Pick Me!

typingmonkeylarge13.jpgThe list of people who want Gov. Rick Scott to give them Tammy Hall’s old job as Lee County commissioner for District 4 is at 10.
As of Friday afternoon John Tupps of the governor’s press office said that applications have been received from:

Andy Coy, who sat in Hall’s old seat for 10 years before she did, leaving in 2004 to run unsuccessfully for Congress. A declared Republican candidate for the seat in 2014.

Alana Goodwin, a 20-year employee of the Lee Sheriff’s office.

John Ebling, formerly head of Veteran’s Affairs for Lee County.

Robert Chilmonik, former Lee county School Board member.

Debbie Jordan, declared Democratic candidate for the seat.

Phil Kinsey, former fire chief for Bonita Springs.

Don Stilwell, longtime Lee County manager and an unsuccessful commission candidate in 2012. A declared Republican candidate.

Chris Berardi, a former Cape Coral councilman and founder of Patriot PAC, which recruits locals candidates, and a realtor.

James Ink, a consultant and member of numerous county advisory boards.

Charles Dauray, director of the college of Life in Estero, former appointee to the South Florida Water Management District board and county Republican party chairman.

The governor has not announced a time frame for replacing Hall, who resigned this week after pleading to a federal fraud charge related to misuse of almost $34,000 in campaign funds in 2010.

Hanging Chads

TypingMonkeyLarge[1]I was talking to Lee County Elections Supervisor Sharon Harrington this week. Naturally one of the things we talked about was all the trouble Florida and our county had with the 2012 election. The huge lines, lack of voting machines, closed polling places and the entirety of the mess spawned efforts to have her recalled – or boiled in oil – I forget which.

I was a candidate then, but am pretty sure the mess didn’t cost me the election, which I lost by a scant 60,000 votes or so.

Anyway the conversation put me in mind of another election that made national news.

That was the year 2000, when Al Gore won Florida. Or was it George Bush? Well first it was one, then it was the other. Then Florida was a national punchline.

I was working as a daily reporter in Fort Myers at the time and when Election Day was over and the smoke didn’t clear I became part of The Recount.

Now we were under a national spotlight – at least in Florida if not here in Lee County. So we all show up. There was me, a representative of each party, another reporter and enough suits for a deck of cards – or two decks.

The scene was bizarre. We sat at long tables. Someone from the Elections Office would bring out a small box full of ballots. She (it was Sharon, an employee then, part of the time) sat on one side of the table with me on the other. She would hold up the punch-card ballot so I could see it. I was of course not permitted to touch the ballot.

So as Sharon held the ballot up I, with my extensive training and experience, was asked to ‘determine the voter’s intent.’
Was the fact that a ‘chad’ was hanging but still attached mean that that was the intended punch? When there were two holes which one did the voter intend to punch and which was the accident? And what in the name of God was a pregnant chad?

And perhaps more importantly why, whenever the last ballot came out of a box, were there a bunch of chads left in the box?

We sat there for hours, them holding the ballots up and me employing my vast expertise to divine the intent of the voter and dutifully writing it down.

If I recollect accurately Gore gained a few votes in the Lee County recount. It didn’t matter. The Supreme Court stopped the whole thing a few days later and the whole process became moot. Bush still won the county big. Republicans won every election in this county back then. Still do.

I still have some of those chads that came out of those boxes. They’re in a little plastic container in my desk.

Some months later when the state went through a spasm and required all new and different election equipment I ended up with ‘my’ ballot box, too. The Elections Office was selling the old metal locking ballot boxes and the spindly-legged voting tables and anything else someone might buy to commemorate the massive electoral shitstorm. I went to the warehouse to write a story as hundreds lined up to purchase a piece of history.

As I was talking to someone I glanced over and there on the pile for sale was the ballot box from Precinct 22. My precinct. The actual box I’d dropped my own ballot into since I’d moved here in 1986.

So I bought it. I don’t remember what I paid. Five bucks? Ten?
Anyway it’s a file cabinet now.

Who’s Next?

