Florida Influencers tackle state’s biggest problems

By Abigail Brashear

University of Central Florida

President and Publisher of the Miami Herald Alexandra Villoch speaks about the Florida Priorities Summit, a two-day event where 50 influencers from different backgrounds, political parties and lifestyles come together to workshop solutions to the state’s biggest problems. Workshops during the summit included the environment, healthcare, education, gun control and transportation infrastructure.


Could mental health stand at the root of mass shootings?

By Alfonso Flores

Florida State University

The recent tragic events in Tallahassee have triggered the heightened discussion on gun violence, an issue thoroughly discussed at the Miami Herald’s inaugural Florida Priorities Summit.

As part of its Influencer Series, the Miami Herald selected a group of experts from an array of different backgrounds discussed the Florida’s challenges and collectively proposed solutions.

On Nov. 2, a gunman opened fire in a Tallahassee yoga studio, taking the lives of two individuals– and injuring five others. Scott Beierle, the 40-year-old shooter,  died of a self-inflicted gunshot moments after the attack.

He wasn’t the first active shooter in Tallahassee. Four years prior, Myron May,  31, opened fire in Florida State University’s Strozier Library, and shot two students and a faculty member before being gunned down by the police.

Both shooters had a history of mental illnesses.

“Often times, clearly the victims of those who die of gun violence are the primary focus, and it should be,” said Dr. Robert McClure, President and CEO of the James Madison Institute. “Often times too, there is so much collateral damage to those who are left behind—the friends and families of those who are killed to students who may live in fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, Tallahassee still sees itself as a small town where these kinds of things don’t happen.”

Prior to entering the yoga studio and killing Maura Brinkley, 21, a student at Florida State, Nancy Van Vessem, 61, Beirle had a history of posting provocative videos that suggested a hatred of women. The former military veteran and Florida State alum also had a record of physically harassing women on numerous accounts.

May, an attorney and FSU alum, had published videos on YouTube that depicted the Wewahitchka, Florida, native as depressed and seemingly suicidal.

“A lot of these people, particularly those in Tallahassee, had major mental health issues,” said McClure. “Red flags were popping up for a long time before and for whatever reason, those folks weren’t stopped, they weren’t held up, they weren’t taken into a hospital.”


At Miami conference, state leaders get real about gun control

By Grace Wehniainen

University of Miami Hurricane

Less loopholes, clearer criteria for stand-your-ground laws.

The recommendations, presented on day two of the Florida Priorities Summit as solutions to gun violence, seem simple enough. But for Mary Anne Franks, professor at the University of Miami School of Law, that’s just the problem.

“I think they’re definitely incomplete,” Franks said in an interview.

Franks, who participated in a roundtable discussion on guns the day before, has been researching gun violence for about six years—and acknowledged how difficult it can be to find common ground when it comes to the nitty-gritty of gun control.

Conversation chair Rhea Law—Florida Offices chair at the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney—acknowledged as much while presenting her group’s findings.

“To say we had a robust conversation is really an understatement,”  said Law, who is based in Tampa.

“What happens with these groups is something really interesting—you obviously have to get consensus, and there’s concerns about pragmatism and strategy and all of that makes sense,” Franks said.

She acknowledged, too, that the recommendations “were definitely widely shared across the group, so that’s a great success.”

But Franks, whose niece is a survivor of the Feb. 18 Parkland shooting, wants more.

“For me, personally… I felt that it could’ve gone much further,” Franks said.

How much further?

On gender

In her research, Franks said, she learned that gender was a much more worrisome predictor of gun violence—and that the vast majority of it (from suicides to mass shootings) is carried out by men.

“I think that no one yet, in a mainstream way, has actually addressed that head on,” Franks said. “We have a problem with violent masculinity, and if we don’t address that problem, the gun problem is only going to get worse.”

Franks also cited a 2017 NPR report, which found that 50 percent of mass shooters had a history of violence against women.

