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Saturday, October 23, 2004

The People in the Room

This is a guest posting by Mike Byerly, chair of the Alachua County Commission. It was sent to The Gainesville Sun in response to its drubbing of himself an County Commissioner Penny Wheat for voting against the impact fee ordinance. He agreed to let me post it here also. I wanted to because it helps explain why The Sun consistently attacks good commissioners and shows how hypocritical The Sun's chief propaganda writer (editorial page editor) Ron Cunningham can be.

The People in the Room
By Mike Byerly

In a recent editorial recapping the impact fee issue, Sun opinion page editor Ron Cunningham wrote on the "spirit of compromise." Ironically, and characteristically, he pushed beyond policy discussion into a derogatory personal analysis of those with whom he disagrees.

The Sun likes to reduce all issues to a simplistic "developer/environmentalist" perspective, but all taxpayers are affected when private development necessitates new public infrastructure. Twice I've campaigned on the principle that private development should not be subsidized with public money, and promised to support impact fees on new development. In office, I've repeatedly compromised on goals and methods, on a variety of issues, but not on principles, or on the specific promises I've made. In representative government, predictable consistency is a virtue, not a vice.

A public referendum is the best method we have for determining what the public wants. In a 1988 general election referendum, an amazing 83% of Alachua County voters agreed with the proposition that "New growth and development should pay for infrastructure and public facilities for that new growth." The problem has only intensified since then.

After handsomely paying a nationally recognized expert on impact fees to calculate the actual per capita costs of new infrastructure in Alachua County, a 3-2 majority of the county commission dumped his estimates in favor of a politicized "stakeholder group" process. Three of the five designated stakeholders were the realtors' association, the builders' association, and the Chamber of Commerce, all virulently opposed to impact fees.

The outcome of this shotgun wedding was predictable. The deal they reached cut some fees by over half, some over a third, and will require the public to continue to subsidize over $2.5 million of infrastructure per year to serve new private development. The "compromise" may be politically expedient, but it's bad public policy, and I voted against it.

"Future commissions will have the option of raising the fees if it's deemed necessary," Cunningham writes, presumably with a straight face. Will he then condemn this future commission as "uncompromising?" Cunningham likes to accuse commissioners of cowardice when they fail to vote his way, and particularly when they fail to raise new revenues for the county's growing backlog of infrastructure, which he's fretted about for years. How bad must things become before he "deems it necessary?"

Moving beyond impact fees, Cunningham shares his views on the meaning of government.

"Governing is all about finding the middle ground, " says Cunningham. He idolizes the "deal broker" politician, whose vote on a given issue is essentially the sum total of political forces applied by the people assembled in the room where the decision is being made. It's a sure recipe for success in politics, but the problem with this approach to public policy is that "the people in the room" frequently don't represent the public at large. Cunningham seems to clearly understand this principle when applied at a safe distance, to state and federal politics, where it's fun and easy to categorize the people in the room as lobbyists, paid expert witnesses, special interest groups, etc. His comprehension conveniently fails at the local level.

Only the middle ground politicians "get things done," Cunningham believes. Of course, the middle ground is *defined* by advocates, not deal brokers. The real decisions are made by those who choose the issues and frame the parameters of the debate. Our local newspaper likes to reserve this power for itself, leaving the politicians to mop up on the stage the newspaper has built for them.

Virtually everything of enduring value ever accomplished in the political world existed, at least for a while, on the losing end of those 3-2 and 4-1 votes that Cunningham is so uncomfortable with. If a politician ultimately votes against a particular motion, it doesn't mean they've made no contribution. Without the steady pressure applied over the past few years by myself and Commissioner Penny Wheat, the two villains in Cunningham's editorial tantrum, the impact fee "compromise" he lauds would never have even made it onto the agenda.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Did We Mention...?

CNN.com ran a story Friday about the voter registration scandal on Florida campuses, but the cable news channel’s web site failed to mention one important fact – that the fraud was all related to the Republican Party pulling blatant dirty tricks to sign people up as Republican voters and to change Democrats party affiliations to the GOP.

