Gainesville’s strong compact

I love this town.

I know, I’ve been saying that for years. But I’ve never been more enamored of Gainesville than I am right now, in the wake of this otherwise dismal election. 

Yes, Florida went red (we think). Floridians elected Rick Scott (probably) despite his filthy legacy of algae green lakes and rivers and red tides. They went with a Trump puppet for governor because, I suppose, the Democrat looked too much like Obama (if you catch my drift).

Which is a shame because Andrew Gillum had the very best basic training imaginable for the office. 

He is a mayor. Mayors can do almost anything. They pretty much have to.

But never mind all that. It isn’t because Gainesville came in reliably blue that I’m singing its praises. That’s just Gainesville being Gainesville.

No, it’s because the social compact that binds us together as a community remains strong and resilient.

The phony siren’s song that we can have it all without paying for it may seduce a lot of voters. But not in this town. 

We have an obligation to our children. So voters in this county decided by a nearly 70 percent margin to impose a half-mill property tax on themselves to fund the Children’s Trust initiative. 

Our schools are falling apart. And so, while federal and state officials keep marginalizing public education, we local voters enacted a half cent sales tax to rebuild and modernize our classrooms.

Because if not us, then who?

And it’s not just that we’re willing to tax ourselves for the greater good. 

Gainesville voters refused to swallow whole the lies and false promises made by Keith Perry, the Chamber of Commerce and other backers of an initiative to separate Gainesville GRU-owners from direct control of their public utility.

We are nobody’s fools. We didn’t just say “no.” By a nearly 67 percent margin we said “Hell No!.”

But neither are we bereft of trust in our local democratic institutions.

The essence of the “independent” GRU board argument was that we can’t trust city government to make our decisions for us. Not only did we reject that nonsense, but we went one better.

By a 70 percent margin we approved a landmark city election reform measure that will give commissioners more time in office, increase voter turnout and ultimately broaden civic participation in municipal affairs.

Oh yeah, and save tax dollars.

Is this a great town or what? We aren’t fooled by politicians that do not have our best interests at heart. We insist on home rule. We won’t be deprived of our ability to hold the elected officials closest to us accountable. And we trust those officials enough to give them more leeway to make better decisions. 

Be proud, Gainesville. Call yourself progressives. Call yourselves liberals. Hell, just call yourselves “common sense,” voters, to borrow a meme that seemed popular with Republicans this year. 

You are Gainesville. You vote. And you do so well and intelligently. 

I love this town. 

Out out damned blot!

Like Jimmy Stewart’s father in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” I always fancied myself a fighter of lost causes.

Which is to say that I was a newspaper editorial writer. 

My resume of causes lost is long and impressive.

Abolish the death penalty? Lost. Gun control? Lost. Free the Ocklawaha? Lost. Unify Gainesville and Alachua County? Lost. 

I could go on but, really, it’s too depressing. 

And now that I’m off the editorial writing payroll and well into my freelance dotage, my zest for lost causes hasn’t faded. 

Stop Trump? Lost. Save the springs? Lost. Give Yoho the heave-ho? Lost.

Which makes all the more baffling to wake up the other morning and realize that I actually have a win in my win-lose column.

How depressing is that? A perfect record spoiled.

Gainesville voters have decided that it makes eminent sense to move city elections from every year in the spring (in splendid isolation) to every other year in the fall.

There to nest comfortably with federal, state and county elections. 

Not only will it save taxpayers money, but it practically guarantees a higher voter turnout for municipal elections.

Which have been known to fall into the single digits because, well, because there are lots of more interesting things to do in the springtime.

Like smell the flowers, dive head first into the gene pool, go to the beach.

Everybody seems to agree on this now.

The FOG (Forces Of Good, aka Gainesville progressives/liberals).

The city commissioners who put it on the ballot.

And the 70 percent of city voters who said “Hell yes!”

Sigh.

You see, for more years than I care to remember there was pretty much one drummer beating the drum for this particular good government reform.

The lowly, ink-stained wretch who occupied the editorial page office on the second floor of the Gainesville Sun.

