March 25, 2018

Rally Against Police Brutality


Folks came out to rally against police brutality in Sarasota, Florida. I have not seen the police report, but the arrest of Chad Washington three days earlier brings up questions that demand answers.

  1. Why was Chad tased repeatedly, after he was already on the ground and did not appear to pose a continuing threat?
  2. Why did the police arrive and arrest Chad, before an ambulance even arrived? If there was a medical emergency, I would think the police would wait for medical services and only intervene, if there was a subsequent problem.

Perhaps the police report will answer these questions, but all of us, and especially the African American community, deserve an in-depth assessment. One last item. Is it against the law to safely stand in a median? If so, why did the Sarasota police only target one person with this law, even though many had been standing in the median during the protest? Is it because he was African American? Is it because he was videotaping? Is it because he was an outspoken community activist?

March 14, 2018

Florida CRC & Assault Weapon Ban


You know those public hearings that various commissions hold, when they are required to obtain citizen input or expertise? It sounds boring, but that's called democracy in action, right? At the municipal level, that might mean fifty people coming up to the microphone to deliver their three minutes of articulate oratory on whatever subject has rumpled their dumpling. But at the state level that might mean several thousand people ready to sound off. And yet, yesterday, three companions and I trudged up to St. Petersburg to sit through just such a hearing. And I came away hopeful.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) is convened once every 20 years to propose amendments to the Florida Constitution. The amendments that the Commission approves will go directly on the November 2018 ballot. Here is my review of some of the public's suggestions. It would be fair to say that, thus far, the Commission has been stunningly dismissive of the voice of the people. According to the League of Women Voters, only 6 of the public's 2200 proposals were even considered by the Commission. So my expectations going in to yesterday's hearing were right down at ground level slithering alongside some snakes and worms.

I had two objectives in mind, when I decided to attend this sixth of six public hearings to be held by the CRC in 2018. First, I was curious how the Parkland, Florida families, who had lost beloved friends and family during the recent gun massacre, might try to use this forum. There were no gun reform proposals under consideration, but that might fuel some disruptive impulses. Second, very few of the 36 proposals left standing at this point deserve to go on my ballot. Most did not belong in the Constitution. And a good chunk of them were aimed squarely at stripping away Floridian's constitutional protections. I wanted to hear my fellow citizens give this Commission an earful. Although there was an element of tilting at windmills, I too wanted to have my say.


We arrived very early in order to assure that we would be able to speak. It was first come, first to speak. While waiting in line for the doors to open, I noticed a woman in a bright pink Planned Parenthood shirt. I thought she might be misinformed. Proposal 22, seeking to downgrade privacy protections, had already been tabled. It was no longer up for consideration. A woman's right to abortion was secure under the Florida Constitution's privacy provision. As fate would have it, in a room of 1000 chairs, we ended up sitting next to the woman in the pink Planned Parenthood shirt. Several other Planned Parenthood supporters were sitting next to her. I asked them how the CRC process could allow proposals that had been tabled to move forward. After a quick search, we found the fourteen page document that outlines the rules of the 2017-2108 Florida CRC. Proposals could be made, debated, amended, postponed, reconsidered, withdrawn, tabled, approved, and so on. But in the end, there did not seem to be anything in the Rules Document to prohibit the full Commission from voting on a tabled proposal that had previously been voted down in committee. Upon first glance, their concerns seemed legitimate.

