it's far from clear whether Karr meant this as fact or theory.

After all, his brother Nate says Karr has been researching a book since 2001 on men who kill children. "He was trying to get in as in-depth as he could, to not only this case but to other cases as well. It wasn't . . . something that he was like obsessed with the JonBenet Ramsey case. He was researching multiple incidences," Karr said.

Boulder, Colorado, police have said consistently from the start that they discovered DNA evidence, a palm print, handwriting, and other scientific evidence at the scene. So it shouldn't be long before we know if there truly is enough evidence to prosecute Karr with a crime, much less to convict him.

In the meantime, don't change that channel! Someone wants to sell you more drugs and a lot of credit cards with which to buy them.

Additional Links

The Rocky Mountain News: Bloggers Wary of Confession, Condemn Media by Burt Hubbard

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mississippi Flooding

"The Mississippi case underscores something that Florida legislators should understand: by abrogating Florida's Valued Policy Law, they have created a huge disincentive to evacuate as a storm approaches, and thus have put tens of thousands of lives at risk."
There isn't much of a surprise in yesterday's Mississippi federal court ruling that Bill and Julie Leonard's Nationwide Insurance Co. policy, properly interpreted and applied to the facts of their case, excludes damage caused exclusively by flooding waters in Hurricane Ivan.

That's the bad news for home owners. The good news is the emphasis belongs on the word "exclusive."

The full text of Judge L.T. Sentner Jr.'s legal opinion in Leonard vs. Nationwide is available in pdf format here.

Today, Nationwide is crowing that it has scored a knock-out punch against all of its Mississippi customers. "We are very pleased that the court ruled in our favor and upheld the long-standing flood exclusion language which is foundational to traditional homeowner policies across the country," Nationwide says in a press release.

Insurance industry flak-catchers claim to be equally thrilled:
"In the insurance coverage debate over wind vs. water, Judge Senter’s ruling has taken much of the wind, literally and figuratively out of the plaintiff attorney’s argument," said Ernie Csiszar, president and CEO of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI). "Judge Senter has made it very clear that the flood exclusion applies to storm surge."
Not so fast. It seems the Leonards' lawyer, Dickie Scruggs, says he's happy, too. Speaking of the Leonards, Scruggs told a South Mississippi television station, "The judge ruled in favor of this family."

So who's right? The Jackson (MS) Clarion Ledger comes close to nailing it down today when it editorializes, "The ruling... is a total victory for neither side... ."

The court's opinion is only 13 pages long. Most of it is very fact-specific. As the Mississippi Press is reporting:
The Leonards, who live two blocks north of the Mississippi Sound, said Katrina caused approximately $130,253 in total damages. They said $47,365 in damage was caused by wind. Citing that storm surge caused the rest of the damage, Nationwide paid the couple only $1,661.
Following a complete court trial, the judge ordered the insurer to pay the Leonards another $1,228.

If you analyze your court decisions using only dollar signs, that sure looks like the Leonards lost. But there is more to the court decision than just money.

The outcome of this case turned on the particular facts of the Leonards' purchase of a standard homeowner's policy and two legal principles of ordinary contract law which Judge Sentner applied. It's how the judge applied those principles that explains why attorney Scruggs can see some advantage for future cases, if not this one.

Insurance Agent Negligence?

As for how the Leonards found themselves without a flood insurance policy in the first place, it seems their insurance agent likely advised against buying it. At trial, however, the judge says the Leonards failed to introduce any evidence about whether that advice was, in effect, professionally negligent. As the court opinion states:
There is no evidence in the record to establish the standard of care applicable to an insurance agent who is asked about the advisability of purchasing flood insurance. Absent proof of this standard of care, there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that [the agent] Fletcher's statements to Paul Leonard indicating that he (Leonard) did not need to purchase a flood insurance policy breached a standard of care that governed Fletcher’s conduct as an insurance agent in these particular circumstances.
It's unlikely Dicky Scruggs will make the same mistake twice. He already has on file two to three thousand other lawsuits-to-follow in the wake of Hurricane Katrina -- including one for Republican U.S. Senator Trent Lott, a frequent critic of plaintiffs' lawsuits when they're brought by someone other than himself. Where the facts show another customer was left uninsured against flood damage because an insurance agent gave bad advice, the results of future trials could be dramatically different.