Not that it was my idea. 

I stole it from a rival city. When I found out that the League of Women Voters had teamed up with the Leon County Supervisor of Elections to change Tallahassee city commission elections from spring to fall.

What a concept. 

But nobody listened. Even though I annoyingly brought it up every time we had a so-quiet-you-can-hear-crickets-chirp city election.

That’s just grumpy old Cunningham again. What does he know?

Imagine my surprise to find that now, five years into my retirement, It actually happened. 

Sigh.

Sure, it was the right thing to do, no matter who said it first (I did). 

But that’s not the point, is it? 

The point is that, now, I have to live with this. 

This damnable blot on my otherwise perfect lost cause record.

What next? Will everybody suddenly wake up one morning and realize that I’ve been right all along? About Reagan. About Bush? About Scott. About the NRA, and algae in our water?

About Trump?

Oh bother.

The spinx and the water

ST. PETERSBURG: This is a city of grand palaces and colorful onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, of giant mosques and fortresses and spacious parks and even a sad, still-functioning Cold War-era brick-and-barbed wire prison. 

And it is a city of monuments: Bronze and stone tributes to tsars and saints and heroes and sinners. 

Consider the twin sphinxes that stand sentinel over the wide, blue Neva River. Mirror image studies of grace and torment. Each twin’s face split down the middle – one side reflecting a haunting beauty, the other a grim, skeletal mortality.

“These are my favorite statues because they represent the soul of my city,” Victor, the young bicycle guide we hired to show us Russia’s grand city of 6 million people, said. “We have so much beauty, and we have seen so much suffering.” 

The bloody reign of the tsars. The brutal Nazi siege that could not bring St. Petersburg to its knees. Seven decades of grim Soviet rule.

And the surging water. Always the water. 

Slayer of tens of thousands over the city’s 300-year history, flooding has been St. Petersburg’s most constant tormentor since Peter The Great decided – against the advice of just about everybody who knew the terrain – to build his grand capital in the Neva’s low, swampy delta. 

There is a reason they call St. Petersburg the Venice of the North. The river dissects the city with surgical precision, and along its banks are a network of side canals that these days teem with excursion boats. 

Those canals built, not to enchant tourists, but to get rid of unwanted water. 

Floods happen with predictable regularity due to prevailing winds that send Baltic Sea ice melt surging into the city. One flood in 1824 alone killed as many as 10,000. More than 300 floods have swept over the city since its founding in 1703. 

In his epic poem “The Bronze Horseman,” Alexander Pushkin writes of water that “seethes up from below, manifesting itself in uncontrolled passion, illness, and violence. It rebels against order and tradition.” 

Rather like Harvey rebelled against Huston. 

Like St. Petersburg, Houston sprouted on shallow, swampy lands that should never have been selected to host a city in the first place. Houston grew and drained and dredged and filled and sprawled with no rational planning and little heed for the world’s single most destructive force – water. 

Harvey wasn’t Houston’s first flood, only its deadliest. Like St. Petersburg it has suffered the curse of excess water repeatedly.

Which is not to say these two great cities are sphinx-like mirror images. 

Beginning in 1979 Russia began construction of an elaborate series of 11 dams and related  flood-control structures to protect St. Petersburg. Work was halted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but began again in 2005 under Vladimir Putin. 

Finally completed in 2011, St. Petersburg’s network of dams, tunnels, discharge sluices and flood gates have since been credited with helping the city survive at least two serious storm events without sustaining major damage. 

Total cost for the project: An estimated $385 billion in U.S. dollars. 

Meanwhile, after the “Tax Day Flood” of 2016 that killed 16 people, Houston asked Congress for a modest $311 million for flood mitigation. 

Congress couldn’t be bothered. Tax cuts these days being deemed a better investment strategy than life-saving infrastructure.

Now Congress must try to figure out how to pay down at least some of the estimated $190 billion in damages Harvey visited on Texas. 

Nobody in D.C. wants to come right out and admit it, but as climate change aggravates both the frequency and intensity of killer storms, we will be forced to choose between two mitigation strategies. 

