Sunday, June 29, 2008

Impact fee challenge has real impact

About five years ago, Bradenton Herald reporters asked a fairly straightforward question of Manatee County officials: Where are the impact fees collected from developers being spent?

At the time, county officials shrugged and pointed the reporters to boxes and boxes of miscellaneous reports and untallied data. The Herald published a critical series showing that county officials had no formal tracking system for the collection and spending of impact fees, or for the impact fee credits being given various developers. In a time of fevered development, that was particularly startling.

Fast-forward to today’s stalled economy, with some of the same county officials at the helm. Reporter Nick Azzara asked the same question late last year -– and the results were disturbingly the same. Now, after months of queries and tabulations, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker and Commissioner Joe McClash say they recognize the need for accountability.

In today's article, Azzara examines the numbers that McClash gathered for his own document. McClash says he used audited numbers from the annual budget reports for the past 21 years to compile his document, but the report itself is unaudited and could contain errors. Why the reluctance to turn the report over to an auditor?

These are your public monies, not some private business investment. (To see how much the document states has been collected and spent in your district, go to this online map.) Manatee County residents and developers alike deserve accurate answers.

Over the next months, the Herald will continue to examine how millions of dollars should be tracked and spent -– especially in this tough economy.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Crying some jalapeno tears

I was overwhelmed this morning to find tributes to me in my Bradenton Herald. This is the sort of treatment you're lucky to receive when you retire or -- gasp -- go to that great newsroom in the sky.

Joan, my boss, alter ego and trusted friend these past nine years, was the mastermind behind a full page dedicated to comments from current and former colleagues. (Well, I guess they're all former colleagues now. My position at the Herald was eliminated Monday and my last official day of work was Friday.)

I have no idea how she was able to track down old cohorts in places like Minneapolis, Sacramento, Atlanta, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., and then somehow convince them to write such nice things about me. She probably thought it was going to be easier than writing her Sunday column. I know it wasn't.

Vin Mannix also devoted his Sunday column to me, and several other members of the Herald newsroom weighed in on the tribute page.

I was preparing a batch of chili this morning when I stopped to read the Local section. I had no idea tears could sting so much, and the jalapeno peppers were only partly to blame.

Thank you all. I value my experiences with you, and have rich friendships and memories to keep me going well beyond my Herald career. You are the reason I was able to survive in this business 33 years.

Thanks also to readers and friends in the community who have called and emailed with good wishes. I will be calling or sending notes to all of you.

(And Mary K., I couldn't have found more appropriate lyrics than the ones you borrowed from "Blue Umbrella.'' I promise to play some John Prine one of these days...)


Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Guantanamo: Beyond the Law" is powerful

For the past five days, we have published highlights of an eight-month McClatchy investigation into the detention system created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. What the reporters found: The United States imprisoned innocent men, subjected them to abuse, stripped them of their legal rights and allowed Islamic militants to turn the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba into a school for jihad.

"Guantanamo: Beyond the Law" is an examination of these findings. We have published the crux of each story in the Bradenton Herald. But there is so much more in-depth information and analysis in this package, so I hope you follow these links and explore this investigation. Here is the headline from each day's report:

• Sunday: We got the wrong guys
• Monday: 'I guess you can call it torture'
• Tuesday: A school for Jihad
• Wednesday: 'Due process is legal mumbo-jumbo'
• Thursday: 'You are the king of this prison'

You can also read the evidence in this archive of documents obtained by McClatchy in the course of the investigation.

And here’s a link to NPR's Andrea Seabrook interview with McClatchy's Tom Lasseter.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Good morning, and Happy Father's Day

When Jim asked me to “edit” his column late Friday, I couldn’t wait to read his latest prose. He’s one of the most gifted writers I know -– and if I could offer any tweaks, well, it’s always an honor.

But I wasn’t prepared for the power of Jim’s tribute to his dad, Eugene Smith. It’s a beautiful Father’s Day gift, and an elegant insight into a great father. Make that two great fathers. As you read his Letter from the Editor again, think about Jim as the devoted Dad of two beautiful kids of his own. He never asks for that recognition, but his words portray the strength of his love of fatherhood.

On this day, we thank all great fathers in this world and beyond. I know I miss mine.

Love you, Dad.


Friday, June 13, 2008

Celebrate Manatee's small businesses

“It’s all about hard work and family.”
“Never say never.”
“It’s not who you know, but who knows you.”
“This is truly a phenomenal community.”

These were just a few of the many words of wisdom shared at Manatee County Chamber of Commerce’s 29th annual Small Business of the Year Awards luncheon today. The Bradenton Municipal Auditorium was packed with 300 entrepreneurs, all there to honor this year’s best. The event is always one of the most genuine reflections of the honest, hard work that holds our community together -– and this year was no exception.

One strain that was more pronounced today than in years past, however, was a resolve to survive the state of the economy. In her introductions of the finalists and past winners, Chairwoman Tonya Merrill voiced that sentiment strongly, and shared a source of strength from Harriet Beecher Stowe:

“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you till it seems you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”

As if to prove that point, Gus Sokos, owner of Demetrios Pizza House, gave this year’s testimonial on what it meant to him, his family and his business to be the 2007 Small Business of the Year Winner. He told us of how he was a finalist three times before winning. He closed with words we don’t hear very often right now:

“We’ve had our best year yet.”

The Bradenton Herald cosponsors the event with the chamber, and the “thank-yous” flowed back to us from many of the attendees and speakers. (The Herald publishes a special section honoring the winners, which is included in your Saturday newspaper and posted here online. And here is a link to reporter Sara Kennedy's story.)