“That, to me, is a red flag,” she said.

Franks went on to suggest that men “identify with the power that a gun, the impression of power that it gives them,” whereas women are more likely to support gun control and stay informed of statistics.

On mental illness

“It’s actually extremely low,” Franks said of mental illness among mass shooters. She said at least one study said six percent had “some sort of diagnosable, recognizable mental illness.” Others said four percent.

“One of the reasons why it’s hard to talk about mental illness and its relationship to gun violence,” she said, “is after the fact, when people say ‘oh, he seemed lonely’ or ‘he was spending all of his time in his room,’ people sort of armchair diagnose and they say, ‘well, he probably had a mental illness.’”

The real issue, she said, is “not stigmatizing people with mental illness,” because they are not more likely to carry out gun violence.

In an email to her fellow roundtable participants, Franks refuted other myths, too—that violence-ridden Chicago actually has the nation’s strictest gun control laws, for example. It doesn’t.

On the “good guy with a gun”

Half of Franks’ family is from Arkansas—where they enjoy hunting and are “big believers” in the Second Amendment. So while she understands people’s attachment to their guns, she said “like any attachment, it has to be subjected to the public welfare.”

Franks also contested the idea of a “good guy with a gun” protecting people from criminals. During their roundtable, Bob McClure, president of the James Madison Institute, said making the system stricter for law-abiding citizens was “arbitrary.” Franks said it’s anything but.

Bob McClure, president of the James Madison Institute, is interviewed by a visiting student journalist. McClure took part in a roundtable discussion on guns Nov. 13, and sat on a panel to share his findings the next day. Photo credit: Cameron Tavakoly

“In the vast majority of these terrible shootings we’ve seen, it wasn’t as though any of them were violent felons,” she said. “It was somebody who decided, on that day, he was not going to be a good guy with a gun.”

And even when there are good guys with guns, they face real danger themselves. 26-year-old security guard Jemel Roberson was killed by police after he worked to apprehend a shooter in an Illinois bar.

He was the textbook “good guy with a gun, doing his job… but we can maybe speculate a bit about why it is that the police officers didn’t see him that way.”

For Franks, and for all the influencers, the conversation continues beyond Florida Priorities. She teaches a seminar on Second Amendment Fundamentalism at the UM School of Law, where gun violence and self-defense feature heavily in her scholarship – as well as in her upcoming book, “The Cult of the Constitution.”

Florida influencers shine light on priority issues

By Devoun Cetoute

University of Florida / WUFT.org

Red tide attacks the Gulf Coast. The state ranks 49th in health care. Mass shootings and gun violence are becoming increasingly frequent.

Florida has a mountain of issues, with few solutions in sight.

On the final day of the Florida Priorities Summit, influencers from across the state proposed solutions to those issues after brainstorming for two and a half hours in search of common ground.

On behalf of the transportation and infrastructure panel, Chris Caines was the first to present findings and solutions.

Caines, executive director of the Miami Urban Future Initiative, said Florida’s transportation issue stems from riders and the quality of services.

“You have underinvestment and substandard service in a lot of places, and then you have people that aren’t so enthusiastic about it,” he said.

The transportation and infrastructure panel suggested the way to fix this requires two steps:  make the service better and educate people, Caines said.

“We need to find ways to boost public enthusiasm and get people excited about public transportation,” he said. “In order to expect people to use public transportation, we need to find ways to make those services robust and as fully functional as the over-subsidized car industry.”

Next up was Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, who told the crowd what the education panel believed needed to be done.

She said the they believed the key to improve education is money.

“Taxpayers have said we are willing to pay more to give us a world-class education,” said Seltzer, president and CEO of Children’s Services Council of Broward County.

The education panel was most concerned that new sales tax money approved by voters for education will be diverted from teacher salaries and programs. They fear that as with money from the lottery, it will replace general revenue instead.