One is a gradual retreat from the coast, surrendering cities like Houston and Miami and New Orleans to the elements and relocating their populations ever inland. 

The other is to follow the Dutch, Russians and others who that have decided that great cities like London, Venice, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg are worth the not inconsiderable infrastructure costs necessary to sustain them. 

Call it America’s own twin sphinx dilemma. 

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in the Sun in August 2017.)

Everywhere a sign

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Maybe it’s just me but I have a tendency to look for not-so-subtle signs as I wander through AutoAmerica.

For instance, in St. Augustine Beach I noticed that at every pedestrian crossing on Beach Boulevard the city has thoughtfully provided stacks of bright orange flags. The idea being that if you are going to cross the street on foot, better grab a flag so people in automobiles will be able to see you, um, coming.

I’m sure traffic engineers patted themselves on the backs over that one. Keeping our pedestrians safe against all odds, they’d say. 

But that’s the real message here? Those orange flags are very much a sign that people who do not encase themselves in two tons of Detroit iron really don’t belong on the public streets. That they require extraordinary markings just to survive that hostile environment. 

Rather like the old plague ships that had to fly yellow flags.

Everywhere a sign.

At Gainesville High School, where my kids graduated, I see that they have installed a push button system that sets off flashing lights at the pedestrian crosswalk. The better to allow students to get safety across four lanes of highway designed for speedy motor transit. 

Great idea. Oh, but wait.

As if to prove the point that no good deed goes unpunished, the traffic engineers in their infinite wisdom decided that the thick concrete post bearing the life-saving push button ought to be implanted right into the sidewalk, just off-center of the middle.

What’s the sign here? Fine, we’ll give you a break getting across the street. But you’ll pay the price with a partially blocked sidewalk. Tough luck if you happen to be in a wheelchair.

Everywhere a sign.

Speaking of which, I notice that the county just installed a couple of speed trackers along NW 16th Blvd, not far from my home. The speed limit is 40 MPH, and if you are going faster (or slower) than you are so informed in an orange LED digital readout. 

Good idea, because you have to assume that at least some of the drivers who are going faster than 40 will take the hint and show down….at least for a hundred feet or so.

So what’s this sign really saying?

It’s a tacit acknowledgement that four-laned, broad-laned NW 16th has been engineered to near interstate standards, so much so that the natural tendency is to drive faster than the posted limit allows. 

One might reasonably ask why anybody needs to drive 40 mph on an urban street that separates neighborhoods, schools, churches and parks. But that’s an irrelevant question: For all practical purposes you could slap a 30 mph limit on that stroad (look it up) and people would still drive 40-50. Or faster, I’ve seen them do it.

Because fast-moving cars are exactly what NW 16th was designed to facilitate. And it does its job very well.

Orange flags, sidewalk obstructions, electronic slow down alerts. 

The signs are all there. And they all say the same thing.

Here there be autoAmerican dragons. Pilgrims afoot beware.

Voting on the abyss

I was going to tell you that I am seventy years old and this is the most important election in my lifetime. 

I was going to tell you that I voted when Lyndon Johnson was sending young men my age to Vietnam because his Best And Brightest assured him we would Win.

They slaughtered tens of thousands of us.

We slaughtered hundreds of thousands of them.

We didn’t Win.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted during the Nixon years as that bloody war raged on. But the rage had spread to our own streets, and national guardsmen were shooting young people down on a college campus.

But this is the most important election of my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted when American cities exploded in racial strife and the ghettos seethed with resentment over the the enduring chains of Jim Crow segregation.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I was going to tell you that I voted in the Reagan years, when we trained murderous thugs and overthrew elected governments south of our border so we could “save” their people from communism. 

Want to know what that hapless caravan making its way through Mexico is fleeing? Not communism, but the inevitable fallout from years of U.S.-funded instability.

But this is the most important election in my lifetime.

I voted when we reacted to the deadly attacks of 9-11 by invading a country that had nothing to do with any of it. We went. We’re are still there. We don’t know how to get out. 