Contract Law Principles

As for the two principles of insurance contract law that were determinative of the Leonards' claim against Nationwide Insurance Co., these are unremarkable rules of law that have come down to us over the centuries as familiar legal principles of the common law. What's new is their application to hurricanes:
  • When a property insurance policy contract explicitly excludes coverage for damage caused by a flood, a clear expression of that exclusion is lawful and the courts will enforce it as to all damage caused exclusively by flooding water. (Score one for the insurance industry.)
  • However, when the insurance contract covers windstorms but paradoxically purports to exclude damage caused by a combination of wind and water during a windstorm, the policy exclusion becomes "ambiguous." Then, the court will reinterpret the policy "reasonably" to mean that the insurance company must cover that portion of combined damage during a windstorm which is attributable to the effects of wind, as shown by the evidence. As the Judge wrote:
    "The most reasonable interpretation for these conflicting policy provisions is that this policy provides coverage for windstorm damage, in accordance with its terms, and that coverage is not negated merely because an excluded peril (in this case storm surge flooding) occurs at or near the same time."
    (Score one for the homeowners.)
When you see a photo of the Leonards' home, as seen below in a screenshot from a local TV news program, the outcome of the case becomes a little easier to understand. Although other photos leave no doubt Katrina caused extensive damage to the interior of the Leonard's home, the judge found the admissible evidence and expert testimony showed comparatively little or no wind damage to the roof, windows, doors, or structural integrity of the house.

In the end, the Leonard decision stands for the proposition that under insurance contracts like those written in Mississippi, a windstorm insurer remains liable for windstorm damage even if it occurs in combination with flooding, but it is not liable for damage caused only by flooding.

That's essentially the same rule we live with in Florida.

The real winners of the Mississippi ruling may be all the expert witnesses who can now look forward to decades of steady income. With a premium placed on admissible court evidence about concurrent causes, they'll be busy offering opinion testimony for years about what their post-storm analysis shows in one case after another: which wall studs were wrecked by water and which were destroyed by wind, how far open a door was torn by wind and the extent to which that same door was opened wider by water, etc., etc., etc.

Unintended Consequences

One consequence of the Mississippi ruling doubtless is that more people than ever before who live within reach of hurricanes will buy flood insurance to supplement their wind coverage. That's good.

But another is that the disincentive for Mississippi homeowners to evacuate in advance of a storm has been greatly increased. That is very bad, indeed.

The artificial wind-versus-water distinction insurance companies write into their policies actually puts more lives at risk. Consider the predicament of every Floridian whose home is destroyed in a hurricane. Before July 2005, state-regulated windstorm carriers in this state were required by the century-old Valued Policy Law to pay policy limits when a home was totalled by a hurricane, even if there was evidence of a concurrent cause like flooding water. Having paid the homeowner, a windstorm company then could seek "contribution" (in effect, partial reimbursement) from any flood carrier for such damage as could be shown attributable to water.

Under the Valued Policy Law, there was no economic reason for a Floridian to stay at home if a hurricane threatened his house. Insurance claims were settled quickly and all the nasty expert witness fights over concurrent causes in Florida were left for the insurance companies to thrash out among themselves after the consumer was paid.

Insurance companies are good at thrashing out that kind of stuff between themselves. They do it all the time. Most also have on retainer a huge stable of experts accustomed to parsing causes in retrospect and testifying to whatever opinions the employing company may require.

Following the Florida state legislature's contemptible abrogation of the Value Policy Law last year, however, we're now in the same fix as Mississippians. It's the homeowner who has to come up with hard, admissible evidence in every "concurrent cause" case.

That means one of two things: either hire an expert witness after the storm to come up with an educated guess (called "opinion evidence") about what was damaged by which cause; or rely on eyewitness testimony to the sequence, cause, timing, and extent of destruction. Expert witnesses don't come cheap. After a large storm they may not come quickly, either, at least not for your average homeowner.

Consequently, the Mississippi case underscores something that Florida legislators should understand: by abrogating Florida's Value Policy Law in 2005 they created a huge disincentive to evacuate as a storm approaches.

Thus, the legislators who voted to amend the Valued Policy Law have put tens of thousands of lives at risk. It's the same disincentive now facing Mississippi residents as they consider, after the evidence-intensive Leonard ruling, what to do when the next hurricane heads their way.

