Prosecutors and Red Tides and bears! Oh my! All in the past week in Tampa Bay | Editorial
A roundup of the good, the bad and the worrying this week across Tampa Bay and Florida.
Clockwise: The Safety Harbor bear, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Red Tide threatens Tampa Bay, Allison Miller
Clockwise: The Safety Harbor bear, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Red Tide threatens Tampa Bay, Allison Miller [ Times files ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 5

After decades, voters have a choice. For the first time in 30 years, voters will have a choice for the top law enforcement officer in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Allison Miller filed this week to run in 2022 as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Bruce Bartlett for state attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which covers Pinellas and Pasco. Miller, 38, a longtime assistant public defender, said she would make broader use of criminal diversionary programs and establish a civil rights division to track racial disparities in prosecutions. Bartlett took over in January after the death of his old boss, longtime State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Bartlett said he is looking forward to the campaign to discuss his office’s “unwavering commitment to upholding the rule of law.” These two candidates appear to have sharply different visions for the local justice system. Having the race on the ballot for the first time since 1992 will at least give voters the opportunity to say in which direction they want the office to head.

Life and death maneuvering. It’s not everyday that a prosecutor agrees to new DNA testing that could help a prisoner who has lived on death row for 45 years. But that’s what happened last month when the Orlando-area state attorney’s office agreed with a request to test the clothes that Tommy Zeigler was wearing when his wife, in-laws and another man were killed at his family’s Winter Garden furniture store on Christmas Eve in 1975. Zeigler claims he was a victim of the crime, not the perpetrator. If Zeigler committed the grisly murders, the victims’ blood should be on his clothes, his attorneys say. But this week, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office objected, saying the request did not comply with Florida law because the test results would not outright exonerate the inmate. A spokeswoman said the attorney general was co-counsel on the case and should have been notified, and added that a state lab should perform the testing, not a private one. Moody’s objections seem shallow and mean-spirited. Does Florida really want to execute a man with such important questions unanswered, a man who has always said he didn’t commit the crimes? Zeigler’s life is on the line. There are no take-backs once he’s executed. Work out the details — and then do the testing.

The start of something bad. Elevated levels of Red Tide were detected in water samples taken this week near Port Manatee in lower Tampa Bay, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That area, near the Hillsborough-Manatee border, is where more than 200 million gallons of wastewater were discharged in early April from the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property. Environmentalists have worried that the discharge of nitrogen-rich polluted water from Piney Point would fuel toxic algal blooms in Tampa Bay. While researchers said early indications showed the discharge had diluted in the bay without major initial consequences, the added nutrients could effectively seed Red Tide — just as the summer rainy season washes even more pollution into Tampa Bay. This is the exact threat to public health, marine life and the quality of Tampa Bay that many feared. State and local officials will need to monitor the outbreak and keep the public timely informed.

Setting the right example. It’s long been clear that public health guidance alone would not spare the nation from COVID-19. A sense of civic responsibility — on the part of citizens and corporations alike — was always key to saving lives and safely reopening society. That’s why the example set by Atria Senior Living is worth commending. Atria, which has two facilities in Hudson and one in Spring Hill, said it “couldn’t be happier” with its decision to mandate that staff be vaccinated. While the majority of long-term care staffers in Florida were not vaccinated at last count, Atria met its goal of requiring staffers to be vaccinated by May 1, or to have their inoculations in the pipeline. “It felt like a very lonely decision at the time,” a company spokesman said. “The vaccine is the best bridge over the disease, and we couldn’t be happier with the decision that we made.” Other long-term care facilities are encouraging staff members, but not mandating staff vaccines. But given the devastation that COVID wrought on Florida’s seniors, and those in elder care, Atria’s move is a much welcome display of civic leadership. If only more players in the elder care market would follow their example.

Talk about a housing crunch. Philippe Park in Safety Harbor reopened this week after temporarily closing because of a black bear sighting. The young bear was first reported Tuesday in the heavily wooded park on Old Tampa Bay. State authorities have been tracking the bear for weeks after it was spotted in Hernando County. Bears about 18 months old often move into urban areas in late May and early June, as they are establishing independence from their mothers and looking for a new place to live. While urban sprawl has brought bears and humans closer together, bears move constantly, covering miles in a day, enabling them to usually escape populous areas safely. So give the bear a wide berth as it searches for a starter home. If you cross paths, don’t run, climb a tree or play dead. Slowly back away, and call state wildlife authorities at (863) 648-3200. Then call your mother.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.