Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: DEP's failure to serve and protect

It's a sad reflection on the state of environmental protection in Florida when a state agency's lawyer fears for his job merely for enforcing the law. But the firing of Chris Byrd and several other attorneys has exposed more trouble within the Department of Environmental Protection under the leadership of Secretary Herschel Vinyard. Gov. Rick Scott should clean house before Vinyard does even more damage to the agency and to the environment.

Byrd told Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman this month that he had a sinking feeling after winning a trial victory against a Marion County couple whom a jury found had illegally filled in wetlands along the Rainbow River. Rather than celebrate, Byrd thought: "When (Deputy Secretary) Jeff Littlejohn hears about this, I'm probably going to lose my job." And sure enough, he did — after Littlejohn met with the defendants to hear their complaints. Byrd was one of four DEP lawyers ousted from their jobs. His colleague, Kelly Russell, told the Times they were fired because their legal advice "was not well received by" Littlejohn, his aides or "outside influences."

Vinyard and Littlejohn aren't talking, but a DEP spokesman said the four lawyers were fired from the 42-attorney legal team because of a drop in caseloads, not over policy disagreements. That explanation hardly is a comfort. Enforcement cases have dropped dramatically — to 799 last year, compared to 2,289 in 2010 — because DEP has taken a softer line with industry. The agency has slashed its workforce of inspectors, Byrd said, and now requires that Littlejohn's office sign off on any enforcement case before it goes to the attorneys. DEP disputes that claim, though it acknowledges that ranking officials "work with" in-house attorneys "to determine the best course of action" in permitting disputes. The net effect is the same — bargaining with polluters after the damage has been done. The practice also sends the message that people can circumvent the regulatory process and permitting laws with little risk of getting caught, and if they do get caught an apology is apparently enough.

This is hardly the first time that Vinyard and Littlejohn have undermined public trust in the department, and they are not protecting the environment. Staff attorneys should not be afraid to vigorously prosecute enforcement cases. And they shouldn't be second-guessed by political appointees who are interested in accommodating polluters at the expense of the state's natural resources. Scott has tolerated the problems with Vinyard's management for too long. Allowing him to stay means that Scott either shares Vinyard's lack of interest in protecting the environment or is more concerned about winning contributions from developers and other business interests than in preserving what's left of Florida's natural resources.

Comments

Correction

CorrectionCircuit Judge John Stargel of Lakeland is a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission who voted against a proposed amendment that would have stopped write-in candidates from closing primary elections. An editorial Saturday inco...
Published: 04/23/18
Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Not too many people took then-candidate Donald Trump seriously when he famously campaigned to "drain the swamp" as president. But that shouldn’t give this administration a free pass to excuse the behavior of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Env...
Published: 04/22/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Allegiant Air’s safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier’s high rate of mid-flight brea...
Published: 04/21/18

Editorial: Women’s work undervalued in bay area

Even a strong economy and low unemployment cannot overcome the persistent pay gap affecting full-time working women in Florida. A new report shows women in Florida earned 12.5 percent less on average than their male counterparts, and the disparities ...
Published: 04/21/18
Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Florida lawmakers may never take the death penalty off the books, but stronger forces are steadily eroding this inhumane, outdated tool of injustice. Court rulings, subsequent changes to law and waning public support have significantly suppressed the...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Editorial: A missed chance for open primary elections

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission did a lot of things wrong this week by combining unrelated or unpalatable provisions into single amendments that will appear on the November ballot. It also wasted an opportunity to do one thing right. The...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

For all the symbolism, Raul Castro’s handoff of the Cuban presidency this week amounts to less than meets the eye even if his handpicked successor, the Communist Party functionary Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is the first person not named Castro to le...
Published: 04/20/18
Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

The Hillsborough school district planted a fruitful seed with the opening of Nature’s Classroom five decades ago on the cypress-lined banks of the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa. • The lessons taught there to some 17,000 sixth graders each yea...
Published: 04/20/18

Editorial: Equality pays off on Southwest Flight 1380

The passengers of Southwest Flight 1380 can be thankful that, 33 years ago, the U.S. Navy took the lead on equal opportunity.Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was piloting the flight from New York to Dallas on Tuesday when an engine exploded, blowing out a wind...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Anyone looking to make Hillsborough County government bigger, costlier, more dysfunctional and less of a regional force should love the idea that Commissioner Sandy Murman rolled out this week. She proposes enlarging the seven-member board to nine, e...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18