Do you want to know where the candidates stand on the issues? You should. That’s a central tenet of a functioning democracy and separates us from the dictatorships that rule over much of the rest of the world.
The job of journalists is to provide information to help readers understand how the candidates have performed. But I’ve been unable to do my job on the dispute between Florida and Georgia over water flowing into the Apalachicola River.
This is an important issue to all Floridians because it involves a continuing court fight and millions of dollars in legal fees, not to mention the fate of seafood industry jobs around Apalachicola Bay and fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.
But I can’t do my job and you can’t make up your mind on the issue because of a 2010 federal court order, which should have been challenged four years ago by the news media.
Here’s some background on how it relates to events now: Gov. Rick Scott on Aug. 13, 2013, traveled to Apalachicola to announce that Florida was filing a lawsuit against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court over water use.
Scott said Georgia had not negotiated in good faith.
“They’ve kept our water,” he said. “It’s been going on for decades. Florida is going to file suit to make sure this stops.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, also a Republican, fired back with a statement calling Florida’s action a waste of money that was timed for political purposes.
“More than a year ago, I offered a framework for a comprehensive agreement,” Deal said on Aug. 13, 2013. “Florida never responded.”
But when I requested Georgia’s offer and Florida’s response, I was denied by both states.
Florida has one of the most open public records laws in the nation. But it doesn’t matter on this issue because attorneys representing Florida had joined Alabama and Georgia on Jan. 4, 2010, in requesting a confidentiality order for mediation in the case. U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson issued the order just three days later.
Then-Attorney General Bill McCollum filed the request for Florida in 2010. Charlie Crist was governor then, not Scott.
Since that time the governors of the states have changed and the legal landscape has shifted dramatically.
When the states requested confidentiality in 2010, Georgia was facing a June 2012 federal court deadline set by Magnuson to secure congressional authorization for Georgia to use water from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir north of Atlanta.
But the order setting that deadline was overturned in 2011 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 2012.
Later in 2012, Florida requested a federal fishery disaster declaration for Apalachicola Bay oysters, citing lack of freshwater flow because of drought and overfishing. Seafood harvesters now say the bay’s oyster population remains in peril.
A spokesman for Scott said in June there were no negotiations going on among the states. But this week, the governor’s office said the records still are not public because the judge’s confidentiality order remains in place.
So the question remains: Who was not acting in good faith in the secret negotiations — Florida or Georgia? And what was wrong, if anything, with Georgia’s offer? Did Florida make an appropriate counter-offer?
Because of the 2010 court order, we won’t know the answers before the Nov. 4 election.
My hope is that someday soon we will know. That may not come in time for the election, but I hope there is still time for Apalachicola Bay.