Source
Still I was not convinced. But then the rules got even stranger. Carol, one of my fellow Sarasotans who had made this journey to St. Pete, had attended the press conference just prior to the hearing. She learned that Proposal 3 had been amended to include a ban on assault weapons.  A ban on assault weapons !!!  Carol and I were both thinking we might use a portion of our 2 minutes to ask the Commission to approve Proposal 3, if indeed it banned assault weapons. I looked up Proposal 3 on the CRC website. It would remove an obscure provision in the Constitution that theoretically prevented foreigners who were ineligible for citizenship from owning real property. It was part of Florida's racist past, directed at Asian farmers. It had never been enforced, but neither had it been repealed. And so Proposal 3 was an effort to repeal this racist provision. The proposal had been voted on by the Declaration of Rights Committee on November 29, 2017, and it had been placed on the Calendar for a 2nd reading two days later. There were no subsequent listings in its history. The Parkland shooting had occurred two months later. So, why would a proposal finalized two months before the shooting include a ban on assault weapons? Further snooping with Google search revealed a version of Proposal 3 that did indeed include a ban on assault weapons, but it was dated March 12, 2018.  This version of Proposal 3 deleted everything that had originally been in the proposal and replaced it with an entirely new version. No committees had met where amendments might have been debated, so how had this proposal been amended? Evidently the rules about amending proposals did not prohibit proposal amendments, even after the committees had finished debating, amending, and voting.

To recap, the hearing hadn't even started and I had learned that the rules of the CRC might permit proposals to be put to a vote by the full Commission, even if they had been rejected in committee and/or entirely replaced with new language. In other words, anything could end up on the ballot. This was highly unsettling.

And then the hearing started. Each speaker had two minutes at the microphone. Everybody else was to be quiet. No signs were allowed other than red and green cards to indicate one's agreement or disagreement with a particular speaker. I hadn't brought red and green cards. But if this was to be an interactive hearing, I wanted some. One of my well-prepared Planned Parenthood neighbors shared some cards with us. The starting gun sounded.  And the marathon was on. A sloooooow marathon. An hour went by. At two minutes per person, that meant that about 25 people had spoken. I had used my green card over and over again and my red card a few times as well. In all that time, only one person had advocated a proposal that would ban assault weapons. He had referred to some series of numbers - 615688 - and hadn't said Proposal 3 in those exact words. But he did mention Parkland. The audience, who had sat silently watching every previous speaker, all stood up and applauded as he returned to his seat.

Another hour of speakers went by. Finally they called my name. I asked the Commission to approve Proposal 91 that would ban coastal oil and gas drilling within the territorial waters of Florida. There were lots of green cards in support. I sat down, and Barbara, another of my fellow Sarasotans, approached the microphone to ask the Commission to deny Proposal 4, an attempt to allow state funding of religion and religious institutions. Go Barbara! Lots of green cards. Carol would have to wait through another 50 speakers to get her turn to speak. That would be another two hours. We decided this would be a good time to grab lunch.

During the first few hours, the issue that had come up the most was gambling on greyhound races. With issues such as abortion, separation of church and state, crime victim rights, and public education on the docket, I was surprised that what brought the most people out was greyhound racing. Every time a speaker spoke out in support of Proposal 67, about three dozen green cards went up in the crowd. The impassioned participants spoke of the drug doping that had been measured in dogs. Of dogs that raced with a broken leg. Of the dogs' confinement in small cages. Others spoke of diminishing revenues. When we returned from lunch, the opposition contingent had piled in and were sitting and standing at the back of the room. When one of the many people who derived their livelihoods from greyhound racing took the microphone a couple dozen of them would raise their Truth signs.

Finally, the Commission was calling the Parkland families up to the microphone. They consistently called on the Commission to approve the amendment to Proposal 3 that included a ban on assault style weapons, bump stocks, and large capacity magazines. They wanted to raise the minimum age for gun ownership to 21. And they wanted to increase the waiting period for buying guns from 3 days to 10 days. By this time I had found the various amendments that had been submitted for Proposal 3. The Parkland families were advocating for the most recent one. This amendment had been introduced on the very morning of the hearing. This was breaking news. And as far as I could tell, there were no rules prohibiting such a last minute change to an entire proposal. Ordinarily I would criticize such a loosey-goosey scheme.  It could potentially be very corrupt, non-transparent, and non-responsive to the public. But in this case, the system responded to the very real and strong public pressure for stronger gun regulation. I did not witness any Commissioners respond to members of the public, but evidently while we were out, Commissioner Frank Kruppenbacher rose and addressed the residents of Parkland who were in attendance. He said "In my heart I know the majority of this commission stands with you, and we will do what’s right."

