Phil Lewis: Oil on the water ... for Gulf and the Legislature

Phil Lewis
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With gushing oil and a rush to wrap up the annual legislative session in Tallahassee, there’s plenty of fodder for commentary on Sunday, May 9, 2010.

Here goes:

Hurricane season officially starts in 22 days and an early-season tropical storm will raise unprecedented concerns for those of us living on the rim of the Gulf of Mexico.

What will happen if a massive storm hits a massive oil slick?

Meteorologists and scientist are looking at the possibilities.

“Depending on the strength and track of tropical storms,” AccuWeather.com’s Alex Sosnowski said in his oil-slick update for Friday, “periodic rough seas could be a serious problem for containment operations and may halt the process until the storms pass.”

That would seem to be a given. Storms strong enough to earn a name can do amazing things to a tranquil Gulf of Mexico.

“Strong winds could steer part of the existing surface oil slick toward the northern Gulf Coast, or elsewhere,” Sosnowski said. “High winds from a hurricane could also cause some oil to become airborne in blowing spray, while a storm surge could carry contaminants inland.”

That paints a scary picture. Southwest Floridians have some experience with the damage storm-driven saltwater can do. Just imagine a oily spray and a crude-oil surge hitting homes, cars, streets, trees and the like.

On the other hand, AccuWeather said, wind-churned seas and heavy rain could break up and disperse the slick.

That might be to everyone’s benefit, but it certainly won’t solve the overall problem. Our guess is that the ecological impact of the giant spill will be with us for years and years. Some of us will get it worse than others and it will be something of a crapshoot.

AccuWeather experts agree luck will play a role.

Here’s their view:

“Local currents along the shoreline may protect some communities and could bring the slick onshore in others. However, winds and tides can cause these local currents to shift by the hour.”

* * *

The Florida Legislature ended its 2010 session last weekend, but not before passing more than two dozen bills that relate to public records and open government.

It’s an annual practice, because the Florida Constitution stipulates that every document, note, recording or e-mail produced by government is a public record.

The only way to keep specific records confidential is to pass a bill exempting the information. The First Amendment Foundation — a newspaper-funded, Tallahassee-based watchdog of the public’s right to know — monitors the yearly rush to exempt public information.

Many of the bills make sense and fail to raise an eyebrow.

For instance, bills passed this year exempt home addresses and phone numbers of public defenders in case a disgruntled client wants to one day pay a visit. Other bills exempt Social Security numbers of citizens who have done business with the state. One bill this year exempts health and enrollment information gathered from children who participate in the state-sanctioned prekindergarten program.

But each year, there seems to be at least one bill that gets my teeth grinding.

This year, it’s an exemption that involves ethics complaints filed against public officials.

Such complaints have long been exempt from the public record until the complaint is ruled founded or unfounded. I think you can see why an elected official would love such an exemption, but the newspaper editor in me asks:

When it comes to ethics in government, why keep allegations secret? Wouldn’t transparency and a vetting in the sunshine better serve both the public and the accused?

Alas, this year, the Legislature expanded that exemption to complaints filed with county and city ethics panels that have been established to enforce ethics policies that are more stringent than current state law.

Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is plewis@naplesnews.com

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