Mission Accomplished.

But this is the most important election of my lifetime.

This is the most important election because America is teetering on the abyss. Over the edge is darkness, and once we tumble we may never claw our way back.

We seem more divided white against black as ever Jim Crow intended. We are being fed a steady diet of hate and resentment and fear of The Other. 

We cannot pick up a paper or turn on the television without learning of yet another mass shooting. We are not safe in our schools, the public square or our places of worship because gun possession is held to be sacred above all other American values.  

I was going to tell you that this is the most important election of my lifetime for just one reason.

There is a callous, calculating hate monger in the White House. And every day he finds new ways to divide us one against another. He ridicules and derides and debases. And he delights in inciting the mob that aches to blame someone else, anyone, for their problems. 

All to stroke his monumental ego. 

He is bankrupting America. He scorns nations that have been allies for generations. 

He has a captive Congress whose leaders are without principle or scruples and who will not stop, or even moderate, his excesses.

He is the leader of a party that holds power by gerrymandering, voter suppression and by cynically employing the propaganda tools of fear, bigotry and hate.

He is not on the ballot. But those who empower him are. They are guilty of dereliction of duty and must be turned out.

I was going to tell you that this is the most important election of my lifetime because two more years of Trump unleashed will likely be our undoing. 

That our very democracy hangs in the balance. 

I was going to tell you all of that. 

But do I really have to?

Don’t you already know it?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

 

On the smell of money

And then there was the time Gov. Claude Kirk went to Perry for a little flesh-pressing and back-slapping. 

Perry being a paper mill town, the stench that day was especially ripe. But when Perry’s mayor ventured an apology, Kirk wouldn’t have it. 

“Don’t apologize,” Claude said. “Why that’s the smell of money.”

Claude’s quip resonates when reading about all the brown water that’s lapping the shores of Gulf Coast beaches and offending the sensibilities of millionaire waterfront homeowners in Hobe Sound, on the Atlantic side. 

That filthy water is the look, if not the smell, of money. Although you’d never convince all the business people who make their livings selling the Florida pristine beach dream to tourists. They’re in a panic.

No, it’s the smell of money for the Big Ag tycoons who have for years been dumping their nutrient rich effluent into Lake Okeechobee with impunity. Now, to keep the Rhode Island-sized lake from breaking free of its earthen prison, water “managers” are frantically dumping the filthy stuff into rivers that flow east and west.

And every politician with a dog in the hunt wants to blame someone else for the godawful mess. Gov. Rick Scott liked to blame former President Obama for failing to keep Okeechobee’s dikes in good repair. The Dems blame Gov. Scott for his disdain of environmental stewardship.

But really, they are blaming the wrong villains. And in any case, the bad guys are long dead and buried. 

Lay this one on the doorsteps of Herbert Hoover and Baron Collier. 

Hoover being the President who toured Lake Okeechobee in the 1930s, after a couple of killer hurricanes, and decided we could solve Florida’s killer ‘cane problem, for now and ever more, by locking the misbehaving lake up behind trillions of tons of packed dirt. 

Collier being the southwest Florida developer who championed construction of a cross-Everglades highway – the Tamiami Trail – thereby enabling development to explode on both east and west coasts.

They both seemed like good ideas at the time.

But locking up Lake Okeechobee turned it into a cesspool. 

And Tamiami Trail – a marvel of early 20th Century highway engineering – turned out to be an incredibly efficient dam with which to disrupt the natural flow of water south through the River of Grass from – surprise! – Lake Okeechobee.

“Everglades National Park is so water-starved they even have alligators dying. This is what is so idiotic! That you get too much water north of Tamiami Trail and then all the deer population is drowning and you’ve got starvation of water just to the south in Everglades National Park,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has said week.

When you come down to it, what’s polluting Florida’s formerly white beaches right now is arrogance. This notion that we can reengineer our wet and spongy peninsula and force it to submit to whatever we want to do with it – build condos where mangroves once sprouted, put up big box parking lots that plug aquifer recharge. Ditch, dike and drain swamps so a thousand subdivisions can blossom. Build highways to reach ever more remote stretches of developable land.