According to all sources, the group behind this is funded by the GOP. Seems like pretty important information, considering the slew of GOP dirty tricks going on nationwide. Other GOP-funded groups have thrown out Democrats voter registration applications; Democratic voters have been getting phone calls falsely telling them that their precinct had moved; Florida state troopers harassing a get-out-the-vote effort in an African-American neighborhood; and so much more, unfortunately.

Why CNN.com chose not to include this information is, really, somewhat fishy. It is at best poor journalism.

I’m really not sure why this story does not generate much outrage in Gainesville. Have we become such a dishonest society that we can tolerate some level of voter fraud? If so, then the foundation of this democracy is so soft the whole house is ready to slide into the ocean. For most people, their occasional vote is their only voice in government. It’s their only chance. To allow people to manipulate the vote makes voting irrelevant.

Jean Jean the Knucklehead Machine

Why does Alachua Mayor Jean Calderwood hate people?

In 2000, when confronted with the rather devastating impacts that a proposed $500 million dollar industrial development was going to have on this small rural town of Alachua, Calderwood said it wouldn’t change “the character of Alachua” – that it would be "an enhancement."

The 1,700-acre project, dubbed Alachua West, was to be centered around the one million-square-foot Dollar General distribution warehouse on County Road 235A. Minus Dollar General, the area was either farmland or homes on acreage.

Alachua West would have nearly doubled the population of the city. It would have added 11 million square feet of industrial development and almost one million square feet of commercial development. Most importantly, the project would have put more than 5,000 semi-trucks on the city's road system every day. The small, quiet town of Alachua would have become the world's largest truck stop, and any charm the city had would have been lost. (Click here for an in-depth story I wrote on this in 2001.)

Calderwood lost her re-election bid that year by a wide margin. The politically re-aligned City Commission voted down the proposed development.

Calderwood spent the next three years waging personal attacks against the re-aligned City Commission and city staff members that she did not like. She and her husband tried to get a planning and zoning board member removed from her position because she did not vote the way the Calderwoods wanted 100 percent of the time – just 75 percent of the time was not enough.

Now the Wicked Witch of Alachua West is back on the commission, this time as mayor. Her election last spring is largely due to the efforts of a right-wing propaganda publication called Alachua Today, which helped the Calderwoods smear any city commissioner or staff member who did anything to promote smart growth and fiscal responsibility. The campaign of deceit has been very successful.

Upon resuming her seat on the commission, Calderwood didn't leave her hate for the people at home.

Two weeks ago she had a column printed in The Gainesville Sun disagreeing with the Alachua County Commission's unanimous decision to not let FEMA spray poisons from airplanes over the county.

The proposed mosquito control is widely considered marginally effective, and the potential danger to people inhaling or eating the poisons used has not been tested thoroughly.

It should be noted that most County Commissioners are inclined to agree with Calderwood on growth and environmental issues, so her pro-spraying stance is extreme even for them.

She won't get her way with that issue. However, in her own fiefdom, Calderwood is queen bee. And when it comes to any proposed development, no matter how bad for the citizens, she sees only a pot of honey.

This week, Wal-Mart announced plans to build a supercenter store in Alachua. Calderwood says she supports that project, even though local business leaders say it will hurt the already struggling mom-and-pop shops in town. According to The Sun, Alachua Chamber of Commerce President Cathy Cain said "a supercenter offered Alachua's mom-and-pop businesses little chance to compete."

"I love going shopping in one if I'm near one, but to bring one here would hurt those local businesses that make Alachua, Alachua," Cain said. "If Alachua loses those businesses, it would lose its small town charm."

Alachua Mayor Jean Calderwood said she shared Cain's worry about increased competition to small businesses. But she said the specialty shops the city has tried to promote may benefit from the extra shoppers a supercenter could lure.

"It's sort of a mixed blessing," Calderwood said. "This should be a wake-up call for the citizens in our community to show loyalty to the specialty shops that have been around for quite a while."