After another hour of speakers, the Commission called on Carol. She spoke against those proposals that would be bad for Florida's public schools. And she spoke in favor of the amendment to ban assault weapons. When she was done, there were still 200 people waiting to speak, but it was time for us to make our way home. The hearing had started at 1pm and it ended at 11:30pm. The Commission listened to some 10 hours of public comments during this one hearing alone. All told, 430 people addressed the Commission. That represents an awesome outpouring of in-person citizen feedback.

2017-2018 Florida CRC Commissioners, Source

My divination abilities are not well-honed. Will 60% of the full Commission vote to put a constitutional ballot amendment banning assault weapons on the ballot? If so, would 60% of Florida voters vote in favor? Will the National Rifle Association (NRA) swoop in with PR finesse and strong financial backing to sway these votes? For all I know, yesterday's CRC hearing might have been an historic turning point, where we start to see passage of common sense gun reform. Who am I to know? In order to keep a shred of hope, I leave it to others to explore how much direct and indirect funding each CRC Commissioner has already received from the NRA. But I am hopeful. So many citizens came out to make their voices heard, and by and large, I agreed with many of them.

Update: On March 21, a Commissioner raised a point of order that the gun reform introduced as an amendment to Proposal 3 was not relevant to Proposal 3 and should not be introduced.  The Chair ruled the amendment out of order.  Consequently, the full Commission will not have a chance to vote on an assault weapons ban.

3/13/18 Constitution Revision Commission – St. Petersburg – Video Part 1
3/13/18 Constitution Revision Commission – St. Petersburg – Video Part 2

February 24, 2018

Dear Vern

Yesterday, an impromptu group of Sarasotans who are fed up with gun violence descended on Representative Vern Buchanan's office building demanding a legislative response. Anger has propelled these folks to speak out. Representative Vern Buchanan was not there. Citizens from all walks of life, including career soldiers, have an earful for Vern. 

November 26, 2017

Mind Reading via the Florida CRC

Every twenty years, a Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) convenes to examine the Florida Constitution, hold public hearings, and come up with a list of potential amendments that will appear on the ballot. That time is now. As a result, Floridians of every stripe have together submitted over 2000 proposals to the CRC. This presents a remarkable opportunity to peek into the hearts and minds of the people of Florida.

Mosey on over to the Florida Constitution Revision Commission's website and check out the proposals submitted by members of the public. Loyal Millett would like to see billboards constitutionally banned in Florida. Loyal submitted 126 proposals to the Commission - by far the most prolific submitter. Jesse Dieterle only submitted one, but it was a doozy. He wants the Florida Constitution to state that no law shall be passed by the Congress of this State inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. If you believe in God's omnipotence, then I suppose nothing happens that is not the will of God, so this might be a slam dunk. On the other hand, attempting to implement such a provision is more likely to result in a never-ending, unresolvable argument. Deborah Steele and a few others are looking for grandparent rights.  Deborah feels that grandparents should be allowed visitation with their grandchildren at least once a month and allowed to participate in their school events. It's not clear that any of these proposals belong in the State Constitution, but surely they reflect something of what is really irking Floridians.

Several months ago, I was moved to submit a proposal to the CRC, after reading that some on the Commission were already considering allowing public revenues to pay for religious institutions. This would give a constitutional basis for state funding of private religious schools. That got my blood boiling. I didn't feel compelled to organize resistance, but I did want to go on record in some small fashion.

Others have already started organizing around their particular issues. Floridians for Immigration Enforcement galvanized 586 people to request that employers be required to use Homeland Security's E-Verify system to ensure that new-hires are in the country legally. Evidently this is a hot button issue, making up over 25% of all submissions from the public.