Joni Korzen, who is director of the chamber's drug-free workplace program and Business Against Narcotics, stopped me on the way out of today’s luncheon -- her favorite business event of the year. She explained it well: “This event defines who we are: still a small community at heart that survives and thrives together.”


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Anonymous letter delivers $50 'restitution'

This "incredible but true" tidbit comes courtesy of Greg Curling, our chief financial officer here at the Herald.

Greg received a hand-addressed envelope last week mailed to "Bradenton Herald-Accounts Payable." Inside was an unsigned, handwritten letter that read:

Accounts Payable:

This is a note for restitution.

Back in the late '60s my mother would send me to pick up a Sunday paper. On 2 different occasions I inserted the coins and pressed the coin return button and pulled open the door, taking the newspaper and the returned coins.

Please find enclosed a $50 money order for payment and interest for the stolen newspaper.

Sure enough, tucked inside was a legitimate money order for $50. Untraceable, yet far from impersonal. Sure, there might have been a guilty conscience behind it all. But how cool that somebody cared enough to take the time to set things right.

Here's a hearty "Thank You" for brightening our day.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Newsroom staff deserves a pat

I'm glad Joan devoted Sunday's Letter From the Editor to acknowledge some of the newsroom's best recent work. We probably don't spend enough time thanking our staff for their efforts, both individual and collective, in producing quality journalism. She does that in today's column.

We're not in it for the awards, as Joan points out, but it's an honor when some of our best efforts bubble to the top in journalism competitions.

Such was the case recently when the Herald won 16 awards in two different state contests. Recognition from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists includes writing and reporting, design, photography and -- here's proof that the business model is expanding -- online blogging and slideshows.

These are among the first journalism awards we've received for work generated specifically for, and photographer Tiffany Tompkins-Condie deserves mention for her military moms blog and a terrific slideshow on PAL boxing.

We wanted to share this good news with Herald readers.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

A new blog -- from Tanzania

Paula Heap, director of communications for Saint Stephen's Episcopal School, is closing the digital divide -- in Tanzania. And she's blogging here in Crossing the Digital Divide on for at least two weeks.

Her goal: to help Saint Stephen's reach out and expand the communications between their school and the Lugalo Secondary School in the town of Iringa.

Education reporter Sylvia Lim suggested the blog, and wrote about Paula's plans in this story. Now, in the blog, Paula has written of the primitive travel, her first sights of Iringa, her first day in class -- what an adventure.

We hope you enjoy learning about this Global Outreach with us, thanks to Paula.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Greyhound coverage makes a difference

In the midst of a grisly weekend for news here in Manatee County, we received a joyous e-mail about a wonderful story. I want to share a bit of it here, hoping it will warm your hearts as it did ours.

Neena and Tim Derf wrote a couple gleeful notes of thanks for columnist Vin Mannix's front-page story last week. The story was a celebration of life -- the Derfs' greyhound was turning 20. That's right -- 20 (we figured that's at least 140 in people years). Genie was born May 5, 1988, according to her papers with the Greyhound Pets of America.

If you missed the coverage, here’s a link to it, Paul Videla's video and Tiffany Tompkins-Condie's photos.

Here's a snippet of the Derfs' notes to me and our publisher, another huge dog lover:

Hello, Joan!

Well... we had to say a BIG THANKS! Exceptional story...and it made SO many people smile! ESPECIALLY THIS MOM & DAD!!! I actually had tears running down my cheeks... FRONT PAGE... FRONT PAGE!!! Woo HOO ! Too cool! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!!

This is such a difficult time for adoption your decision to run such a BIG story about our girl will most certainly help other animals find good homes. Can't say thanks enough! WOW!! We love you Bradenton Herald and staff!!!

And this one:

Dear Mr. Fleet,

We were so thrilled when your columnist, Vin Mannix called to say he wanted to do a story about our exceptional 20 year old greyhound, Genie! He told me that his sister in Oregon was emailed a local TV news video about her, and sent it to him! We're honestly NOT surprised, as we have people as far as Australia, UK, France, Germany, England, Canada that have sent Birthday messages and presents to Genie in honor of her special day! People we've never met have sent donations to greyhound adoption groups in her honor!!! Genie's been a calendar girl for the past few years...and featured in magazine articles! But...even with that press... what means most to us... LOCAL PRESS THAT PROMOTES GREYHOUND ADOPTIONS!!!

The day of Vin's scheduled visit, we were more than surprised by the still camera photographer.. AND video journalist too! WE ARE THANKFUL that OUR LOCAL NEWSPAPER recognized the importance of spreading the good word about our special greyhound!

Greyhound racing is a fact of are the thousands of retired greyhounds who desperately need good homes. The present economy makes adoptions increasingly difficult. I can't tell you how many joyous phone calls and emails we've received since Vin's piece! People wanting to bring greyhounds into their homes...and people THRILLED to see GOOD NEWS on your front page.

People who might not have considered taking home a senior dog, but now will. And those who called to say that they pray THEIR special dog will live as long and well as our Genie!

It was amazing for you to entertain putting our dog in such a spotlight. She's thought to be the oldest greyhound in the WORLD! Yes! And she's Manatee County's best ambassador for adoptions!

Please thank Vin and his crew for doing such an outstanding job! The whole piece was FUN! From the tease at the beginning of the article... to my comment about "No privacy" at the end of the video! FUN!!! The pictures were exceptional...and the video!!! WOW!!!

We want to thank you for promoting Greyhound Adoptions! They are exceptional dogs that make the BEST of PETS!!

Nina & Tim

Here's a link to at least one local adoption group. Or call Greyhound Pets of America/Tampa Bay at (727) 595-7852.