If used the way voters intended, “we can focus not only on the basics of education, but also enhance social and emotional learning, mental health services and critical thinking,” Seltzer said.

Although Florida is the third largest state and has the fourth largest economy, Victoria Kasdan said it’s 49th when it comes to access, affordability and disparities in healthcare.

“We are all consumers of health care so there is no reason we all shouldn’t be concerned about high cost and affordability,” said Kasdan, executive director of We Care Manatee.

Expanding Medicaid was the solution Kasdan presented from the health care panel. She says there are only 14 states left who haven’t done it and that it would cover an additional 300,000 people, leaving the eligibility requirements the same.

The health care panel also recommended repurposing low income pool (LIP) funds that currently fill in the gap for uncompensated care.

“We thought there could be additional accountability for organizations that receive LIP funds,” she said. “They don’t have to do reports. There is no independent auditor who certifies that the funding was spent the way they say it would be sent.”

With mass shootings becoming common place and rising gun violence being a persistent issue, Rhea Law presented the gun safety panel’s recommendations.

That panel recommended doing away with loopholes in background checks and clarifying the Stand Your Ground law.

The gun panel also recommended  creation of a new database that includes information about domestic abuse, substance abuse and mental health collected from the FBI and other state organizations.

“The FBI and FDLA database and whatever is being used by the Department of Agriculture should be the same,” she said. “People fall through the cracks because you have different data and don’t have a way of actually telling if there is a problem or not.”

Law went on to say that citizens need to educate themselves on the facts, so solutions can be found.

The environmental panel cited climate change, sea level rise, water quality and quantity challenges and preserving the Everglades as key issues, said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida.

“The environment is Florida’s economy and if we don’t protect it our future well-being is in jeopardy,” said Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida.

She said the best way to fix these issues is to push to create new scientific industries and jobs to solve Florida’s challenges and for elected officials to base their decisions on science and to stick with them.

When it comes to water conservation, Wraithmell said local governments can play an important role.

“Encouraging and incentivizing the use of water conservation appliances and other elements is really a great opportunity for local governments to move the needle,” she said.

The solutions proposed at the summit will be shared with Florida lawmakers as a potential roadmap to addressing the challenges facing the state.

One prescription for what ails Florida: Put people over politics

By Rebecca Goddard

University of Miami Hurricane

Controversy– often of an explosive sort– characterizes most political debate in modern America, from healthcare to gun control.  But as Florida struggles to navigate its divided political landscape, participants at the Florida Priorities Summit offered this advice: start prioritizing people over politics.

Leaders from around the state in infrastructure, education, health care, gun legislation and environmental policy gathered Tuesday and Wednesday at the University of Miami to discuss Florida’s future. The conference was part of a project by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and Bradenton Herald.

Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, president and CEO of the Children’s Services Council of Broward County, asked the questions on the minds of many: “What is it that we want our state to look like? What is it that we want our image to project?”

For Victoria Kasdan, a registered nurse and executive director of We Care Manatee, the answer was simple. She said creating an affordable and accessible healthcare system would be a major step towards brightening Florida’s future.

“We’re all consumers of healthcare, so there’s no reason that we all shouldn’t be concerned about high costs and about affordability,” Kasdan said. “It impacts us all.”

Kasdan asked legislators to expand Medicaid, calling this solution “low-hanging fruit,” and pointing out that Florida is one of only 14 states that have not already expanded the program.

She also reminded politicians what’s at stake.

“Dear legislators, these are not inanimate objects, the uninsured, these are people,” Kasdan said.

Seltzer had a different request for lawmakers. She urged them to start considering students an investment rather than an expense.

“In order for the state to succeed economically, to be competitive in the global economy, we have to have a world class education,” Seltzer said.

And what does Seltzer think will improve education? Money.

In fact, she said funding is the single most important force in the battle to better Florida’s education system. Taxpayers are willing to spend more on education, but it’s up to lawmakers to make sure the money is allocated properly, Seltzer said.

