For a few brief moments this Sunday morning I believed the Fort Myers daily paper had gotten one right on its editorial page.
I shoulda known.
“We Deserve Much Better” the headline screamed. And I thought ‘Yes. Yes we do.’
The people of Florida, and of southwest Florida and the readership area of the paper more specifically, do deserve much better. Our state has dysfunctional government all the way from Tallahassee down to the local courthouse. It’s manned (and womanned) by politicians who kowtow to big money contributors, by shallow minds who don’t or can’t think past their next fundraiser, by opportunists who prefer to sing from the re-election songbook instead of the public service hymnal.
It should be no surprise when this collection of misfits and miscreants cannot agree to do the will of the people, or when they categorically refuse to serve the needs and desires of the voters over those of their contributors.
Who can question why ‘our’ representative fashions a path to legitimization for fracking when others elsewhere are taking steps to ban it? Are we really surprised when ‘our’ representative files a bill to eliminate pollution clean-up standards for corporate agriculture and major polluters? Can we muster any alarm when ‘growth should pay for growth’ is tossed into the dustbin of history? Don’t we realize who these people serve and who put them where they are?
Well, gee. No. We don’t.
You mean local readers (and voters) don’t know which of our local elected officials took the cushy trip to the King’s Ranch hunting lodge in Texas when the sugar industry was wining and dining them to further its agenda? You mean readers of the Fort Myers paper didn’t read what the rest of the state did about those trips and the halting, stumbling response/denial/explanation/equivocation of those who accepted the free vacations?
Yes. That’s what I mean.
You mean that ‘our’ local paper didn’t tell us which of ‘our’ local elected officials is in office right now through the support of Big Sugar interests who stand against any meaningful Everglades restoration?
Yes. I mean that too.
You mean ‘our’ paper doesn’t examine local decisions on growth management and funding in light of which development groups funded which candidates?
You mean ‘our’ paper didn’t tell people which candidates were bankrolling their campaigns with dark money from PACs and which ones took cash directly from groups like Americans for Prosperity, the billionaire Koch brothers’ political influence group whose own agenda includes stopping the dreaded Obamacare whether or not close to a million Floridians suffer from lack of health insurance?
Yes. I’m afraid I do mean that too.
You mean the readers of ‘our’ local paper don’t even know who heads the Koch brothers group here in Florida and who his dad is? And how his dad’s votes have tracked the Koch legislative agenda both before and since his son was hired?
So you see I do agree with this morning’s headline. ‘We’ do deserve much better. We deserve to know who is funding whose campaign while the campaigns are underway. We deserve to be told which of our elected officials owe fealty to which PACs and which of them blatantly ignore the stated will of the voters to further their goals and not ours.
Unfortunately the headline did not herald an apology from the local paper for keeping its readership in the dark. It did not include a pledge to dig deep into motivations and connections of ‘our’ elected officials. It did not promise to expose the sleazy campaign secrets and actual goals of ‘our’ elected officials and those pulling their strings. It included no commitment to properly vet future candidates so an informed electorate can avoid repeating the egregious mistakes that have put us where we are.
It’s hard for me to imagine he’s that old. Of course it’s hard for me to imagine I’m this old.
I am though, and so is he. I will always remember driving to the hospital in Yankton, South Dakota. My recollection is it was snowing – not unusual for South Dakota in mid-March.
I was basically a child myself, and David’s mom was younger. Neither of us was exactly headed for the decision-making hall of fame, having been overcome by influences unrelated to the construction of a stable future.
I remember waiting all night long as David’s tiny mom struggled to deliver our nearly 9-pound bundle of joy. In 1978 the thought of my actually being in the delivery room for the entire labor did not occur to me or to her, and certainly not to the doctor.
One of the things I remember most clearly is a feeling of panic. See I waited in the waiting room for much of the several hours it took, and dozed off just before morning. When I slipped away it was dark. Though I only slept for a few moments it was light when I awoke. My first feeling was I had slept through the day and missed the birth.
Fortunately that was not the case.
Though I have three younger children and have had the feeling three times since I will never forget holding my son (My Son!) for the first time. So small. So helpless. Looking back now the me I see seems so young and unprepared – helpless myself.
As the world has turned since that snowy morning in March I have not spent as much time in my son’s company as I’d have liked. His mom and I were divorced before he was two. She took him back to Kentucky and though there were brief efforts to reconcile our father-son times became more summers and weeks together than what I had imagined, what I then hoped and what I can think back now and be proud of. I spent several years undirected in heart, mind and spirit, and as the song says he learned to walk while I was away.
