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Glades buyout has to happen

November 15, 1998


The uprooting of 350 families in the boggy East Everglades is no cause for joy, but it's necessary, overdue and inevitable.

Last week, the South Florida Water Management District decided to buy out landowners in a sodden patch of southwest Miami-Dade known as the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area.

Planners say the purchase is essential to restore the flow of clean, fresh water to Everglades National Park. Residents are in a furious uproar. They want to stay in the Glades, and they want government to provide new roads, sewers and drainage ditches to help keep them dry.

It's the classic Florida yarn, with villains and victims but no tidy ending.

Want to blame somebody? Start with the clowns on the old Metro Commission who allowed folks to sell "property" on the wrong side of the Everglades dike.

That's right, the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area is west of the flood-control levee. That means—surprise!—no flood control. It's a wetland, as in: wet land.

That self-evident fact didn't discourage people from hawking lots, and nobody stopped them. This is Florida, after all, with a proud tradition of submersible real estate.

But here's the problem with living in a swamp: You live in a swamp.

Water managers have been diverting some flow from the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area, parching the national park to benefit the homeowners. Yet every rainy season the ritual repeats: TV crews slosh out to the East Everglades to interview folks who are ankle-deep and miserable. Of course they want flood protection—who wouldn't?

It's impossible not to feel heartache for those who will be forced to give up a home, a neighborhood, a way of life. But it's ludicrous to liken—as some have—the Everglades acquisition to Fidel Castro's property confiscations.

The comparison should insult anyone who lost land in Cuba—Fidel didn't pay a dime, he just took it. Landowners in the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area cumulatively will collect as much as $113 million, according to officials.

However, the longer the buyout takes, the more it will cost. That's a serious concern for both conservationists and budget watchers. Litigation could prolong the haggling for precious years.

Meanwhile, the park gasps for more water, and speculators snap up border tracts in hopes of gouging the government—meaning you and me—when the buyout finally begins.

But the alternative could be even more expensive. Engineers say the cost of letting people remain in the S1/2 Square Mile Area and making it flood-free could reach $180 million.

Behind the scenes are a few landowners who deserve scorn, not sympathy. They want flood control not just to dry out the families, but to enable further development.

Astoundingly, these operators want more houses, more ranchettes, more farms … in a swamp. Swell idea: Don't fix a dumb mistake. Subdivide it.

Without a healthy Everglades, all South Floridians will face dire water shortages. The 8 1/2 Square Mile Area is needed for re-creating an unbroken flow. It's a patch that needs to be wet. It's supposed to be wet.

If officials guarantee drainage for homeowners there, a long line of swamp peddlers would form at the water management district. Everybody who owned any wetland would demand publicly funded dikes, ditches and sewers.

The cost would be outrageous and, more importantly, the Everglades restoration project would fall apart.

It's truly a shame that people need to move out of the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area. A worse shame is that anyone was allowed to build there in the first place.

That's why there's a law

December 13, 1998


History was made recently when the Florida Ethics Commission found an actual lapse of ethics in Florida. It's a rare instance of the system working the way it's supposed to.

The case centers on a man named Dennis Wardlow. In 1995, while mayor of Key West, Wardlow was charged by U.S. prosecutors with taking a bribe from lawyer John Bigler.

Bigler owned a company that rented Jet Ski-style water bikes to tourists on the island. He put Wardlow on his payroll for $100 a week, an arrangement that lasted 19 months. This was not disputed.

The mayor claimed he was being paid to do "public relations" work for Bigler. The feds said the money was meant to buy Wardlow's influence.

These payments came during a period when Key West officials were trying to regulate water-bike vendors. Wardlow participated in the key votes. He never told fellow commissioners or the public that he was taking money from a firm that was affected by the new laws.

It seemed like a textbook case of small-town bribery, with the facts weighing gloomily against the indicted mayor.

But this wasn't just any small town; it was Key West, where juries traditionally have a higher tolerance (or a narrower definition) of corruption. This is particularly true when the accused happens to be a native "Bubba."

Wardlow took the stand to proclaim that he was not a crook, and that he had done nothing wrong by taking the $100 payments. He insisted his work for Bigler was giving business advice, on weekends, with special attention to possible water-bike opportunities in the Dominican Republic.

As lame as that sounds, it was enough to sway jurors. They acquitted the mayor, and he went back to work. Bigler didn't fare so well. He pleaded guilty to attempted bribery, received one year's probation and gave up his law license. His water-bike business is no more.