Rhea Law, chair of the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney Florida law offices, said she just wants politicians and the public to start focusing on their common goals rather than their differences.

“We really can all coalesce around the fact that we want a safe environment, an inclusive environment for our state,” Law said. “If we can agree to that, coming to the specific solutions that drive us to that result is what’s going to drive our ultimate ability to reach a consensus.”

Kasdan offered another way for constituents to inspire legislators to create change.

“We need to appeal to them as people, not as party members and really to go after the humanity of the issues,” she said. “Until our politicians incorporate and encapsulate the humanity of some of the requests we’re making, I don’t think we’ll make progress.”

Kasdan said cooperation in recognizing the humanity of each individual is the best way to lift the “dark cloud” that’s over Florida, the only way that the Sunshine State will be able to fully live up to its nickname.

Fixing education is going to take more money

By Christina Morales

University of Florida/The Independent Florida Alligator

Florida public schools are feeling the squeeze and asking taxpayers to fork out more cash to improve education.

The most important resource to improve education is more money, said Florida Influencer Cindy Arenberg Seltzer at the Florida Priorities Summit in Miami on Wednesday. Arenberg Seltzer and a group of other influencers came up with suggestions on how to solve problems in Florida education.  

Fixing the public education system starts making sure state government funds it adequately and  adds money from the lottery and other local sources  as extra income, Arenberg Seltzer said.

In Alachua County Public Schools, officials are passionate about finding  more money to increase pay for teachers, fix up outdated facilities, provide additional school security and enhance mental health resources.

The county’s school system took the problem of its outdated facilities into its own hands and passed a half-cent sales tax initiative in the 2018 midterm elections, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Revenue from the tax could bring in $264 million over 12 years to invest in upgrades to school facilities, which are gearing up to start soon said Alachua County Public Schools Spokesperson Jackie Johnson. These include new classrooms and science labs, installing new furniture, lighting and flooring and overhaul school security.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee cut facilities funding in Alachua by more than $168 million in the last 10 years, according to Alachua County Public Schools.

More than 30 other counties in Florida have resorted to passing a sales tax to upgrade facilities, Johnson said.

But facilities are just a start. Johnson said the state isn’t providing enough funding for many things they’ve implemented including recent school safety laws.

“I think people need to elect people who are willing to invest in public education, because we don’t have that right now,” Johnson said.

Alachua County schools also face the problem of a wide achievement gap between black and white students divided in east and west — with mostly black eastside elementary school students failing statewide exams and mostly white students passing exams in westside schools. Alachua’s public schools have the largest achievement gap in the 67 counties in Florida.

The district revealed a plan in August to close the gap by tackling student achievement, advanced coursework, graduation rates, student discipline and diversity of the workforce.

With three boys going to public schools in East Gainesville, Nicole Stewart, 47, said she feels the pinch in the equity gap. At Abraham Lincoln Middle School, where her 13-year-old son Nicholas used to attend, the school offers different hallways, newer computers and textbooks to its Lyceum magnet program, Stewart said.

The same resources are not given to students not in the program said Stewart, a former Miami-Dade County Public Schools teacher.

“There’s a very glaring difference, and people pretend not to see it,” she said. “How could they educate kids in one hallway different than another? There should be equality in the way we educate students. Most of the problem is with the adults, not with the children.”

With a top eight public university and a local college in the neighborhood of Alachua students, Madeline Pumariega, a Florida Priorities Summit speaker and chancellor of the Florida College System, said more can be done by institutions to help close the gap.

Institutions could expand funding of dual enrollment courses to help future students save money and finish college faster to enter the workforce, Pumariega said. University and college officials can also have talks with superintendents to work together to offer programs and services and educate students on college scholarships and pell grants.

On a college level, Pumariega said the North Florida Community College has balanced graduation rates between students on and off Pell Grants. In South Florida State College, the gap between black and white students has also closed.