Faced with a need to produce specific proof because insurance companies these days can be counted on to treat their customers like the enemy, a lot of people in Florida and Mississippi are likely to stay put in their homes and videotape the storm damage as it happens, rather than figure out afterwards how to find and pay for an expert witness.

Some of them may die, sad to say. Then, the insurance industry can produce more press releases boasting how they took the wind right of the sails of those customers, too.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Good Ol' Boys Will Be Boys

Pensacola city manager Tom Bonfield must be smiling these days. After a nationwide search ended two months ago, it looked like he might have to hire as the next city fire chief his own professional Selection Committee's first choice: an Orlando firefighting woman with outstanding credentials.

But Bonfield held tough. She 'wasn't a good fit.' Now he's whittled the Just-Gotta-Readvertise list down to six new candidates. And whaddaya know? Every single one of the finalists is a local boy! (Emphasis on the boy. Now, that's a fit!)

What a surprise.

Speaking of Stupid...

Speaking of stupid, as we were only yesterday, a new Zogby poll finds that only 42 percent of Americans questioned were able to identify the three branches of the U.S. government, while 74 percent could correctly name the three stooges.

How can it be that fully 26% of all Americans polled can't name the three stooges?
Louis Fineberg wasn't confirmed as Chief Justice due to a Democratic filibuster
Samuel Shemp was merely the Majority Leader, not Speaker of the House
Harry Howard lost the White House when Katherine Harris misplaced 200,000 ballots in her makeup kit
Free polls from

Monday, August 14, 2006

Fundamentally, Just as Stupid

From Live we learn that, "A comparison of peoples' views in 34 countries finds that the United States ranks near the bottom when it comes to public acceptance of evolution. Only Turkey ranked lower."

The news is based on a report in the current issue of Science (subscription required), publishing the results of a 30-year survey by researchers who combined the data from public surveys about evolution conducted in 32 European countries, the United States, and Japan between 1985 and 2005. The basic question asked was --
"Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals -- Is this true, false, or are you not sure?"
[Click graph to enlarge]

So, what accounts for the rank stupidity of most Americans? According to Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University, one of the co-authors of the study, "American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close."

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Diogenes in Gulf Breeze

Diogenes of Sinope (404-323 B.C.), a leading Hellenistic philosopher among the Cynics, is said to have searched the streets with a lantern in broad daylight, looking for an honest man. Modern scholars tell us he was engaging in just a bit of -- well, you might say cynical street theater.

But Franklin Hayes of the always surprising Gulf Breeze News actually may have found that honest man. His version of your typical man-in-the-street interview is called On The Spot ("Where we put people 'on the spot' to answer a question 'on the spot.')

This week the question was:
"What is the best thing about living or visiting the Gulf Breeze area?"
Hayes found a total of four -- count 'em, four -- people to answer the question.

Our favorite? Young Tristan Drusky. His answer was: "I'm the wrong person to ask. I really don't like living here."

Friday, August 11, 2006

About That Beach Agenda

"I repeat, cried the Lorax,
I speak for the trees!
I'm busy, I told him.
Shut up, if you please."
-- The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Another bit of business the Santa Rosa Island Authority board conducted this past week, as Derek Pivnick reported the other day, was the SRIA board's decision to streamline its agenda by eliminating the repetitive item of business known as the "monthly report" by the Pensacola Beach Residents & Leaseholders Assn.

The Gulf Breeze News is trying to make something of this. The reality is that there is less there than meets the eye.

The Report Requirement

For at least a dozen years the SRIA has carried "Report from the PBRLA" as a regular item on its monthly agenda. The mists of time have largely obscured the reasons for this, at least insofar as the present generation of beach residents is concerned. What the tradition meant in practice is that once a month before substantive new business was taken up the SRIA, the board chairman would formally call upon a representative of the residents' association to "report" to the board what it was doing.

Maybe this made some sense in the '70's and early '80's, after creation of the Gulf Islands National Seashore when things were a lot simpler on Pensacola Beach. Back then, SRIA chairman Bobo Jones ran the beach like a Medieval fiefdom and the one or two thousand residents worried mostly over where to fish or which bar was the better meeting ground.