There were a few submitters who questioned the legitimacy of the CRC. Paul Harvill was categorical and loud with his proposal, DO NOT MEDDLE WITH ALMOST the ENTIRE CONSTITUTION. Eugene LaCross stated that the CRC is without power to revise any Constitution and are impersonating Delegates chosen by the People. The Commission has not taken this to heart and has already proposed 103 amendments.

Public submissions are now closed, so what chance do any of these proposals have of getting into the Florida Constitution? I am happy to report that the CRC has responded to some of the public's suggestions.

Traci Deen submitted a proposal for the right to a clean and healthful environment. Commissioner Thurlow-Lippisch then took up this idea and submitted the unaltered proposal for consideration by the CRC. On the surface, that's awesome. Florida's laws and regulations are stacked against those who might wish to push back against polluters. When a 45 foot sinkhole opened up last year at a Mosaic phosphate fertilizer facility and leaked millions of gallons of slightly radioactive water, it was unconscionable that both Mosaic and governmental authorities who were in-the-know withheld this information from the public for 3 weeks. If I lived nearby and drank from my well, it might have been useful to have constitutional backing to support my right to a clean and healthful environment. The amendment would allow anybody to enforce their constitutional environmental rights against any party, public or private. I don't claim to know how this might play out. Would we be inundated with lawsuits? Would a host of existing regulations have to be rewritten? Would polluting businesses pack up and leave the state? I have no idea. But I am pleased that a citizen submitted a well-intentioned environmental proposal to the CRC, and that Commissioner Thurlow-Lippisch is now championing that proposal.

There is still good reason for citizens to be wary of proposals from the CRC. Of its 37 members, most are political appointees. The proposals have been assigned to various committees. Proposals that make it out of committee and muster enough support from the Commission will make it on the ballot. Even if the Commission recommends a dreadful proposal, it still needs approval from 60% of the voters in order to pass. Citizen engagement with the Commission is our best hope for stopping any harmful proposals from the Commission. Citizens can contact individual Commissioners at any time to express concerns through the CRC website. I intend to keep a close watch on the CRC. I want to make sure they protect our civil liberties and public schools.

Feedback to the Commission aside, I do feel that this public airing of the public's grievances is an opportunity to discern what makes us tick. So I put my nose to the grindstone, determined to distinguish the pepper from the fly-specks of public submissions.

Many citizens expressed their wish to extend basic rights to more people based on such things as sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, age, and socioeconomic status. I found only two that resonated with Commissioners. Commissioner Roberto Martinez submitted Proposal 30, which extends protections to those with any disability. Proposal 3 addresses a clause added to the Constitution in 1926 aimed at keeping Asian farmers from leasing or owning land. This clause was never enforced, but is rightfully considered an embarrassment. Proposal 3 would remove this "alien land law". It is disappointing that more suggestions along these lines were not included in the Commissioner proposals.

Some used their proposal to provide brief history lessons. Here are a few examples -
  1. Gary Stein requested that all references to marijuana in Florida Statutes be changed to the more formal term, cannabis. He then proceeded to explain how the more common term, marijuana, had come to be used in U.S. law.
  2. Members of the Florida criminal defense bar with support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida want Florida to exercise a robust federalism with regards to search and seizures. This sounded very academic, until I continued down the page and understood the history. Each state can use their state constitution to guarantee MORE constitutional protection to its citizens than does the federal government. That is pretty powerful stuff. But in 1982, Florida relinquished that capability with regard to search and seizure, and simply aligned itself with the U.S. Constitution. It was a knee-jerk reaction to cocaine-related crimes of the late 1970's.
  3. And then there was Sheila Anderson's proposal to clamp down on governmental corruption. Sheila titled it The Gaping Hole in the Public Trust and went on to provide the results of various official investigations from Grand Jury Presentments over the last couple of decades. Perhaps that is the inherent nature of corruption - that it is not so easily rooted out.
I was enlightened by the unexpected history lessons provided by these passionate citizens.