Pumariega said these results come from efforts to put students on a guided learning path instead of bouncing around from major to major.

“I think there’s a focus in making sure that all students succeed and that every student achieves,” she said.

Takeaway from the 2018 midterms: Focus will stay on Florida

By Christian Ortega

Editor-in-Chief of The Reporter—Miami Dade College

Though it’s been a week since midterm election day, the nation remains focused  on Florida’s results — and when all the votes will be counted.

The races for governor, U.S. senator and agricultural commissioner are all being decided by a recount, and lawyers for the Republican and Democratic party are challenging parts of the process.

For many, this brings back memories of the 2000 presidential election, when the close race between Al Gore and George W. Bush and the “hanging chads” from punchcard ballots caused a national uproar.

“The first thing I think of is the vitriol, divide and the attack on institutions, which we have been seeing especially towards the elections,” said Amy Driscoll, a Miami Herald editor who helped cover the 2000 recount.

The discussed took place as President Donald Trump’s raised questions of fraud in the Florida vote, and called on Senator Bill Nelson to admit defeat.

“When will Bill Nelson concede in Florida? The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to ‘find’ enough votes, too much spotlight on them now,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Senator-elect and current Florida Gov. Rick Scott added that “Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward counties…and the Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes has a history of acting in bad faith.”

While there hasn’t been evidence of fraud in recounts for Broward and Palm Beach Counties, there has been a litany of mishaps following election night.

Late starts, overheating machines and lawsuits have slowed the counties’ abilities to count the ballots with precision and accuracy.

“As I saw these demonstrations happening again [in Florida], I thought ‘Nothing ever changes,'” said Mark Seibel, an editor at BuzzFeed News.  “And [once again] it’s Republicans out protesting and I thought that was so unnecessary because one of the things we learned from reviewing the ballots is that they’re protesting something that may actually help you [Republicans].”

In an earlier discussion, Rachel Smolkin, the executive editor of CNN Politics, said that what’s at work in Florida is a fundamental issue of democracy.

“This is a repeat of the Bush vs. Gore scenario but in a time when things are really heated,” Smolkin said.

Smolkin added that Florida is a “conflicted state in a conflicted country” and that the media’s coverage of this year’s election has muddied the accuracy of the results, with races being called too prior to the recount being announced.

“Election night is a big night, but it’s not the only night. We can do a better job of setting up expectations of the people about the timing of elections,” Smolkin said.

What Does This Year’s Election Mean For The Future Of Florida?

“Flip a coin and what’s most likely going to happen is that it will land on its edge due to razor-thin election margins,” Marc Caputo of Politico said in describing Florida’s 2020 elections.

According to Caputo, there has been a paradigm shift in voter behavior.

“White people are starting to vote like non-white people,” Caputo said. “There’s a coalescing of the white vote that heavily trends conservative and Republican.”

He said while there are more non-white voters in the electorate, they don’t turn out in as heavy percentages as white voters. “Sixty percent of voter rolls are non-Hispanic white, but about 68 percent of the turnout was white.”

Nationally, Florida has cemented itself as the state to monitor in future elections.

In another change, in this midterm election, national issues outweighed local issues, Smolkin said. “You saw that reflected in exit polls where so many people were placing a vote for President Trump or against him.”





Improvement in Miami transit means ‘maximizing options’

Joshua Ceballos

News Director FIU PantherNOW

Like a bad student, commuting in Miami has gotten a severely bad grade and it needs to improve.

The public transportation system in Miami-Dade County is notoriously inefficient, and this year the inefficiencies were quantified by an organization called Transit Alliance Miami.

Transit Alliance released a “Mobility Scorecard,” in which they gave a letter grade backed  with data analysis for each of the county’s modes of transportation. The Metrorail and Metrobus systems both received a grade of “D,” and the trolley systems received an “F.”