The good ol' boys dispensed their favors, the complaisant serfs partied on. At first, everything was ducky, just as the Once-ler found when he first lived on the street where the Lorox once stood.

"Way back in the days when the grass was still green
and the pond was still wet
and the clouds were still clean,
and the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space...
one morning, I came to this glorious place.
And I first saw the trees!
The Truffula Trees! The bright-colored tufts of the Truffula Trees!

Mile after mile in the fresh morning breeze.
And under the trees, I saw Brown Bar-ba-loots
frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits
as they played in the shade and ate Truffula Fruits.
From the rippulous pond came the comfortable sound
of the Humming-Fish humming while splashing around.
But those trees! Those trees! Those Truffula Trees!
Evolving Relationship

Then came the construction of the original sewer plant in a highly unsuitable location right next to the commercial core; the infamous "rolling option" for development of the east side of the beach, which eventually was assigned to a politically powerful local developer; proto-plans for what, twenty-three years later, would become the Portofino Towers complex; lawsuits filed by Dr. James Morgan and his fellow "SOB's" [Save Our Beach members] to force SRIA and Escambia County compliance with state Comprehensive Plan laws and to slow developers from overwhelming the beachfront; and a host of other controversial isues touching on governmental misconduct, leasehold contracts, controversial tax and assessment proposals, clean water, turtle-friendly lights, environmental protection, and other issues.

By the mid-1990's, the SRIA, as the chief governing body of the island, and the PBRLA as the only entirely voluntary non-profit association of island residential and business leaseholders, found themselves engaged at times on opposite sides in a number of more adversarial proceedings, disputes, controversies, and issues. Among these were matters such as --
  • Heavy-handed application by the county (with concurrence by the SRIA) of eminent domain powers against certain commercial leaseholders like Tiffany's on the Beach;
  • Lax regulatory enforcement of the county's white sand ordinance (illustrated, for example by the mountain of red clay uncovered on the east end of the beach after Hurricane Opal in 1995);
  • Preliminary adoption of a development scheme, with minimal public input, that would have plunked a Cordova-style shopping mall in the middle of Casino Beach;
  • The absence of any ordinance regulating building heights on the beach;
  • ECUA negligence in preventing sewage spills into Santa Rosa Sound;
  • Gross inequities uncovered in assessment of the so-called "SRIA tax" on small- and medium-sized businesses who had insufficient political pull with the Island Authority board members or the county commissioners who appointed them;
  • Favoritism enjoyed by SRIA board members in granting themselves free bridge toll passes
  • SRIA approval of road designs that called for discharging benzine-laden runoff into Little Sabine Bay and Santa Rosa Sound;
  • Revived proposals to aggressively develop nearly 245 acres of county-owned undeveloped property to the east of present-day Portfino Towers;
  • Developer proposals that surfaced numerous times to waive or abolish the residential building cap on Pensacola Beach, similar to the way it was being exceeded on Perdido Key.
  • Pleas for SRIA financial support for the academically outstanding, but financially strapped, beach elementary school.
At the root of many of these issues was the deliberately secretive way the SRIA board made decisions. It habitually engaged in ad hoc decision-making practices which were rarely, if ever, informed by formally-adopted public policies or ordinances. Advance public notice of contemplated agency action was rarely given; and when given it was not always done in a timely manner. Too often, there seemed to be unmistakable signs that SRIA board members pre-determined the outcome through non-public communications which likely violated the Open Meetings law.

As the whole world knows by now, however, in Florida open meetings law violations are difficult to prove and rarely result in meaningful sanctions.

Thanks in part to favorable court rulings in PBRLA-initiated cases, and in part to County Administrator Barry Evans (now retired) and his staff who worked with certain PBRLA members to rationalize many of the SRIA's quasi-zoning and development decisions so they would conform to the County Code, the SRIA board in recent years has gravitated increasingly away from a purely ad hoc system of favoritism toward a more objective, policy-formulating model of decision-making. The residents' association was not the only entity involved, but it had a large hand in bringing that to pass.

Cooperative Relationship

To be sure, there were times when the SRIA and PBRLA organizations cooperated on matters where they saw eye to eye, like hurricane preparedness, free trolley service, island promotion of major festivals, early experimental Soundside and Gulf renourishment and beach protection experiments, dune restoration, sea oat re-planting, etc. etc.