There are moments plucked from the years between then and now I’ll never forget. Driving through the Colorado mountains in Papa’s pickup truck singing old country songs. Seeing David smack his chin on the side of the pool and somehow knowing we’d bear the same scar on our chins. Seeing him play college basketball – as I did – and later playing on a team together. Still later watching him marry a good woman. I’d become a maudlin old guy by then, but I’m pretty sure no one saw me crying.
I’ve also since been blessed with a wonderful wife who’s given me two daughters and a second son. I was 20 when David was born, and David and Michael are 20 years apart. Seeing them together has always given me a funny feeling – like I’ve somehow slipped sideways in time and am gaping incredulously at my younger self.
I’m proud of my eldest son. He’s a strong man physically, mentally and spiritually. We want them to be better than us. He is.
I love you David. I hope it’s OK I wrote this. Happy Birthday.
Well, that’s not exactly what I mean. I guess what I really mean is I’m not going to be doing any more reporting, so if you’re sending me money for that, please stop.
I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. I still believe reporting – the honest and impartial telling of the news – is a critical element in a free society. I still believe it is too often badly done.
But I won’t be doing it any more. At least not for a while.
See after several months of freelancing and a few more months selling coverage directly to readers I have reached a conclusion.
I can’t be a part-time reporter. Reporting is not – at least for me – something that can be done that way. When I’m a reporter I feel like I have to know everything that’s going on, or at least everything that’s going on that I’m likely to write about. I have to be familiar with every issue. I have to know every player. I have to know all its history, why and how it matters and who it ought to matter to.
That takes a singular sort of focus. It takes a tremendous amount of reading, checking, talking to people, attending meetings, researching, phone calling…well you get the idea.
It also takes an alarming amount of time. Virtually no competent reporter works a 40-hour week, though the lucky ones get paid for one. The job simply cannot be done that way and done well. It can be – and it had become – overwhelming.
I have too many other things going on. I have too many distractions. Without discussing how much of my time goes to what let’s just say I’ve got stuff to do. Lots of stuff. Stuff that I consider important and stuff other people rely on me to do.
One of those things continues to be writing. I do love writing and I am vain enough to believe I’m good at it. Plus it’s therapeutic.
But writing is not reporting. Writing is telling stories. Writing is expression. Writing is opinions. And yes, writing is occasionally analysis and commentary.
If you are one of the ones sending me money to read my reporting I thank you very much. If you feel like I am abandoning you I apologize. If you want your money back ask for it.
Or you can continue to read what I write. Those of you who have read bylinecharliewhitehead.com – what I like to call Monkey With a Keyboard – will know what to expect.
Some of it is about local issues. Some of it is about our communities. Some of it is about events in general. Some of it is stuff that’s been rattling around inside my head and I had to let out.
That I won’t stop. At this point I’m pretty sure I couldn’t stop that if I tried.
So stop sending me money if you’re doing it solely to read my reporting. I may find myself in a position someday to do it again, but for now I have to stop.
A certain Lee County commissioner is right in his NP opinion that there is misinformation about impact fees. He is either ignorant of its sources or willfully misleading. Builders and developers have always told the lie that impact fees hurt the building economy. Every study I have ever seen that wasn’t paid for by a builder/developer group disputes that. The factor that controls new home pricing is profit. Period. Spend as little as possible to build the house and sell it for all the market will bear. Only a complete lack of media institutional memory and understanding allows those lies to carry weight.
The commissioner says impact fees were used to push the city south and the gated communities east. The decisions that allowed the sprawl we have seen were not caused by impact fees. The decisions were made by county commissioners – commissioners who, now more than at any time since the 1980’s, were selected by builder/developer money. Including the one making the false statements to the NP.
Spending of impact fees is not limited to new roads, new schools and new parks. I think it’s just possible the commissioner believes it is, though he might be parroting the line his builder/developer funders feed him. Impact fees are spent on NEW CAPACITY. It is not some esoteric fine point. Adding square footage to schools. Adding lanes to existing roads. Adding infrastructure at existing parks. All of these can be accomplished with impact fees.
This argument is part of a bait-and-switch builders, with the support of county shills, have run on taxpayers for years. For example with impact fee funding coming in the school district used impact fee revenue to buy land and build schools. With impact fee revenue not coming in the school district must find other sources for that funding. Those sources are the same ones that pay teachers, buy school books and do all the other things the district must do.