Marta Viciedo,  founding partner of Urban Impact Lab and Transit Alliance Miami, said that constituents in the county have voiced their opinions that they cannot rely on the bus system, and elected officials are listening. But making changes could take some time.

Viciedo and her organization are working with individuals like Carlos Cruz-Casas, the assistant director for strategic planning of the Miami-Dade Department of Transportation and Public Works, to redesign public transit around the city to better serve the people.

“Starting in early 2019 we are going to launch conversations with the people about a bus system redesign, and we are hoping by mid-2020 to have the entire redesign done,” said Cruz-Casas.

That redesign involves taking a deep look at how transportation patterns have changed over the years, according to Cruz-Casas.

“The off-ramps from I-95 offer free flow access from Brickell into Little Havana because there was nothing in Brickell before, but now things have changed, and we need to address that,” said Cruz-Casas.

Students can get involved in this transit redesign once the program launches in 2019 according to Viciedo. Transit Alliance will be visiting campuses like Florida International University to get their insight into their transportation needs.

“We need every voice at the table, we need to know how everyone is using the system and how they need it to work,” said Viciedo.

The change in transit can’t only be in buses, and perspectives need to evolve to include rideshare apps and new technology. Other panelists like Chris Caines,  executive director of the Miami Urban Future Initiative at FIU and Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R- St. Petersburg, spoke on the importance of rideshare apps and autonomous vehicle programs for the future of transit.

Let’s not let nostalgia contribute to current failures. Words like Uber and Lyft went from nonsense words to verbs very quickly,” said Caines.

Brandes advocated for cities to have a broader perspective on transit, and to make sure that their dollars go into projects that will be worthwhile and flexible, like robust bus systems or more subsidized rideshare opportunities.

Senator Jeff Brandes (right) speaks on the future of transit in Florida at the 2018 Florida Priorities Summit.

“You can’t solve all the problems today. Let’s solve til 2030,” said Brandes. “My general advice is to invest in things that maximize your options, and don’t lock you in like a permanent light rail.”

With increasing polarization, how can Influencers get anything done?

By Tim Fanning

University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Political polarization seems to be the defining feature of  21st century politics in the United States.

Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history, with each side viewing the other with increasing distrust, bias and hostility, according to the Pew Research Center.

This can make improving education, transportation and infrastructure, gun safety, the environment and many other issues almost impossible.

So how can some of Florida’s top leaders and decision-makers, who gathered at the University of Miami Wednesday to discuss and develop solutions to the most critical issues facing the state, solve those problems?

Return power to local municipalities.

“At the local level, no one is going to opposed education, no one is going to opposed transportation,” said Chris Caines, the executive director of Miami Urban Future Initiative, a think tank at Florida International University.

“Empowering local municipalities to make some of these decisions and then letting people decide what kind of communities they want to live in is a possible way to move forward,” said Caines, who was one of around a half-dozen different Influencer chairmen at the Florida Priorities Summit.

The reason, Caines said, is that Americans trust local municipalities more than the federal and state government.

Over the years, state lawmakers have passed preemption laws that make sure that cities and counties can’t prohibit things like smoking in music venues, patio dining areas or parks, or regulate Styrofoam or plastic straws.  

Local governments can’t raise the minimum wage, tweak worker benefits or prohibit gun control laws. Miami Beach tried, only to be blocked by a court ruling.

Caines is optimistic that many of the solutions presented at the summit, particularly on infrastructure and the environment, can and should be handled at a local level.

On education, for example, where Influencers said should be seen as an investment rather than an expense, funding provided through the lottery and local measures should add to the state’s education fund rather than supplant other sources of money.

Victoria Kasdan, a longtime nurse and executive director of We Care Manatee, a health care nonprofit, said Influencers need to appeal to lawmakers as people, not as specialists or party members.

“Until we do that with the requests we are making,” Kasdan said. “I don’t think we will make progress.”