At the November 22 meeting of the School Board of Manatee County, a member made a request – in all seriousness, we hope – for a work session on the Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
The Manatee County Democratic Party (MCDP) agrees with this proposal. A public workshop on state laws, good governance practices, and ethics would be an excellent start for this new board and very informative for the public.
MCDP believes it is important to point out that the Sunshine law does not prevent Board members from talking with each other, as claimed by the board member. The law applies when two or more members of the School Board discuss an item that could result in some foreseeable action. The Sunshine law is not a violation of a person's freedom of speech. The law safeguards our right of access to governmental proceedings. The law protects the absolute need of the citizens and taxpayers of Manatee County to know what is being done in their names, with their tax dollars, and with their children.
MCDP further believes that the Sunshine law is crucial to preserving openness in governmental bodies and preventing the kind of off-the-record cloakroom deals that subvert the values of common citizens. Hidden conversations by Board members are designed to do one thing: promote the private agendas of power blocs and special interests.
The cornerstone of democracy is not just voting; it is informed voting. Florida’s Sunshine law protects the right of parents and other community members to know what School Board members are advocating and proposing. MCDP unconditionally supports Florida’s Sunshine law and opposes any steps that can make it harder for community members to know what Board members are planning until it’s too late to exercise our rights as citizens and voters.
We look forward to learning when a work session on the Sunshine law and good governance will be held and will be happy to help promote such a meeting to the community at large. It will be a useful and educational opportunity for both this Board and for voters.
Gun violence in America is a public safety issue and a public health disaster. Some statistics that demonstrate the magnitude of the crisis:
By William Clapper, (Jan. 6, 2022) – Manatee County’s District 2 suffered the most from the blatantly gerrymandered district map the Manatee County Commissioners approved last month.
The new District 2, as well as other redrawn districts, clearly favor personal and political agendas of four current commissioners. Redistricting criteria includes keeping social and economic similarities intact, factors that were not considered with the redrawn map. The district map was approved by a 4-3 vote with Commissioners Reggie Bellamy, Misty Servia and Carol Whitmore opposed.
“I think this [newly drawn district map] was a very, very sophisticated strategy to dilute the minority vote,” Bellamy said in media reports after the county commissioners approved a hastily prepared map that was not scrutinized by staff, or the county’s legal office.
“You really did not care about what the voters of Manatee County thought, and it caused me to wonder whose marching orders are you marching to,” District 2 resident and Manatee County NAACP Secretary Susie Copeland said in media reports.
All public input was ignored or belittled. County Administrator Hopes mentioned that the more than 200 people who spoke against proposed redistricting plans at BoCC meetings constitute a very small percentage of citizens.
“Instead of applauding citizen participation, why make light of it when at most of the meetings the seats are empty?” asked Copeland.
The Manatee County Democratic Party analyzed voter registration data to understand the effect of redrawing District 2’s boundaries. The analytics show new District 2 was subjected to packing. An estimated 13,000 voters from majority white and Republican-leaning communities were packed into District 2, which historically has a majority of minority voters.
District 2’s northern most neighborhoods, including the city of Palmetto, shifted to predominately white districts while a number of majority white neighborhoods were configured into District 2.
Redistricting also allotted a portion of Terra Ceia to remain in District 1, after James Satcher, the District 1 commissioner, said he may want to move into that neighborhood.
Commissioner Servia’s District 4 was pushed further west to 75th Street, neighborhoods previously allotted to Kevin Van Ostenbridge’s District 3. District 3 now includes most but not all of Manatee’s shoreline, negating a Commission promise of creating a total "coastal district.”
Taking a wider view of the gerrymandering that occurred nationwide, the New York Times reported, “Black elected officials across the country — ranging from members of Congress to county commissioners — have been drawn out of their districts, placed in newly competitive districts or bundled into new districts where they must vie against incumbents from their own party. Almost all of the affected lawmakers are Democrats, and most of the mapmakers are white Republicans.”
The Manatee County Commissioners are nominally non-partisan, but their actions, voting patterns and statements clearly indicate they swing heavily to Republican views and policies.
By William Clapper (Jan. 15, 2022) – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) reported earlier this month that one of the gypsum stacks at Piney Point is leaking but at a rate of less than three gallons of water per minute.