Lee Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass said Tuesday he’d already heard from almost 50 people who want the governor to appoint them to complete former commissioner Tammy Hall’s term.
With Gov. Rick Scott himself on the 2014 ballot, Pendergrass said, it seems likely the appointee will be someone Scott can count on for support, both of his policies and of his re-election.
“That’s just my assumption,” said Pendergrass.
It didn’t take long, Pendergrass said, for his phone to start ringing after Hall signed a plea agreement admitting she misused 2010 campaign funds and submitted her resignation.
“I was getting calls last night,” he said Tuesday, meaning some were lobbying for the job even before Hall’s resignation became official at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Gary Lee, the Republican State Committeeman for Lee County, said he has his own idea who should get the job, but that person is not available. He said there are two schools of thought on the replacement:
One is that the appointee should be a caretaker – someone who is not a candidate and will not run for the seat when the term expires next year. That would eliminate Brian Hamman, Andy Coy, Don Stilwell, Debbie Jordan and Paige Rausch. Hamman, Coy and Stilwell have all signed up to run as Republicans, and Jordan as a Democrat. It’s safe to say she’s not on the list. Rausch is a Republican who says she’s running but who has yet to register
“With the premise that county funding is so convoluted it’s difficult to make heads or tails out of it we would be well-served with a man or woman who could unlock some of the mysteries,” said Lee, who’s also a past party chairman.
The other school of thought, Lee said, is the governor should appoint someone who wants to keep the job in 2014. An incumbent would have a huge advantage.
On that front it’s a little complicated. Hamman has not applied. His campaign manager is Terry Miller, who is currently the chairman of the Lee Republican Party.
Miller said he doesn’t know if Hamman will apply, but will naturally recuse himself from any recommendation discussion if Hamman is involved.
“Obviously I’m getting a lot of folks calling,” Miller said. “It’ll be a huge field.”
Miller said it’s his preference that the governor appoint a ‘placeholder’ and let the next commissioner be chosen at the ballot box, and he’s made that recommendation. He said he’d also like the governor to say whether he’s appointing someone as a placeholder or with the expectation they would run in 2014.
That, he said, would allow applicants and candidates to make informed decisions.
If that wasn’t enough yet another Republican entered the race just this week. Josh McGrail, the son of Cape Coral Councilman Kevin McGrail, signed up to run Tuesday. He says he doesn’t want to be appointed, and other candidates shouldn’t either. He said being appointed would give a candidate too much advantage come election time.
“That influence I think belongs in the ballot box,” he said. “We need someone who could serve the rest of the term and step out of the way gracefully.”
As of Wednesday the governor’s office had applications from Coy, Jordan and Alana Goodwin, a 20-year employee of the Lee County Sheriff.
Goodwin, on her Facebook page, said she’s a lifelong county resident who’s applying for the “shamefully vacated” seat for all the right reasons. Coy held the District 4 seat from 1994 until 2004, when he left to run for Congress, a race he lost to Connie Mack.
Miller said the impression he got in talking to the governor’s office was that the appointment would come quickly.
“The impression I got is they’re not going to sit on their hands,” he said. “Tammy was 20 percent of the board. I would say a month or so and not three months.”
Lee said his recommendation was for Miller to appoint a committee to interview likely appointees for recommendation to the governor. Miller said he’s considering that. If Hamman does apply Miller would bow out and the committee would be headed by local vice chair Chuck Quackenbush.
They’ll be busy.

Good Cop Bad Cop No Cop

For most of the last decade Lee County commissioners Ray Judah and Tammy Hall played good cop/bad cop with the South Florida Water Management District, the Corps of Engineers and Big Sugar. Judah took every opportunity to poke the moneyed and the bureaucrats in the eye. Hall caught flies with sugar, not a sledgehammer. It worked, after a fashion.
But when Big Sugar spread campaign cash on the troubled, polluted waters of local electoral politics Bad Cop Ray was washed out of office. Yesterday Good Cop Tammy quit facing federal fraud charges related to stealing from her own campaign account.
So now what?
At a time of absolute crisis, with a polluted soup of toxic sludge flowing down the Caloosahatchee, who will step into the breach? Which of the current commissioners has the skill and the inclination to fight for the life of the local waters?
This week Commissioner Larry Kiker is off to Washington, D.C. to meet with Rep. Trey Radel and others to talk about Lake Okeechobee releases.
Let’s hope Kiker can be the new cop. We need one.

County Commissioner Busted for Stealing Election Funds

Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall, in office since 2004, has pleaded guilty to stealing almost $34,000 from her campaign account in 2010.
Hall, the all-time fundraising queen of Lee County commission candidates, has resigned effective Tuesday, Sept. 24.
Like all Lee County elected officials, Hall is a Republican. She served on the Fort Myers city council before she ran for and won an empty seat on the county board. She received the endorsement of the Fort Myers News-Press in 2010.
Hall was the first-ever female chair of the Lee County board. She was the first woman elected to the board since Vicki Lopez-Wolfe resigned under a cloud in 1991. Now Vicki Lukis, she was convicted of honest services fraud and served 18 months. The under which she was convicted has since been ruled unconstitutional and nullified.
In a plea agreement signed Sept. 16 Hall admitted to moving money from her campaign account to her personal one nine times between January 4 and October 20, 2010. She is charged with wire fraud because she moved the money electronically. She also filed false financial reports with the county elections office.
That money had come from sources like Forrest Banks and Randy Henderson, both Fort Myers councilmen, Tax Collector Larry Hart, former school board member Elinor Scricca, former State Rep. Carole Green and Paige Rausch, who has said she would run for the seat Hall had already announced she would not seek again.
That announcement came without explanation in early September, more than six months after FBI agents first visited her in her home on Feb. 20.
According to federal documents Hall initially denied wrongdoing, claiming the money went to pay bills for the campaign.
According to the plea agreement Hall instead used the money to pay for things like her own mortgage and credit card bills from Nordstrom’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Mark Loren Design and Club Monaco.
The feds also said that Hall deposited checks from some donors directly into her personal account. Whether one of them reported it they did not say.
Halls legal campaign expenditures included 13 meetings at the Veranda restaurant adjacent to the county courthouse, 8 meetings at Spirit of Bacchus, 6 visits to Total Wine, a conference at the Omni in Orlando and a meeting at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C.
The $144,000 or-so Hall raised in 2010 dwarfed the $18,000 her opponent spent, but looks small compared to the $176,000 she raised in 2006.
Next up for Hall is an appearance in federal court on October 3. Commission Chairman Cecil Pendergrass said that he will be asking the governor to appoint a replacement to finish Hall’s term, which runs through 2014. In a letter sent Monday he tells the Governor that even though the annual budget work is done the board has plenty to do.
“It is imperative that we have a full board as soon as possible,” he said.
There are already four official candidates for Hall’s old seat. They are Andy Coy, who held the seat before Hall and lost to her when he tried to take it back in 2006, long-time county administrator Don Stilwell, who ran for a board seat and lost in 2012, Cape Coral resident Brian Hamman and Democrat Debbie Jordan.
Coy, Hamman and Stilwell are all Republicans, as is Rausch, who has not yet filed to run.
The wire fraud charge calls for a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Hall provided cooperation, according to the agreement, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office has agreed to recommend a reduced sentence.
Spokeswoman Amy Filjones said she was unsure whether Hall continues to cooperate in any ongoing investigation.

