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2012 Year In Review

Our Top Cover Stories of the Year by In Staff
By IN Staff

The Independent News earned its reputation once again for no-holds-barred reporting, with no “sacred cows.” Our reporting earned us criticism and jabs from city council members, county commissioners and political candidates… and one broken window that no one has owned up to doing.

We also earned our first Sunshine State Award for investigative reporting and saw the popularity of the newspaper, websites and Twitter feeds grow.

Our goals remain the same. To report on the news behind the headline, connect the dots and add perspective to what is happening locally, regionally and nationally. We work to be a thought-leader and to make this community better for everyone.

The bumps, bruises and broken windows along the way are just signs that we are meeting those goals.

IN Tackles Race
Black & White, February 23, 2012
Race & the Classroom, June 12, 2012
A Tale of Two Schools, July 19, 2012

The Independent News made a commitment in 2012 to the coverage of racial disparities in Escambia County. For decades, Pensacola has been a segregated community mostly by choice. However the gaps in income, employment, education and health have grown too big to ignore and threaten the future of the area.

“Black & White” published the most recent statistics on our community and showed that the lives of African-Americans in Escambia County are very different from those of their white counterparts. They make up 23 percent of Escambia County’s population and 28 percent of the City of Pensacola, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. A third of them live below the poverty rate, and their median household income is $22,787 less than white households.

Less than 40 percent of the black students read at or above their grade level. The percentage for their white classmates is 72 percent.

The rates for heart attacks, stroke and diabetes for blacks in Escambia County are much higher than the averages for blacks statewide and nationally. The fetal and infant death rates are also higher than those averages, and about three times higher than those for whites in Escambia County.

In addition, compared to the statewide averages, black youth in Escambia County are more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system. They are more likely to be detained, more likely to be committed and more likely to be tried as adults.

“Race & the Classroom” tackled the Escambia County School District’s woeful record in hiring and promoting African-American teachers, principals and administrators.

In Escambia County, the school district’s overall minority student population has jumped across the 50 percent mark. African-Americans are, by far, Escambia’s largest minority group, comprising 35 percent of the student population. While the minority student population has steadily increased, the amount of minority staff in Escambia has stagnated at just above 10 percent for the past decade.

“A Tale of Two Classrooms” examined the decision by Superintendent Malcolm Thomas to build a new school for A.K. Suter Elementary at cost of over $20 million and contrasted that decision with his earlier one to close Spencer-Bibbs Elementary and bus those children across town to Global Learning Academy.

Suter is a historic school in a predominately white neighborhood with less than 200 children in its attendance zone. Spencer-Bibbs was also a school with deep-rooted history that saw its enrollment suddenly drop to 329, though its attendance zone had over 600 children.

Five years ago, consultants had recommended the closure of four elementary schools—Allie Yniestra, Hallmark, Spencer-Bibbs and Suter. The smallest school, Suter, is the only that is still open.

The consultants also recommended that any new schools should be built downtown and in the southwest part of the county, where the growth in population is happening and schools have the most portable classrooms.

And by the way, Suter is in the district of one of the two school board members up for re-election in 2012—Patty Hightower. Bill Slayton, the other board member, got a new school, too, and it wasn’t in the consultant’s capital plan either.

Both Hightower and Slayton were re-elected without opposition.

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Seven Noteworthy Cover Stories for 2012:

Dollars and Sins
January 19, 2012

In early January, local residents milled about a conference room at the University of West Florida looking over proposed projects that would—in the words of Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP—“make this right.”

Nearly two years after the Gulf of Mexico oilrig went up in flames and triggered the largest oil spill in North America, the federal government trotted out the Deepwater Horizon Draft Phase I Early Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment. It was a list of restoration projects—funded from $1 billion BP already put on the table—that in one way or another might “make this right.”

Projects included oyster-bed restoration in Louisiana and an artificial reef in Mississippi. In Alabama, they were looking to create and protect salt marshes. Florida’s first Natural Resource Damage Assessment project turned out to be an Escambia County boat ramp.

In November, the feds were back in town to discuss NRDA Phase II projects. This time, it looks like Northwest Florida, in addition to locations in Alabama and Mississippi, that will be seeing projects that attempt to restore avian breeding habitat and cut down on light pollution along sea turtle nesting areas.

When the Right to Vote Goes Wrong
February 2, 2012

Florida was among a number of states operating under new election laws in 2012. State legislators seemed to be tweaking laws in a way that favored the Republican Party.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott rolled back voting rights for ex-felons. In the name of fighting voter fraud, Republican legislators also passed legislation—H.B. 1355—which limited early voting and made third-party registration efforts a scary proposition.

Locally, a Pace High School teacher ran afoul of the new legislation. Dawn Quarles was unaware of Florida’s new 48-hour turnaround requirement on third party registrants. She had registered students to vote, and now faced a $50-per-form penalty.

“This has gotten national attention,” Quarles said of her experience. “Colbert’s show came down and did a segment—Soledad O’Brien came down.”