Calderwood ignores the experience in every community where a Wal-Mart Supercenter is built. The company's volume buying and cut-throat pricing makes it impossible for locally owned businesses to compete. The coattail effect that Calderwood mentions is fantasy.

So it is with great pleasure to award Jean Calderwood the Knucklehead of the Week award.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

My Lai vs. Mai Tai

Q. What's the difference between Vietnam and Iraq?
A. Bush had a plan for getting out of Vietnam.

The Sun Likes its Pork

According to The Gainesville Sun, the only person worthy of replacing an entrenched Congressman with a bad voting record is another entrenched Congressman. Rookies – even those whose platform you like – need not apply.

Take Wednesday's endorsement of Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns for re-election against Democrat David Bruderly, who had unsuccessfully run against Stearns in the last election. The endorsement was stunningly negative in regards to Stearns and positive about Bruderly, except for one point:
And so, this is what it comes down to: Cliff Sterns is a senior member of Congress, with nearly 16 years of service.

He is a member of the majority party.

And his influence on key committees, such as Veterans Affairs and Energy and Commerce well serves a district that is home to a growing number of veterans and that is still struggling to build a prosperous economic base.
While we wish Stearns' voting record was a little less driven by ideology and partisanship, we cannot fault the hard work he has done over the years to obtain funding for UF, for regional VA facilities and for health care and economic development programs throughout the district.

The Sun said this after trashing Stearns' voting record and praising Bruderly:
We disagree with Stearns on a wide variety of issues, from his support of the war in Iraq to his environmental record to his opposition to reproductive rights.

On the strength of many of the issues of the day, we tend to agree with Stearns' Democratic challenger, Dave Bruderly.
The Sun also called out Stearns for his votes against civil liberties (the PARTIOT Act) and the environment (drilling in ANWAR).

The Sun called this "a pragmatic endorsement," which means the newspaper's publisher and editorial writer had to hold their noses. They wrote: "Even if he were in the majority party, it would take years for Bruderly to acquire the kind of influence that comes with Stearns' seniority."

So, Stearns is good at bringing home the pork, and that is all that matters. That wealthy special interests are running government and that the pork being brought home is the payoff for the massive campaign contributions used to control who gets elected is of no consequence, according to The Sun. We need the BBQ.

One of the more absurd points in this endorsement is that Stearns is a member of the majority party, which makes him good. Well, if we don't re-elect him and instead elect a Democrat to fill his seat, then the majority party might change. But as long as we insist on re-electing someone because they are in the majority party, then the majority party will always be the same.

GOP Campus Voter Fraud Scandal Widens

The GOP campus voter registration scandal is wider than previously thought. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the same deceitful tactics used in Gainesville were also used as USF and UNF:

More than 4,000 registration forms from college communities are being investigated by elections or law-enforcement officials.

In many cases, students registered as Republican against their wishes will have no problem voting Nov. 2. But a student registered legally in one county and falsely in another could have his vote invalidated.
What this and other stories have not said is the possibility that these GOP-funded groups threw out Democratic registrations. It has been happening across the nation, as I have been reporting. If these campus groups are willing to falsify voter registration forms, what's to stop them from throwing out forms for people who registered as Democrats? Certainly not their morals.

The parent company funding these campus voter drives have been caught in other scams in Florida and other states. According to The Sentinel:

The Arno company has worked on national and Florida GOP campaigns since the 1980s. On its Web site, it claims to have gathered more than 75 million signatures for 300 voter initiatives since 1979.

But the company has been dogged by forgery allegations in Florida and other states in recent elections. Two Florida men working for Arno were arrested this summer and charged with forging signatures on petitions for high-speed rail, gambling and other ballot initiatives, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

In a lawsuit filed this year, anti-gambling forces accused the Arno company of signing the names of dead people to get another measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Ohio officials dropped presidential candidate Ralph Nader off that state's ballot last month after forged signatures were found on petitions gathered by Nader's campaign and a company that worked with Arno, the Akron Beacon Journal reported.
I have written about GOP voter fraud here and here.