Any Monkey With a Keyboard

TypingMonkeyLarge[1]Back in my newspaper days I had strong opinions about blogs and bloggers. As a reporter who had spent decades in southwest Florida developing reporting skills, creating a reputation, establishing credibility and striving to follow what I believe to be the rules of fair reporting I sneered at those I saw as playing at it. There is a snobbery in the newsroom that views most outside the sanctum as at best uninformed and at worst proselytizers.

And there is a certain justification. A good reporter – there are fewer now but they do still exist – has an unwavering commitment to truth, accuracy and fairness. Honesty and fairness are traits that must run true to a journalist’s core. It’s more than part of a job description – in the good ones it’s in the genetic makeup.

The problem comes in holding a blogger to that standard. It is incredibly easy to write a blog. “Any monkey with a keyboard” is a phrase I have turned many times in conversations about blogging.

And it remains true. Any monkey with a keyboard can write a blog. Many do. Some strive hard to be accurate and unbiased and some don’t. Some are straightforward in stating their opinions and telling readers that’s what they’re doing.

Others masquerade as journalists. Those who construct arguments by selecting facts, inferences and outright innuendo to bolster preconceived notions and ideas are not in fact journalists. They are lobbyists. Grandpa used to say “Don’t piss on my shoe and tell me it’s raining.”

Well my shoe’s are getting wet, but it’s not raining.

“Obama hates America” and “Bush was an idiot” are opinions. No matter how strongly a writer may believe it an opinion is not a fact.

In these lines I will report facts. When I decide to stray into expressing my own opinions I will tell you so.

If you’re a true journalist it doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican or independent. I flatter myself that people who have read my almost three decades reporting did not know my own feelings or opinions. I believe a journalist’s allegiance must be to journalism. First. Last. Only.

Granted it has been more than three years (THREE YEARS?!) since the newspaper business spat me out. I have consulted. I have built. I have even made a run at elected office. One of my biggest problems with campaigning was my instinct against expressing my own opinions. My tendency was to examine all sides of every issue and make every effort to understand and respect every opinion. Instead of offering sound bites I wanted to discuss issues and points of view to reach some sort of understanding.

In politics? What the Hell was I thinking about?

Anyway the truth is none of those things felt exactly right.

I liked helping people as a consultant. I think I was able to get things done. There are things I made happen that few know about, and that’s fine with me. I think my almost 30 years studying local governments and politics could be put to successful use.

And I love building things. I have always worked with my hands and with tools, and I’m good at it. I believe hard work is a good thing. Grandma used to say “Hard work is its own reward” and she was right. When I worked as a reporter full-time I strapped on my tool belt on a regular basis and still do. The Good Lord willing (Grandma again) I’ll keep doing it.

But there is other work to do. The news industry has changed markedly over the past few years. Many of us dinosaurs refused to see the change until it fell on us like an extinction event asteroid, but the old ways are gone.

The new ways are, well, new. Newsrooms are not what they were. There are fewer reporters doing less reporting. Streamlining (don’t you love that euphemism) and bean-counting have left smaller, less-experienced staffs to do the important work of keeping the public informed.

Too often these lesser newsrooms don’t see something or don’t really understand what they do see. When more than one newsroom had more than one set of experienced eyes on local events people were better informed. Today that’s not happening. People don’t know what’s going on in the halls of government, in the boardrooms, in the courtrooms or on the streets.

That’s not OK with me. I have always believed that people should be as informed and educated as possible. An informed populace is an absolute necessity for a functional free society. Right now we don’t have that.

So I will spend my time and my effort trying to keep the populace informed. I will make every effort to provide an accurate, complete and balanced look.

Whether I am just one more monkey with a keyboard you’ll have to decide for yourself.