Various organizations—League of Women Voters, the AARP, Rock the Vote—cried foul, and filed suits. In May, a federal judge blocked key provisions of the new legislation, and a number of third-party registration organizations returned to the state.

Throughout the year, the Scott administration continued to defend its new election laws and also battled with the federal government over purging the state’s voter rolls. Despite pleas from various organizations—predicting a logjam at the polls—the state refused to extend early voting in November.

On Election Day, Florida experienced long wait-times at the polls, with some voters waiting up to seven hours. While the 2012 presidential election was called quickly, Florida lingered with its final tally for days. There have been calls from both the state and the federal level for Florida officials to figure out what the problem is.

Plan B
March 1, 2012

Pensacola Beach is a strip of sand with ambition. In 2012, that ambition became known as Plan B.

After hashing it out in public forums, the Santa Rosa Island Authority selected its vision for the future from a pair of plans: A and B. Both plans were an effort to realize a better beach experience.

“Take us up a couple of notches—you know, what Camelot should look like,” SRIA Chairman Dave Pavlock explained at the time.

Originally, planners had set out to tackle the parking issues that surfaced a few times a year, primarily on hot-ticket summer weekends. A steering committee formed to forge the beach’s path into the future determined that the issue could best be addressed by separating people from their vehicles and encouraging them to travel a pedestrian-friendly beachscape on foot. In the end, both plans put before the public cut hundreds of parking spaces from the beach.

Plan B called for raising the roadway of Pensacola Beach’s main intersection to allow pedestrians to flow unfettered at ground level. The project—which also called for landscaping and signs directing drivers to available parking—carried a $25 million price tag and was accompanied by talk of possibly hiking the toll on the beach bridge.

When Plan B went before the Escambia County Commission, an opposition contingent made plans for a show of force. It wasn’t necessary, as commissioners had little appetite for the grand plans at the beach.

“If there’s three votes not to do A or B, are we gonna sit through all the speakers,” asked Commissioner Kevin White. “—I’m gonna go to dinner, then come back and vote no.”

Although county officials snubbed the beach plans, they did instruct county staff to study possible solutions to the parking and pedestrian safety concerns. And while Pensacola Beach won’t be seeing any $25-million makeovers, there is now an observation wheel that enables riders to enjoy breathtaking views up and down a beautiful strip of sand.

Balancing Act
May 13, 2012

Early in 2012, it appeared Escambia County had dealt with a $3.2 million shortfall and put its budget to bed. Then it got scary.

“It wasn’t going to be easy and clean, but we could deal with it,” former county administrator Randy Oliver said at the time. “What we didn’t anticipate was that the state was going to pick our pocket for $6.3 million in the 11th hour of the legislative session.”

The state of Florida was seeking to collect a 10-year backlog of disputed Medicaid claims from counties. Escambia’s bill was north of $6 million.

“I’ll quote you what Randy said— ‘it’ll be ugly,’” relayed then-Escambia County Commission chairman Wilson Robertson. “He calls it ‘tremendous.’”

Throughout the budget season and beyond, the Escambia County Commission wrestled with its finances. They considered a millage increase and a sales tax. County departments and outside agencies sweated it out on the chopping block over the course of a series of budget workshops.

Escambia also joined other counties in challenging the state. Ultimately, its bill was cut in half. The Medicaid reduction, coupled with retirement buyouts and other cuts enabled the county to realize an almost balanced budget.

Later in the year, the county budget would be further lightened. The commission approved a dedicated tax to fund the West Florida Public Library system, as well as a 4-cent gas tax to fund the Escambia County Area Transit system.

Escambia’s budget has also been further complicated. After firing Oliver as administrator and prior to seating two new commissioners, the commission voted to search the budget for money in an effort to offer a 3 percent cost of living increase to county employees, as well as employees of other constitutional offices, such as the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. Realizing that mission may be too ambitious, commissioners have more recently opted to let employees buyback up to 80 hours of accrued leave time.

Strangers in a Strange Land
May 24, 2012

In May, the national battle over the country’s immigration policy was raging right next door. Legislators in Montgomery mulled their new immigration law, H.B. 56, as immigrants prayed outside on the statehouse steps.

Alabama had joined states such as Arizona in drawing up its own immigration legislation. In the final days of the state’s legislative session, lawmakers tinkered with its new law as the country waited for the U.S. Supreme Court to deliver an opinion on Arizona’s S.B. 1070.

While Arizona had become the poster-child for state-specific immigration policy, proponents of such legislation were keener on Alabama’s legislation. They cited the Heart of Dixie when looking to sell more states on the concept, and tweaked proposed language from state to state to make it more palatable.

“To make sure it becomes more immune to lawsuits from immigration-supporting groups, and individuals like Obama and the Mexican government,” said William Gheen, head of Americans for Legal Immigration (ALI-PAC).

As Alabama legislators debated possible amendments to H.B. 56 in an effort to avoid federal scrutiny, immigration-rights organizations rallied opponents of the controversial legislation.