Bambino Requests Trade

From today's New York Times: "It was actually happening. The nerd was kissing the homecoming queen. Paper was beating scissors; scissors were beating rock. Charlie Brown was kicking the football. The Red Sox were beating the Yankees for the American League pennant."

Gordon: Pay Parents to be Parents

The Fort Report has a short but welcome commentary from for state Sen. Jack Gordon that supports the proposed constitutional amendment increasing the minimum wage in Florida. Among other things, Gordon writes:

Business interests always oppose a minimum wage law and then bemoan the difficulty in getting well trained or educated workers. But they are creating that problem for themselves by not paying parents enough to be parents. And they are very short-sighted to boot. Every dollar in increased wages will be spent. The multiplier effect will result in no net job losses. Notice that they always make this argument, but never cite the experience when the last increase took place.
Agreed. Business interests claim that this meager increase in the pay for those at the bottom of the wage scale will wreck the economy, yet experience with previous increases in the minimum wage do not support that.

If the media would actually look into the claims made by special interest groups when it comes to such issues, the voters might have a decent understanding of the issues. Instead, most reporters prefer to act as conduits for propaganda rather than as learned researchers revealing facts – they call it objectivity, but in truth it is pure laziness. As long as a reporter can get two people to take opposing sides on an issue, the job is done. Whether one of those people is making spurious claims is irrelevant, apparently.

Here is my previous post on this issue, which outlines more reasons to disbelieve what the business community and its compliant media companies want you to believe.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

UPDATE: More on GOP Campus Voter Fraud

It seems that the GOP group funding voter registration on several Florida college campuses, and not just at UF, is committing voter fraud wherever it goes. The Orlando Sentinel has a rundown of incidents at UF, FSU, FAMU, UCF and Tallahassee Community College:
Leon County elections supervisor Ion Sancho said he's received 3,000 photocopied registration forms, some of which he showed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement because they looked strange and did not seem to
make sense.

About 1,000 of the forms named black students from Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College. Nearly all claimed to be registering as Republicans, yet that county's black population is overwhelmingly registered Democratic, Sancho said.

In Orlando, the University of Central Florida police are investigating similar claims, though only 10 complaints have surfaced so far.
My advice -- if you registered to vote this summer or fall through any person or group not directly affiliated with a county election office, you best call and ensure you can vote Nov. 2. Already GOP-funded groups have been caught in several states throwing out registration forms for Democrats, so it is possible that the Florida GOP effort has done more than try to change people's party affiliaton to Republican.

GOP Voter Fraud Finally Comes to Gainesville

Across the nation we've seen ample examples of Republicans trying to suppress voter turnout, from throwing out Democrats voter registration forms to purging minority voters from the rolls in heavily Democratic precincts.

Now Gainesville's GOP can be added to that list. According to this AP article, which did not run in The Gainesville Sun Wednesday, Alachua County's election supervisor turned over 500-plus voter registration forms to the State Attorney's Office because many of those voters claimed their party affiliation had been changed to Republican by the GOP-funded group collecting the registrations.

This was a scam we could see coming. The Independent Florida Alligator reported a month ago that UF students approached by the on-campus voter drive had been deceitful in how it had voters decide their party ID. Even a Republican student complained:

Matt Carrillo, a political science sophomore and registered Republican, said he registered to vote with the group outside of the Reitz Union.

“I filled the form out and left the party affiliation blank, then [the YPM employee] asked me to initial next to my party affiliation,” Carrillo said.

Carrillo said he didn’t understand why his initials were needed next to his party affiliation, especially since he left it blank, which made him wonder if YPM officials later planned to fill in a party affiliation for him.
After Mark Jacoby, the GOP student in charge of the scam, turned in the forms last week, Supervisor of Elections Beverly Hill office began reviewing them in earnest, knowing full well of the problems ID'd in September.