FDEP announced, “… there is no indication of any concern with the integrity or stability of the stack system, and there will be no offsite discharges at this time.” Further, FDEP’s report stated, “Seepage volume remains low and is completely contained within the on-site lined stormwater management system.”
If the situation gets worse, leaked wastewater will be pumped back into the pond on top of the gypsum stack, according to FDEP. The agency posts updates on a Piney Point web page: https://protectingfloridatogether.gov/PineyPointUpdate.
In March, 2021 toxic water gushed from the phosphogypsum waste stacks at Piney Point, causing a mass evacuation of the area. At the time, FDEP approved dumping 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Tampa Bay to prevent flooding of homes and businesses in case the stack collapsed.
The nitrogen and phosphorus rich stew flowed into Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay, activating a bloom of the toxic red tide algae that caused fish kills and respiratory irritation.
By Mary Moretto (Jan. 06, 2022) – The decades long saga of the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant entered a new phase on Dec. 3 when drilling of the deep water injection well began at the site. Manatee County commissioners hope to have the well operational by the end of the summer or fall of 2022.
Environmental groups, local residents and farmers oppose the plan due to concerns about the long-term environmental impact, well failures and contaminated water seeping into the Florida aquifer.
Environmentalists announced plans to sue Manatee County over the project, alleging that the use of an injection well for wastewater disposal violates the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act through unlawful “open dumping”.
In separate lawsuits, environmental advocates and neighbors of Piney Point are suing the state and private entities for damages caused by a significant breach in a containment pond liner.
To avoid a major catastrophe, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) approved the emergency release of 215 million of gallons of hazardous wastewater into the Tampa Bay estuary. Within three months of that action, algal blooms and fish kills were reported in and around area waterfronts.
Attorneys for Gov. Ron DeSantis and the FDEP recently filed a 49-page motion to dismiss the environmentalists’ lawsuit, saying it is moot since the state is actively working to resolve Piney Point’s problems through a court appointed receivership and the $100 million in federal coronavirus relief money set aside to clean up the site.
By Mary Moretto - After a public meeting in October and the review of over 7,300 public comments and other information, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issued a letter of intent to approve Manatee County’s permit for deep well injection and storage at Piney Point.
Manatee County Commissioners applied for the permit in April after the near catastrophic leak in a stack pond liner. The 3,300-foot deep well will pump contaminated wastewater from Piney Point’s phosphogypsum stack ponds below Florida’s aquifer, at a rate of up to 1 million gallons per day.
In September, a coalition of environmental groups notified the county of their intent to file suit against the plan, citing the potential for well failure and the injection of wastewater that could contaminate the aquifer, which is about 900 feet below the Piney Point site. The aquifer supplies drinking water and agricultural irrigation for the state.
Conservationists are also concerned about a limited pre-treatment plan to remove toxic and radioactive contaminants before the wastewater is injected into the well.
Environmentalists contend the County’s method to shut down Piney Point was promoted by DEP and industry proponents with little consideration for alternative solutions such as reverse osmosis.
Environmental advocates had previously filed a federal suit against Piney Point owners, the state of Florida and the Manatee County Port Authority over the March and April release of more than 215 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay.
According to that lawsuit, the infusion of wastewater endangered the public, marine ecosystems and protected species. Nitrogen and phosphorous in the wastewater act as a growth medium for toxic red tide. Both Tampa and Sarasota Bays experienced a red tide bloom from April to November of this year.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only elected Democratic official in the state administration, stated, “It defies all logic for this agency to approve a permit, for the first time ever, to deep-well inject heavy metals, radioactive byproducts, and other phosphate mining hazardous waste from Piney Point into the aquifer, risking further environmental contamination as well as potential contamination of the local water supply, following the ecological devastation wrought by the leak and subsequent release of wastewater from this same facility into Tampa Bay earlier this year.”
Piney Point’s court-appointed receiver, Herbert Donica, has acknowledged that while not the ideal solution, the deep-well injection is the best approach in the limited time before the rainy season brings the threat of spill-over from the contaminated stack ponds. According to Donica, “After two major leaks of wastewater spilled into Tampa Bay this spring, it’s a race against time”.
FDEP’s notice of intent says it plans to approve the deep-well permit unless a petition for an administrative hearing is filed within 14 days of the Nov. 24th letter. A drilling rig and heavy equipment is already in place across the street from the abandoned phosphate plant.