The commissioner’s use of ‘an 8-lane flyover’ to scare residents is unconscionable. Again, the decision to build or not build a flyover is made by locally-elected officials. If they decide to build a flyover it is not because there is an impact fee revenue stream.
For the commissioner to credit himself and the other commissioners with national/worldwide economic changes that increased local building numbers is hugely arrogant. Commissioners axed the impact fees as a pay-back to those who put them in office, raided Conservation 2020 funding to plug the budget hole they created and now want credit for the economic changes that coincidentally took place on their watch. Do not allow them to sell these lies.
‘The plan proved successful’? Is that success illustrated by the huge lines of traffic we are currently suffering? Is it the radically reduced capital budget that seems destined to make things worse for the next several years? Is it the proposed new sales tax for school construction commissioners have foisted on the school district and on taxpayers?
The commissioner says that a choice between higher taxes and impact fees is a lie. There is a grain of truth there. Commissioners need not choose between higher taxes and impact fees. They can choose to simply allow the services citizens demand – and have paid for – to continue to deteriorate. If this is the choice they are making then they should tell citizens that.
For them to attack growth management and planning advocates for ‘blatantly sharing misinformation’ is laughable, or it would be if he was not in a position to decide. If they are in office to make sure the builders and developers and speculators who put him in office make lots of money then they should be honest and say that. If he is truly a servant of the people, as he so often claims to be, then he will take steps to make sure growth pays for growth. For the growth will come. The only questions is whether those who profit from it will pay the cost it creates or whether the rest of us will. Either the commissioner knows that and is willfully misleading citizens or he is too uninformed to be a commissioner.
Some will point out that when I ran for office I said I would consider reducing impact fees. That is true. I said I would consider reducing impact fees short-term as long as another revenue source, something like a mobility fee, was explored. It wasn’t.
The 4-1 vote that commissioners took to continue the 80 percent reduction after a year was a dark moment for the county. It was obvious to everyone who wasn’t a builder or in one’s pocket that the reduction was costing the county (taxpayers) desperately-needed funding it would never get back. It was obvious that the larger global changes were increasing local building. It was obvious that the reduction was unnecessary.
Unfortunately it was also obvious who commissioners really work for.
Let’s file this one under ‘You can’t make this shit up’.
I plucked this item off a weekly law enforcement report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This, kiddies, is why we reporters must always read these things. This is word for word from the report, with my commentary added.
Officers Nasworth and Davis were dispatched to the Raulerson Hospital in Okeechobee regarding a subject suffering from an alligator bite. Serious business. Officers Nasworth and Davis made contact with the subject who advised them that he was in the process of cleaning an alligator he had just killed. So this gator is dead. This is important information, especially considering what happened next. Its nerves were still activated causing it to bite him. So this dead gator bit you? The subject advised Officers Nasworth and Davis that he took the tape off the mouth of the gator and opened it to look at the teeth brilliant move when its jaws snapped shut on his left thumb, lacerating it severely. I bet. The gator fell on the ground after its jaws closed on his hand and a tooth went through the subject’s boot, ultimately cutting his foot. So this dead gator bit you on the thumb, got loose and bit you on the foot? Officer Nasworth and Davis completed the alligator bite report.
No word on whether Officers Nasworth and Davis managed to complete the report with a straight face.
I remember touring The Beach with Captain Kerry Greiner immediately after the storm. I remember bumping over sandbars crossing Estero Boulevard in his sheriff’s office SUV. I remember the ‘century tree’ that snapped, and the top sticking straight up out of a roof down in the 6000 block. I remember the Reef – and I miss it.
I remember coming home to find a 9-foot metal 2-by-2 javelined through the side of my house. Nine feet off the ground, hurled by the storm through the ¾-inch sheeting and the half-inch drywall and sticking 18 inches into what was then my office.
Out back my seagrape tree had been blown over and was laying on my back porch. There are two great stories about that tree.
I remember my friends not being allowed to return to their homes. I remember people who fled at the last minute, thinking to ride out the storm and return to clean up, finding armed guards forbidding them from crossing Matanzas Pass Bridge. I remember days later a parent, a PTA member, tazered at the foot of the bridge.
It was not renegade cops. It was not a crazy out-of-control man acting unreasonably. It was people thrust into an untenable situation.
My friend was one of those people who fled before the storm at the last minute. Hurricane Charley was a killing monster – lest we forget. Many of us thought to ride it out but turned tail at the last minute when the storm intensified and made a hard right turn – right at us.