Arrogance is the history of Florida, folks.

Want to accommodate barges? Channelize the Apalachicola and make the Ocklawaha disappear. Is that winding, twisting Kissimmee River a nuisance to “progress”? Straighten it out. Hey, what’s with all those algae blooms up and down the St. John’s? Can’t be all that runoff, urban and agriculture.

And Florida is still flush with a surplus of arrogance. That’s why new high-rises are still going up on Miami Beach even as rising sea levels flood the streets. It’s why virtually every natural spring in the state is in decline. 

And seriously, with Florida’s drinking water stored beneath our feet, what sane person would even think about fracking down there for oil and gas?

Arrogance comes in small doses as well as big ones; hence the push to open up wetter, spongier eastern Alachua County to west Gainesville-style development. And hang whatever unintended consequences lurk down that well traveled road. 

Because that’s what we do in Florida. To paraphrase Uncle Walt, if we can imagine it we can build it.

Now we just need to figure out how to market brown beaches to tourists?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

    

Seeing is believing on I-95

Just when you think you’ve seen everything on I-95 this guy comes along. 

Traveling north through South Carolina I once saw a kid on a motorcycle, his girlfriend clutching his back like a human leach, weaving in and out of traffic and zipping past cars like they were standing still.

All this while balanced on one wheel. I never saw his front wheel touch blacktop. 

Just another day on the interstate in AutoAmerica. 

But right now we’re all focused on killer trucks, thanks largely to a recent spate of truck-involved crashes that have claimed lives and periodically turned I-75 into a giant parking lot.

And we should worry. There seem to be more big rigs on the road every day, feeding our addiction to consumption. Pushed to stay on schedule, drivers can be sleep deprived, road dazed and tempted to cut corners…literally.

Still, if I were driving a semi, I’d be more worried about the motorized chess players who forever jump from one lane to the next, looking for that next empty sweet spot that will let them stay ahead of the competition. 

Or the SUV cowboys who assume they won’t be stopped if they only drive nine miles faster than the limit.

Or small weaving cars lugging jury-rigged trailers full to the brim with loosely secured household goods. 

Not to mention the digital zombies trying to simultaneously track their tiny screens and whatever may be on the road directly ahead.

Interstate driving isn’t for sissies. And calling for a crackdown on interstate speeders surely can’t hurt. Although it probably won’t help much either, unless we’re prepared to hire a vast army of state troopers to keep us safe.

Anyway, there’s a more effective and cheaper solution. Especially now that we are entering the era of “smart” highways and “smart” cars.

Across the nation states are experimenting with roads that can generate their own electricity,  and even heat up to melt winter snow and ice. Sensors are being implanted to monitor traffic flow. Others may soon alert motorists if their tires are under-inflated.

If you drive on the Florida Turnpike without a Sunpass you won’t get a ticket in the mail, just a bill. This because a camera snapped your license plate. 

What that camera won’t photograph or ticket is that jerk who just zipped past you doing 90 on his motorcycle while balanced on one wheel and hoping he won’t lose his girlfriend.

Actually there have been some experiments” with cameras that ticket speeders on interstates. Phoenix tried it for a couple of years. Not long ago cameras mounted on I-95 in South Carolina resulted in a marked reduction in speeding – albeit while making a lot of people hopping mad. 

“We’re absolutely shutting it down,” state Sen. Larry Grooms, then transportation chair of the state’s senate, told NBC News last year.

Which is another way of saying that deadly driving isn’t a crime unless a cop actually sees you doing it. 

Or until you kill somebody.

Truth be told, we have the technology to shut down speeding, reckless, distracted and all other deadly forms of driving. What we lack is the will to use it.  

No, it’s easier, and less risky for politicians, to write off the 43,000 people who die on our roads and highways every year as simply the price we pay for freedom of the road in AutoAmerica.

Anyway, dead people don’t vote. But motorists who think they’ve been “set up” by technology sure do.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor for The Sun.