Some proposals included unexpected personal information. One advocate for parental rights included 829 docket entries from a Court Records Search of his own divorce.

What I enjoyed the most was the out-of-the-box thinking dished out by some Floridians. Carlos Gamez wants to allow voters to call for a "Direct Veto" of any bill enacted by the Legislature. That would be a game-changer. Joe Hannousch would simply require that all elections be non-partisan. Would this mean that government would be non-partisan as well? Barac Wimberly would like more enforcement of illegal moving vehicle activity. He proposes a 50/50 sharing incentive of fines resulting from videos submitted by citizens. Who says the law can't keep up with technology? David Hubert wants austere term limits, such that every five years, we would elect a whole new government. There would be no more campaigning for re-election while in office. Although many proposals were word-for-word copies of other proposals, there were quite a few original ideas in the mix.

Most of the proposals put forward would probably better be served by legislation than constitutional changes. For example, one of the more important issues of our time - getting Big Money out of politics - was advocated in 460 proposals. They all proposed language that would request action by the Legislature -
... the People of Florida urge the legislature to use all appropriate and lawful authority to advance and expedite the passage and ratification of an amendment to the United States Constitution to make clear that unlimited political contributions and expenditures to influence elections is not free speech. 
Legislators please take note: 460 out of 2012 written proposals would like you to advance an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to effectively reverse the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Your constituents have a lot of other ideas as well. You can find them at the Florida Constitution Revision website. And, legislators, if you keep ignoring them, these ideas may end up in Florida's Constitution, right alongside the pregnant pig amendment.

September 21, 2017

A Field Trip to Washington DC: People's Congress of Resistance

Currently, the United States Congress does not represent the people who live and work in their districts. To compensate, many people journeyed from around the country, gathering at Howard University in Washington DC, to do the job that the U.S. Congress is not doing. Congress takes $1.1 trillion in tax dollars and hands over half of it to the largest military-industrial complex in the world, while health, education, housing and jobs receive less than a quarter. Since January 20, people have been fighting back in huge numbers. Immigrants, women, scientists, students, and many others have rallied and marched. The People’s Congress of Resistance formed to help support and coordinate this ongoing and growing resistance. Representatives from 37 states and 159 cities participated.

January 28, 2017

Sarasota Women's March - The Signs!

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go for a walk with a few friends. Largest walk ever as it turns out. The Women's March on Washington and the Solidarity Marches around the country aroused an offended public. By far, the majority of mass produced signs in Sarasota supported Planned Parenthood. But many, many more rallied with signs they had prepared at home just for the occasion. Each of these signs answered the question, If you only had one or two things to say right now, what would they be?

As expected at such a march, many signs were angry. But some were witty, some were hysterically funny, and some were just full of love. Many were a unique combination -

  • We Are the Majority. Chin up. Fangs out!
  • Don't Grope My Healthcare
  • Walls are 4 Legos, Not People
  • Dear Earth, We Are Sorry. Love, Half of the USA.


I could analyze each of these signs - and in fact I started to do just that - but these signs did a more concise and humorous job than I could.

A handful of signs were anti-Trump, for example Hey Twitter in Chief! Release Your Taxes, TrumpleThinSkin. But most signs addressed a particular issue or set of issues. If you just woke up from a coma and missed the recent presidential election, the diversity of issues would seem unfocused. There was a lot of support for reproductive choice; animosity toward building a border wall; love for our planet and the environment; a desire for election reform; a call for women's rights as human rights; shout-outs to Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, science, and public schools; and rejection of racism, homophobia, sexism, religious persecution, and xenophobia. Although these may seem like disjointed issues, I am happy to distill it all down. These marchers aspire to liberty and justice for all. Not for just a few of us. But for everybody, including Mother Earth. And when I say liberty, I mean the liberty to go about our business without being persecuted. I do not mean the liberty to persecute. Of course, society is not there yet, but there has been some progress. And these women, making up the largest march in history, have no intention of going backwards.