According to today's edition of The Alligator: "I decided it was fraud," Hill said Tuesday, a day after she gave the forms to the State Attorney's Office in Gainesville. She said her staff checked 30 of them, "And they were across the board (saying), 'No, I never intended to do that.'"

Jacoby turned in 1,218 forms, and 510 of those were for people already registered. Hill turned those over to local prosecutors and completed the registration process for the rest so they could vote on Nov. 2.

The GOP is obviously willing to do whatever it takes to win, ethics and the law be damned. It got Bush elected in 2000 when brother Jeb kicked tens of thousands of mostly Democratic voters off the rolls wrongly and when GOP election officials refused to count ballots from precincts that were heavily Democratic.

Local GOP Chair Travis Horn has been making a stink about voter fraud recently with a spurious allegation against a Democratic county commission that has already been dismissed as without merit. I doubt you'll hear Horn making any noise about this, but let's hope our GOP State Attorney Bill Cervone prosecutes this case to the max. It is the only way that the GOP will ever begin to consider changing its ways.

UPDATE: Yet another example of GOP voter fraud, this time in Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Kerry Biography Going Upriver In Gainesville Saturday

The Gainesville premiere of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry is Saturday at the Unified Training Center. This is a must-see if you feel inundated by the Swiftboat lies and other media attacks against Kerry.

The film traces Kerry’s life from a young enlistee in the US Navy to his current bid for the presidency. In between it details his service in Vietnam, his disillusionment with the war and consequent decision to help lead fellow veterans to end the war, the government's effort to suppress their efforts, and Kerry's entry into politics.

The film was directed by George Butler and written by Joseph Dorman, based on the book Tour of Duty, by Douglas Brinkley. It is being presented by All Veterans for Kerry, a local group organized by Vietnam veteran and prominent anti-war activist Scott Camil.

The Unified Training Center is located at 809 W. University Ave., just east of the UF campus. The doors open at 7 p.m. Call Scott Camil at 375-2563 for more information.

Camil and Kerry both testified at the Winter Solider hearings, which first brought the news of war crimes and atrocities to the American public's consciousness.

Orwell Rolls in His Grave

This year has seen a number of good documentaries that expose the media's biases in favor of the powerful elites that run government and the economy. The newest, Orwell Rolls in His Grave, will have two showings Wednesday at the Civic Media Center.

I haven't seen this one, but the CMC is usually discerning about the quality of the films it shows, so I expect it to be as advertised – an "indictment of how the media and Bush administration have abandoned democracy in favor of consolidating their own power" and a movie that asks "whether America has entered an Orwellian world of doublespeak where outright lies can pass for the truth."

The film plays at 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. The CMC is located at 1021 W. University Ave., just east of the UF campus. Call 373-0010 for more info.

It's important to focus on this issue because most people get their understanding of the world from the so-called "mainstream press." What this and other documentaries (e.g., Outfoxed, Hijacking Catastrophe, Fahrenheit 911) reveal is how the Bush administration uses propaganda to the same effect that Nazi Germany did before World War II, and how the media has been compliant in repeating this propaganda with little criticism of it.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Sun to Poor: Let Them Eat Cake

The Gainesville Sun has no shame. Last week it began making endorsements for local ballot issues and statewide constitutional amendments. In doing so, the newspaper showed how elitist it is.

On Oct. 13, the paper endorsed voting against Amendment 5, which would raise the minimum wage from a paltry $5.15 an hour for all Floridians to a paltry $6.15 an hour. The paper said this small increase in the pay of those at the bottom of the wage scale would cause jobs to be exported overseas and cause small businesses to reduce their workforce.

Three days later, the paper endorsed two local tax initiatives aimed at providing parks and recreation to Alachua County citizens and funding overdue county road maintenance projects. The Sun referred to parks and roads as "life necessities." (I'll update this with a link as soon as The Sun posts the Oct. 17 editorial on its website.)

If you are a low-wage worker or someone who cares about poverty issues, this is a philosophical nightmare.