In other times, leaders from the ranks of the PBRLA such as George Eckes, Don Ayres, and Tom Campanella managed to achieve election or appointment to the SRIA board. They spearheaded substantial improvements in public accountability of the SRIA, such as inaugurating SRIA financial accountability systems (Eckes), enhancing life guard and public safety commitments (Ayres), and ensuring broader opportunities for advance public input on major bonded indebtedness and road improvement proposals (Campanella).

But continuing unhappiness over the SRIA'S noblesse oblige style of governance spawned a major effort in the late 1990's and early years of the present century, led by the PBRLA but joined in by other groups as well, to incorporate Pensacola Beach as a self-governing democratic municipality. SRIA board members and several county commissioners worked feverishly behind the scenes to scotch that effort.

While the PBRLA was not successful in securing state legislation that would put the matter to an island-wide vote -- at least it hasn't been successful yet -- a great many residents and business owners still favor the idea. So far as we know, it remains a top priority of the PBRLA.

SRIA Board Make-up

Not all of the burgeoning issues brought about by increased development have put the residents' association in an adversarial relationship with the SRIA. At least, not formally. But another root of the disagreements that have arisen lies in the way SRIA board members are selected.

Five out of the six board seats are filled by county commissioner appointments. Only one of six positions is elected.

It is no secret that this sytem greatly enables an unhealthy politicalization of SRIA decision-making, even now. Certain SRIA board members and/or their commissioner sponsors enjoy political and financial ties to developer and developer-related business interests that can be in direct opposition to the interests of island residents, businesses, and the public at large. Other board members from time to time have voted on matters which directly affect competitors of their own business or their personal interests.

Conflicts of Interest

By no means is it the only one, but one of the more prominent examples occurred just two years ago when a former officer of the PBRLA filed a state ethics complaint against long-time SRIA board Bill Griffith. In April, 2004, the Florida Commission of Ethics ruled(pdf file or html cache here), in its own words --
that BILL GRIFFITH, member of the Santa Rosa Island Authority in Pensacola, may have had prohibited conflicts of interest while simultaneously serving as a member of the Authority and as a compensated member of the board of directors of Baskerville-Donovan, Inc., while the corporation was doing business with the Authority. Griffith also may have violated the voting conflict statute by participating in matters pertaining to the engineering firm and voting to approve payments to it while he served on its board.
The state ethics commission in Florida is widely regarded as a bad joke, of course. As the St. Petersburg Times put it more delicately just a week ago, "The Florida Ethics Commission isn't known for being the toughest watchdog around."

So, it was no surprise when the commission decided against sanctioning Griffith. The board ruling, in effect, can be understood as stating that both Griffith and the SRIA's board lawyer at the time (who apparently was advising Bill Griffith personally as well as representing the board as a whole, which raises even more ethical implications) were ignorant of state ethics laws; therefore "the Commission voted to take no further action on the matter."

Ignorance of law is an excuse -- if you're Bill Griffith. (Around the same time the ethics complaint was being considered, he resigned from his paid board position with Baskerville-Donovan.)


Griffith has been appointed by one or another county commissioner to the SRIA board since 1992. He has served in the same position for nearly fourteen years. Not long ago, when a new county commissioner declined to reappoint him, Griffith arranged to be appointed by another one -- W.D. Childers, who is now imprisoned after being convicted of bribery and other offenses.

McGuire Martin has served almost continuously since 1983 -- 23 years! Originally elected as a residents' representative back in the days of wine and rosewater, as beach demographics were changing he arranged to be appointed by county commissioner Tom Banjanin.

Banjanin is the only county commissioner whose district includes Pensacola Beach. He is widely despised by island residents now, a circumstance whose origins can be traced to explicit promises he gave key Republican Party supporters on the beach during a primary campaign that threatened to be very close. Banjanin promised them quite explicitly that if they worked for him and he won, he would appoint someone new to take Martin's place as an SRIA board member.

Immediately after surviving that reelection scare, Banjanin re-appointed Martin to yet another term -- and has continued to do so every four years since.

It is impossible to believe that in a county as large as Escambia, where the population is nearing 300,000, fully one-third of the predominantly county commissioner-appointed SRIA board effectively has served nearly as long as most English kings in history.