November 30, 2016

Amendment 1: The Big Utility Showdown


The largest utilities in Florida bankrolled Consumers for Smart Solar and Amendment 1. They want to maintain their monopoly control over energy in the State. Amendment 1 was looking to suppress competition from rooftop solar via constitutional ballot amendment. Thankfully, those in Sarasota and Manatee Counties as well as the rest of Florida saw through the ruse and voted it down on Election Day 2016. However, the story of Amendment 1 is a bit more complicated and Machiavellian, pitting the corporate and financial power of Big Utilities against the Power of the People.


As it stands now in Florida, only utilities can sell power to retail customers. Due to this restriction, landlords cannot sell power from solar panels to their tenants. It also effectively shuts down solar leasing. With leases, an outside company pays the high upfront cost of solar panels, and their customers sign long-term contracts to buy the power. Such leasing has made residential solar the fastest-growing part of the U.S. solar market. But it is simply not legal in Florida. Each utility has monopoly control of the sales and distribution of electricity. 

November 22, 2016

Let Me Count the Ways We Count the Votes

Photo Credit: Corey Taratuta 
Some of us are idealists and still cling to the notion that we live in a democracy where we-the-people elect representatives to govern on our behalf. At the national level, this notion was debunked a couple of years ago. A study by Martin Gilen and Benjamin Page found that
"economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence." 
And yet I am still left with the feeling that if I don't vote, I give away my power. So I educate myself and I vote each and every election. In so doing, I fully expect that my vote will be counted and counted correctly.

We learn to count at an early age. Having taken part in the process with my own children, I don't even think we need to be taught. The idea of one versus two versus three seems intuitive. And yet counting large numbers of votes is problematic. So far we've counted over 125 million votes for President, and we're still counting. It takes a lot of time to count that many votes. And when we use any kind of mechanical and/or electronic devices, there is the potential for mechanical and/or electronic glitches. Even if there is no cheating involved, problems crop up.

How is one to distinguish between straightforward problems, counting errors, and outright fraud? Alas this is no mere rhetorical question. I will share with you a report of what happened on November 8, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida, where I voted.

November 3, 2016

Battle of the Sexes, Campaign Style

Since presidential candidates and their surrogates tend to swing through the swing state of Florida, I have the opportunity to attend them on a regular basis. Once was enough for me. It felt like a cheerleading rally before a football game. Since then I have been struck by the similarities between presidential campaigns and sporting events. Last week as I listened to yet another bizarre interaction between the two presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I had a flashback to 1973. The Battle of the Sexes was the epic exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The parallels to the 2016 presidential campaign are eerie.

October 26, 2016

"No Wall of Words"

I recently came across a quote attributed to George Washington, in one of the drafts for his first inaugural address in 1789. It elegantly captures the essence of my own recent internal grumblings. George Washington said

[N]o wall of words, [and] no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.
To put this in more concrete terms, whatever protections are afforded by the U.S. Constitution, it will never be enough. In order to safeguard people from sweeping torrents of boundless ambition, individuals must speak out, the media must investigate and report, Congress might need to amend the Constitution occasionally, and the Supreme Court must continually interpret and reinterpret the Constitution.

Constitutional interpretation has become such a messy business that it has burst onto the 2016 election scene as a hot-button issue. Republican Senators are vowing to reject all Supreme Court nominations from Democratic Presidents - sight unseen. More recently, Republican Party members are taking the stance that they will not even hold Senate hearings for these prospective nominees. Either strategy will effectively block the appointment of new members to the Supreme Court, even as aging justices retire. As it turns out, the Constitution is quiet on both of these fronts. It neither requires senators to take a vote on a nominee, nor does it stipulate that they must come to a hearing with an open mind. Historical expertise is unlikely to resolve this scenario should it come to pass. And if it does, both Democrats and Republicans will undoubtedly be bad actors in the ensuing drama.


Washington's quote resounds even more loudly when applied to our election processes.