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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Reinventing Wheels - LUST

So much of life is two steps forward and one step back, all the while forgetting that we have walked this path before. This is especially true of public life, where experienced people are put out to pasture by term limits, and youngsters think they are inventing new wheels. Specifically, I speak of a Times editorial last week, “Move faster to clean up leaky tanks.” The subhead read in part: “Thousands of underground petroleum tanks are buried across Florida, endangering the drinking water supply because the state doesn’t make their cleanup a priority.”

This is true, yet not news. Back in the early 1980s, I worked on an effort that we dubbed “LUST” – Leaking Underground Storage Tanks. The Times made no mention of that, but its lead sponsor in the Florida Senate was Karen Thurman of Pasco/Hernando. In the House, it was Tampa’s George Sheldon. As I recall, the bill passed and funding was mandated to remove buried petroleum tanks. Evidently later legislatures did not keep up with the issue, however, and from the Times story, it appears that virtually no progress has been made.

I know there’s a gas tank buried in my front yard. I don’t worry about it because it’s been there since 1966 and probably has little to leak by 2018, but that’s not the point. The gas company that put it there is out of business, but presumably should have been required to pass on its records of locations to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and in the decades since, someone should have knocked on the door. That they didn’t, I think, is because DEP has been seriously defunded under the Republican governors we’ve had for 24 of the last 32 years. According to the Times, this issue is getting attention now, not because of thoughtful legislators, but because of scientists who have the courage to speak out against their employer, the state government. They call themselves “Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,” and if I had money, I’d send them a check.

Reinventing Wheels – Term Limits

The larger point, however, is how we kick out experienced public officials and replace them with newbies. This is the exact opposite of what conservatives should mean when they say they want to “run government like a business.” Well-run businesses do not fire a good employee because he/she has performed satisfactorily for eight years, but this is in routine in most governmental entities. The only exception is Congress because the founding fathers did not write term limits into the Constitution, and no one ever seriously pushed a constitutional amendment on this. Yet we adopted term limits on the state and local level in the 1980s, that being a great priority of the rising Republican Party in the South.

So back to the LUST story. Karen, a former teacher, went from the Florida Senate to Congress and served admirably in Washington for ten years before being defeated by a Republican woman. As far as I know, she spends her days now with her grandchildren, and her knowledge of underground tanks and many other things is wasted. George’s 1982 congressional bid failed by less than one-half of one percent. His opponent was Mike Bilirakis, who ran as an outsider and promised to uphold the spirit of term limits by only serving a few years. Instead, he stayed long enough to establish a dynasty, and his son Gus Bilirakis now holds the seat. Indeed, they have been there long enough that my spell checker recognizes “Bilirakis.”

I opposed term limits at the time and still do. We have elections on a regular basis, and like a job evaluation, that should determine whether or not someone keeps a position. The result now is that we effectively have eight-year terms instead of two-year terms because potential candidates wait until an office is vacant rather than run against an incumbent. And then we have our county commissioners, who cheat the spirit of term limits by trading from at-large seats to district ones and back again. Thus some commissioners – including those who said they support term limits -- have been there for decades.

The solution is to end at-large seats, but I invested time and money in that several years ago and won’t again. At-large seats are a vestige of the Old South that prevented minorities from electing one of their own. A federal lawsuit could give the judiciary a chance to strike down Hillsborough’s system, which allows four of seven commissioners to live in affluent South Tampa. Going to court, however, means money and time. Not my job anymore. I’m busy playing bridge.

Reinventing Wheels – A Lesson in What Works

Thinking about the 1980s and Tallahassee, one of the first faces that comes to mind is that of my beautiful red-haired friend Linda Vaughn. Her life, which ended too young, was all about Ireland and folk music, but she eked out a living by lobbying for various causes that were considered losers at the time. No established lobbyist wanted to accept the American Lung Association as a client: It wanted to ban smoking in public places, and back then, that seemed a loony idea.

Everyone (except Linda and me) smoked. Well, I guess I have to add Representative Elaine Gordon of Miami to that list. Elaine was allergic to smoke, but the practice was so prevalent at the time – and smokers felt so justified in their right to pollute the air – that when she asked to sit at a committee table in a seat without smokers nearby, a colleague deliberately blew smoke in her face. And he was a physician!

So Linda’s cause seemed hopeless then, but smoking in public buildings has been banned for a long time now. In contrast, Representative Betty Easley (a smoker) wanted to do something about noise pollution. She was a Republican from Pinellas, which then dominated by Republican retirees from Up North. Her constituents were disturbed by the era’s boom-boxes at the beach and by cars with sound systems so loud that the vehicle shook, and because she was a smart legislator, her bill to limit decimals of sound passed easily. Like LUST, it became law – but do you ever see it enforced?

It’s true that once in a while, there’s an outcry about a too-loud rock concert, but I’ve never seen a car pulled over for exceeding the decimal limit – although, like you, I regularly see vehicles whose sound waves cause vibrations. I’m sure Betty Easley’s noise pollution law never has been repealed, but with no enforcement, young people continue to lose their hearing every day. And because of that, they turn the sound up. Two steps forward, one back. Someone needs to be in charge of what has passed the legislature and whether or not the law is being enforced.

Reinventing Wheels – Gender Balance

My Tallahassee friend Linda Nelson is a great deal like my late friend Linda Vaughn in also being a strikingly beautiful red-head. Linda Nelson was the executive director of the Florida Commission on the Status of Women in the 1990s, while Lawton Chiles was governor. The era was not as progressive as the 1970s had been, but it was feminist enough that the Commission introduced a bill to bring gender balance to public boards. I remembered that effort, but wasn’t sure whether or not the bill actually passed. Linda, who now is retired, answered my query in less than an hour, sending the language of Florida Statutes, Chapter 760.80.

Titled “Minority representation on boards, commissions, councils, and committees,” it begins: “It is the intention of the Legislature to recognize the importance of balance in the appointment…of decision- making and regulatory boards…” Five categories of minorities were spelled out, listed in this order: African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and “an American woman.” The bill went into effect on January 1, 1995, but do you ever hear anyone refer to it? Even those of us who are active feminists don’t regularly review appointed bodies for gender balance, and the law is largely forgotten.

So, assuming that a gender-balance law still is on the books, I googled around a bit to check out the current situation. Someone had brought my attention to “Visit Tampa Bay,” a quasi-public body that makes important decisions on how to spend the hotel taxes paid by visitors. Turns out it has a five-member board of directors, all with masculine names. Of the twenty-five other people listed as “board members,” only one has a recognizable feminine name (“Pam”). Let me ask: Do these guys really think that women have no influence on how a vacationing family spends its money? No, they simply don’t think, period.

I only could make myself check out two more. The Port Authority’s quite fancy website shows five appointed members, as well as two who are there because of their elected positions. The only woman of these seven falls into the elected category; she is County Commissioner Sandy Murman. The Sports Authority also has a big budget, and because it includes access to luxurious skyboxes, appointments to it are eagerly sought. It has twelve members, including two black men and one white woman who was initially appointed by Mayor Pam Iorio. With eleven of twelve being men, I wonder if eleven of every twelve women can exempt ourselves from the taxes we pay to cover the bonds for Ray-Jay? Is there a form somewhere that would allow me to transfer that money to a more worthy cause, say the Children’s Board? Let’s refuse to accept taxation without representation.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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