That Uncomfortable Agenda Moment

Once one understands how the relationship between the SRIA and the PBLRA has evolved over the years, it's easier to understand why that monthly agenda "reporting" requirement became an awkward moment for the residents' association, if not for the SRIA board. How does one "report" to a board, or members of a board, with whom you are frequently engaged on opposite sides of court or agency proceedings? How do you "report" that one of your organization's priorities is to see that some among the very members of the SRIA board you are facing should be replaced?

As a consequence, by the time Ray O'Keefe was elected to head the PBRLA in the late 1990's it became routine for representatives of the Pensacola Beach Residents and Leaseholders Association when called upon for a "report" to say, "We have nothing to report." Or, they would single out a few items pertaining to sea oats replanting efforts or upcoming social events and celebrations.

Beach resident association representatives were no more likely to give a candid and full report on all the important matters the organization was engaged in than the SRIA was likely to invite them into a litigation strategy session with SRIA lawyers. In this manner did the customary "PBRLA report" on the SRIA agenda become a pointless exercise.

Griffith's Revenge - Not

The only grounds for surprise over the SRIA's decision to modify the customary permanent agenda might be that Bill Griffith is the one who proposed eliminating the reporting requirement. After all, there was always hope that someone from the PBRLA might slip up and say something that was actually meaningful. Indeed, that very thing happened once or twice when a less experienced representative of the organization was dispatched to make the report. Griffith, certainly, must have been one who enjoyed such moments.

So, why would he promote elimination from the agenda of the PBRLA report? The likely answer is he supposes in some way that this will inconvenience or embarrass the beach residents' association. Just as everyone on the beach is finally climbing to their feet after Hurricane Ivan, he may well figure he has unfinished business with the PBRLA dating from April, 2004.

Of course Griffith may have other reasons for preferring the "Elk's Lodge" or the "Pensacola Beach Yacht Club" or the "Community Church" to be on the permanent agenda, as it would seem from the Gulf Breeze News report. Their members weren't making routine objections each and every SRIA meeting to Griffith's participation in road-widening decisions that meant more business for the corporation he was also serving at the time.

On Pensacola Beach, yachtsmen and members of the Royal Order of Elks are terrific people. Indeed, their membership overlaps with that of the PBRLA. But neither the Elks nor the Yacht Club seeks to represent the general public interest of islanders in matters of beach development, environmental protection, governance, or incorporation.

In the end, the joke is on Bill Griffith. He's relieved the PBRLA of an awkward obligation to "report" to a government agency that has no business demanding it. The PBRLA is a volunatry, non-profit Sec. 501(c)(4) organization that is not beholden to the SRIA any more than the Pensacola Beach Dancing Grannies.

It's meaningless, but if Bill Griffith really wants to do so he can put the Elks Club, the Yacht Club, or even the Community Church on the agenda to deliver a "report." Who cares? For that matter, why not ask the Dancing Grannies to report once a month? It's bound to be more fun for everyone.

Which Agenda?

There is only one way in which the changed agenda might adversely affect the PBRLA. As it happens, that involves a long-simmering issue that directly affects the public's right to know.

Most folk who attend SRIA meetings do not know this, but the "agenda" which is distributed to the public at the entrance door for every SRIA board meeting is a mere skeleton of the actual detailed agenda that is given to every SRIA board member. Only the press -- if a reporter shows up -- and the PBRLA routinely receive a copy of that detailed agenda.

What makes this important, as any number of examples could show, is that the detailed agenda includes staff analyses, letters, budget reports, applications, and other documents intended to back up or refute each proposed action by the SRIA board. In past years, when an issue arose about which leaseholders were concerned, the PBRLA representative present received a copy of the detailed agenda and made sure to share agenda documents with the parties directly concerned with an issue -- or, as happened frequently, their lawyers.

Of course, there is no necessary or logical connection between requiring a "report" from the PBRLA and having access to the detailed agenda. Otherwise, the SRIA agenda also would be demanding a report from the press. But it is important that sufficient copies of the detailed agenda be made available for public perusal and use.

If Bill Griffith should try to stifle that, he may well be inviting a new dispute with island residents. No matter what Griffith's ethics advisors may say this time, that's another one the PBRLA will win.

Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It's not.

Typos corrected 8-11