The case would have ended, too, except for one indignant citizen named Jace Hobbs, a Key Wester fed up with graft. He wrote to the state Ethics Commission, not the most tenacious of watchdog agencies.

"I didn't even know it existed," Hobbs said, "until a week or so before I did it."

Yet a wondrous thing happened to his complaint: It got taken seriously. The ethics panel eventually found probable cause that Wardlow broke state rules by taking Bigler's money and failing to disclose it.

True, the commission needed almost two years to reach a conclusion that most clear-thinking adults would regard as a no-brainer. Then it took another nine months to hold a hearing, and another seven months to make a ruling … but, hey, at least something got done. For a change.

On Dec. 3, the Ethics Commission unanimously declared that Wardlow had violated seven state rules and should cough up $12,900—a $5,000 fine, plus the $7,900 he pocketed during his so-called "employment" by Bigler.

The panel also recommended a reprimand, which won't mean diddly since Wardlow is no longer Key West's mayor. Still, with the governor's backing, the fine could send a message to politicians sniffing around for extra cash: There's a chance you'll actually get punished for it—not anytime soon but long into the future, when you can barely remember which bribe they're talking about.

Jace Hobbs was out of town when news of the Wardlow ruling reached Key West. A week later, no one had yet told him about it.

He seemed quietly pleased when he heard the outcome. When I asked why he had bothered to pursue the case, Hobbs paused for a moment, then said: "I felt obligated to the community."

That's why there's a law. Sometimes, when the stars align, it even works.

Bush on track with 'bullet'

January 14, 1999


It was the first test for Florida's new governor. Was Jeb Bush really a different breed of politician, or just another Brand X hack who knuckled under to heavyweight lobbyists?

Now we have a clue. Today Bush is expected to put a bullet in the bullet train, the most egregious public rip-off ever contemplated by the Legislature.

It was a proposed 320-mile rail link between Miami, Orlando and Tampa—a $6.3 billion boondoggle that was doomed to lose money until its tracks rusted out. Its chief selling point: a train ride that would take longer and cost more than traveling by air. All aboard!

During the gubernatorial campaign, Bush criticized the bullet train because of the immense risk to taxpayers. Beginning in 2001, the state was to begin subsidizing the Millennium Turkey to the tune of $70 million annually, escalating over 40 years to a total handout exceeding $6 billion.

And that's if everything went right.

It's nice to think Florida's worsening highway gridlock and traffic pollution could be alleviated by a railroad, but it wouldn't.

Like Metrorail, Tri-Rail and Amtrak, the bullet train would never have attracted the promised passengers. Taxpayers would have been stuck with a 200-mph rolling disaster that bled cash every time it pulled out of the station.

Bush's skepticism worried those pushing the project. The most avid shill was the state Department of Transportation, which adores expensive, endless construction extravaganzas.

The DOT's ridership predictions for the bullet train were so wacky they should have been on Comedy Central—though not too wacky for lawmakers, who had already had set aside $77 million for research.

However, a preliminary planning budget was due to run out Jan. 31, with $56 million remaining in the kitty. No more could be spent without the governor's OK.

In addition to Bush's wariness, bullet-train boosters faced a dubious upcoming report from the U.S. General Accounting Office. The GAO raised questions (surprise!) about both the estimated cost of the train and the demand.

Uncle Sam's interest was substantial because Florida had sought a $2 billion federal loan for the train, to be backed by revenues from future passenger fares. The idea transcended mere optimism, and entered the realm of the hallucinatory.

Nobody was more worried about the train's political future than Florida Overland Express (FOX), the consortium seeking to build the railway and hand it over to the state. Be certain there was a fortune to be made off the bullet train by those doing the promoting, planning and engineering. The trick was to hang taxpayers with the debt for running it.

To win over Bush, FOX hired high-profile lobbyists with strong GOP connections, including Mac Stipanovich, one of Bush's top advisors in his 1994 race against Lawton Chiles. FOX even donated $5,000 toward Bush's inaugural festivities this month.

For their efforts, company big shots got some face time with the new governor last week. Evidently they failed to change his mind.

Today Bush announces that he won't approve future funding for the bullet train. It's unlikely the Republican-led Legislature will rise up against him, so the project is as good as dead.

Had the governor caved to the lobbyists, he would have been indelibly linked to Florida's costliest transportation fiasco. Jeb's Folly, it would have been called.

But by running the bullet train off the rails now, before another penny is wasted, Bush saves future generations of taxpayers from a multibillion-dollar debacle. He also sets a promising precedent for his administration—common sense instead of common politics.

Let's hope it's not a fluke.
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