“If you’re wondering what the message is, it’s a very simple message we learned in Sunday school,” activist Victor Spezzini shouted over a PA system set up in front of the statehouse. “If God loves us, why don’t you?”

The Supreme Court delivered a blow to Arizona in June, striking down major provisions of its legislation. Alabama’s law was also challenged, and in August an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals deemed several aspects of H.B. 56 unconstitutional.

While Alabama will not be allowed to make it a crime for undocumented workers to work or solicit work, or to make it a crime to hide, or rent property to illegal immigrants, authorities will be permitted to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws.

In June, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that offered illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children some reprieve from deportation. He has stated his intention to push for a comprehensive reform—along the lines of the Dream Act—of the nation’s immigration policy during his second term as president.

Dysfunction Junction
August 19, 2012

Officials of the city of Pensacola have ridden a rocky year. In addition to municipality business—running daily operations, nailing down the budget and trying to figure out how to grow the tax base—there were slugfests and showdowns and, in general, wall-to-wall drama.

The Pensacola City Council and Mayor Ashton Hayward are having some issues as they learn to coexist in the city’s new form of government. The friction has been explosive.

There have been three lawsuits filed against the mayor this year by members of city council. Both Hayward’s marketing campaign and chief of staff were targeted during budget season for a round stomping.

Some members of council went on the warpath. Other members cited poor communication between the legislative and executive branches.

“There’s sort of a lack of communication both ways and it’s feeding on itself,” said Councilwoman Megan Pratt.

The mayor didn’t seem inclined to engage. He said council was “Mickey-Mousing the little things.”

“It is what it is,” Hayward said. “I think your real question is, ‘Is council going to get on board?’”

By year’s end, the mayor had stated his intention to begin attending “important” council meetings and was able to fend off a rejection of his budget. Former councilwoman and primary critic Maren DeWeese withdrew from her reelection bid and has filed to run for mayor in 2014.

IN Election Guide
November 1, 2012
A lot of decisions had to be made at the polls this November, especially in Florida. The IN mapped out the field so local voters could better navigate the lengthy ballot on Election Day.

Obama or Romney? That was the big question. Romney visited Pensacola, so did Sen. John McCain, Gov. Mike Huckabee, House Speaker John Boehner and oddly even actor Jon Voight showed up at Wayne’s Diner for GOP presidential nominee.

Obama concentrated on Orlando, Tampa and Miami and never sent the “A Team” to campaign here.

However, the presidenital race was only the first of many on the ballot. There were also a slew of other federal, state and local races. And, of course, the amendments.

Within the presidential decision, there were layers of issues: immigration and energy policies, healthcare and taxes, education, judicial nominees and abortion. These same issues dominated the subtext of other races, such as Rep. Connie Mack’s (R-Fla.) run for Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-Fla) seat.

The GOP faithful believed Romney would bowl over Obama, not just locally, but also statewide and nationally. The IN
endorsed the winners, Barack Obama and Bill Nelson. Enough said.

Locally, several constitutional offices were on the ballot. All were returned to office, except long-time Escambia County Clerk of Court Ernie Lee Magaha who lost to Pam Childers in the GOP primary.

Sheriff David Morgan trounced his opponents in both the GOP primary and the General Election, proving that he may be the most popular elected official in the region.

Supervisor of Elections David Stafford had no opposition. Democrats Tax Collector Janet Holley and Property Appraiser Chris Jones easily defeated their Republican challengers, which suggests that party affiliation may not matter in local races.

ECUA got one new board member, Vicki Campbell. Elvin McCorvey was returned without much a challenge in the Democratic primary.

Sadly there will no changes at the Escambia Public School District. Two board members, Bill Slayton and Patty Hightower, were returned without opposition. Superintendent Malcolm Thomas had little trouble beating Democrat Claudia Brown-Curry.

The Escambia County Commission and Pensacola City Council also had multiple seats on the ballot. While some local politicians fought for their seats, others retired as a crowded field of candidates threw their names up for consideration.

Steven Barry and Lumon May were elected and give the county its youngest commission in recent memory. Both had to win out in crowded fields in their primaries and faced supposedly popular opponents in the general. They both come into office with strong mandates.

The city council has four new members– Charles Bare, Andy Terhaar, Jewel Cannada-Wynn and Gerald Wingate. The voters rejected two of Mayor Ashton Hayward’s biggest allies on the council – Sam Hall and John Jerralds.

And then the amendments – in Florida there were 11 on the ballot concerning health care services, Florida Supreme Court justices, property tax exemptions, rights to privacy, taxpayer funding of religious institutions and the student appointment to the Board of Governors of the State University System.

The IN agreed with the League of Women Voters and recommended that voters turn down each amendment. Most failed to get the required 60 percent.

The IN Election Guide was by far the most thorough guide that the paper has ever produced. Candidates completed questionnaires and were given the opportunity to pitch the IN readers unfiltered.

The paper gave the breakdowns of the races and explained its endorsements. We didn’t win every race, but that has never been the goal. No, the paper wanted to help the voters make informed decisions at the polls.

Mission accomplished.