Let's take the tax initiatives first. If passed, these will take $210 million out of our pockets over the next seven years – to pay for government services that our current tax revenues do not cover. The reason our taxes do not raise enough money for parks and road maintenance is because the Alachua County Commission historically has poorly planned growth to ensure that such needs are met.

The County Commission has been subsidizing growth for decades by building roads, running water and sewer lines, and providing police and fire protection to new developments that in turn do not provide enough tax revenues to offset those costs.

Except for a four-year period from 1998-2002, the County Commission has been dominated by pro-growth commissioners who saw little need for managing growth, much less for making growth pay for itself.

Furthermore, any commissioners who ever spoke in favor of managing growth or making growth pay its own way were derided incessantly in The Sun's editorials as bad commissioners. That practice continues today.

If these tax initiatives are approved, the County Commission will feel no need to budget responsibly or to improve fiscal policies so that we do not run into the same problem in seven years, when those taxes would sunset. By approving these initiatives, voters are telling the county it is OK to poorly plan for our future and that it is OK to have taxpayers subsidize new growth.

Back to the minimum wage amendment. The Sun quotes pro-business lobbyists as its evidence that the $1 an hour increase in the minimum wage would cause all sorts of harm to the economy, from outsourcing jobs to India to "the kiss of death for Main Street businesses."

What else do you expect lobbyists for business owners to say? Anyway, their arguments are weak for a few reasons – most minimum wage jobs are not the kind that you can outsource to other nations (convenience store clerk, low-level restaurant cook, Wal-Mart district manager, etc.), and most mom-and-pop shops are operated by the moms and pops who own them, often with few if any employees. (I owned such a business for 12 years, and the one paid employee I had made far more than minimum wage and had great health and vacation benefits.)

Whenever businesses encounter new costs, the first thing most do is raise prices and cut costs. So we might have to pay an extra 50 cents for a burger or Big Gulp – big deal.

What makes this doubly troubling is that The Sun is against even a minor increase in pay for those at the bottom of the wage scale but in favor of raising taxes on those same people so that the county can continue to subsidize the developments of the newspaper’s paymasters – the developers, builders, Realtors, bankers, engineers and others who profit from real estate development.

That is why I say the newspaper has no shame.

Dread Scott

How lucky we are that Ward Scott will not be an Alachua County Commissioner. In Monday's edition of The Independent Florida Alligator, Scott claims that a state law allowing citizens to enter a political race as a write-in candidate is akin to racial segregation.

“Segregation was legal at one time, but it wasn’t like it was the right thing to do,” he said.

If you haven't followed this story either here on in the local press, here's the background: Scott ran as a Democrat against County Commissioner Mike Byerly and lost by more than 1,000 votes in the Aug. 31 primary. He then filed a complaint with the state ethics commission claiming that a last-minute write-in candidacy that closed the primary to only Democratic voters was "voter fraud."

The ethics commission almost immediately dismissed the complaint as invalid, and for good reason – state law permits write-in candidates and the state constitution says that if a primary election will decide the winner of the entire race, then and only then will that primary be open to all registered voters, regardless of party ID.

In this case, the winner of the Aug. 31 primary was to face write-in candidate Steve Nichtberger on Nov. 2. That means only Democrats could vote in the primary.

Scott apparently thinks that this process is the same as telling an African American to attend racially segregated high schools, which is disturbing on several levels. All registered voters will be able to participate in the election on Nov. 2, so no one is disenfranchised. And if Scott's accusations had any merit, then you would have to indict the multi-party system in general, because if there had been a Republican candidate in the race (or a candidate from any party, for that matter) then the primary would have been closed to only Democrats.

Most disturbingly, however, is that the write-in candidacy provision in state law is a way of helping candidates with few budget resources to run for office, so it is actually giving more people access to the system, not fewer. Scott hypocritically argues against that system and in favor of one that allows him to control who gets to run. His stated intent, being a self-described conservative Democrat, was to run as a Dem with no Republican opposition, enabling him to get votes from both conservative Dems and Republicans.