Myself I herded two of the neighborhood hardcores into the mini-van and headed inland. I had hidden Debbie, Allison, Rachel and Michael away in the hotel at Summerlin Square – far enough inland to escape flooding but close enough to return if we dodged the bullet. Jeffrey and Don and I wedged ourselves into the minivan (packed already with valuables we had decided were safer there) and made it to the hotel.
I don’t recall how long we stayed at the hotel – huddled with other refugees watching trees lay down and improbably flying items soaring by. It was surreal.
I remember driving back after the worst has passed. I remember a line of power poles snapped off along San Carlos Boulevard. I drove slowly, dodging the worst of the debris in the road and plowing through floodwaters (I was in my old 1993 Volvo 960 – a veritable tank) until we reached San Carlos Island.
San Carlos Island is between the mainland and Estero Island. Most of southwest Florida knows where Estero Island. Few know San Carlos Island.
As you drive to Fort Myers Beach, and most everyone has, you drive over San Carlos Island. It’s in between the bridges – duh.
The water was getting steadily deeper, and I recall driving into the Goodwill parking lot to find high ground.
Don and I tried to drive home, but Main Street was underwater. I got as close as I could and decided better. Don went for it and I watched him wade waist-deep down Main Street.
Of course by the time I returned to the hotel I had a flat tire. Try as I might I couldn’t avoid all the debris strewn on the roads.
I returned a few hours later. There was a roadblock in front of Johny Leverock’s – what’s now Pinchers Crab Shack. That’s where Kerry and I loaded up and went for our tour of the beat-up Beach.
I went back to the hotel that night. The next morning I went back. I went by my house first, finding very little I could do. So I drove down to the bridge. There was of course already a crowd.
I had a Press plate on my car and a Press I.D. in my wallet. Then I had a deputy at my window.
“You wanna go over and do your job?” he asked.
Yes, I did.
And then I was driving over the bridge. Past armed guards.
It’s hard to explain how it feels to drive down a road you know well and see soldiers – young men mostly – kids really – carrying rifles walking down the street.
Those streets were deserted – almost. Hundreds stayed on Estero Island and rode the storm out. I never heard an estimate of how many. I remember emergency managers – Town Manager Marsha Segal-George on the local front, the fire chief, the sheriff – struggling over whether to feed the island refugees or not. The thinking?
We don’t want people on the island. If we feed them they can stay. It was decided they should be fed, and I remember people lined up for food at the Beach Theatre.
I remember going to meetings at Town Hall. Meetings where they discussed conditions on the island.
Part of the problem was that a lot of people don’t understand a lot of things. Sewers and plumbing is one such thing – or is it two?
The people running the town – or at least the people running the sewer system – knew it wasn’t working. Water (and sewage) still flowed downhill, but pumps do not pump without electricity.
“They’re lying!” is an accusation I heard repeatedly. “I flush my toilet and it works just fine.”
Of course lots of those same people were carrying buckets from the canal or the bay and using them to flush. Gravity being what it is the toilet would in fact empty when water was dumped in.
With pumps not running, however, what was flushed simply sought the lowest level. That liquid bubbling up in yards and in roads was not water.
I remember stopping at a good friend’s house on San Carlos Island. It was a sort of home base for those who could not go home. People could get there, but not over the bridge. Many of them asked me to check on their homes while I was on the island. I did. What else could I do?
I remember people who had lost much losing more because they could not go home to clean up the damage and salvage what could be saved.
I remember hearing about Coast Guard boats patrolling Estero Bay and turning back boaters trying to make it to the island. I remember friends who swam the pass to get home.
I remember parasites in pick-up trucks patrolling the streets and ‘helping’ by picking up recyclable metal and hauling it off to sell. I remember residents running them off – sometimes none too gently.
I remember the old land-line phones came back on way before the cell phones started working again. It’s why I still have a land line and an old-fashioned phone in a closet.
I remember heat. It was mid-August. Turn off your power for the next week and see how you like it.
I remember what locals called ‘The FEMA X’, marked on structures ruled by someone (maybe not FEMA) to be uninhabitable. I remember the fear people had when they found their home or their business so marked.
I think what I remember most might be a speech I heard a resident give at a Beach town council meeting several days after people were allowed to return home. I don’t remember who gave it.
I do remember is believing he was speaking for hundreds – perhaps thousands – of others. This man was beyond outraged. He was beyond offended. He was talking about having tried to cross the Matanzas Pass Bridge only to find armed guards blocking his way.
“I am a free man,” was the gist of it. “I have the right to come and go to and from my home. You are my government. I do not cede to you the right to forbid me go to my home.”
There was more. I don’t remember the words specifically, but the feeling stuck with me.