Floridians Face Charges From Insurrection Riot, Population Is Growing, And Why So Many Manatees Are Dying
Why has the Sunshine State emerged as a crucible of political conspiracy and extremism? Also, The Villages is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country, pressuring development and the environment. And a symbol of Florida is in trouble.
It has been almost six months since a mob of thousands of people broke through police barriers and stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to count Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election. Almost 500 people have been charged in connection with the insurrection. They face a variety of charges including entering restricted grounds, assault, and using a deadly weapon.
About 10 percent of those charged are from Florida according to an analysis by USA Today. The news organization found 47 Floridians have been charged with crimes in connection with the riot. That ties with Texas for the most individuals.
Florida leads the way of people charged and connected to two extremist groups present on Capitol Hill — Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
"There was a rabbi who was arrested and is facing charges. There was a car dealership manager. There was a chiropractor, and somebody who was a convenience store worker," said Sarasota Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson. Most are men in their 30s and 40s. Many of them are registered Republicans.
Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked again this week if he thought the 2020 election was rigged. "I think we had the best run election in this state that we probably ever have," DeSantis responded to Politico reporter Gary Fineout's question during a Thursday event.
"The elected officials in the state have not have not challenged the [former President Trump's] rhetoric," said Anderson "They've largely stood behind the [former] president as he called on his followers to 'stop the steal' and he continued to stoke these unfounded election fraud complaints."
On Friday, during a campaign stop, Democratic congressman and gubernatorial candidate Charle Crist called on DeSantis to investigate the role of Floridians in the Capitol Hill riot.
"I think that's probably dead on arrival with the governor's office," said Anderson.
A sizable proportion of those arrested who are associated with extremist groups Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers call Florida home. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, identifies six Proud Boy chapters in Florida: Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Sarasota, Deland and Milton.
"They undoubtedly have a very strong presence in Florida. The group's national leader is a Floridian. They've been visible in the state for a number of years now," said Anderson, who reported seeing Proud Boy members at an April rally in Bradenton featuring former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone. Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. He withdrew a plea and the case was put on hold by a judge. Trump eventually pardoned Flynn. Stone was convicted and sentenced for obstructing a congressional investigation into Trump's 2016 campaign. The former president commuted Stone's sentence and pardoned him.
Population Growth Pressures
Half of the eight fastest growing metro areas in the country in 2020 are in Florida. The pandemic did not slow people from moving to Florida.
The Villages grew the fastest, and has been one of the fastest growing area this century. Its population has almost tripled since 2000.
Florida’s past and future has been built on more people crowding on to the peninsula. What’s happening in The Villages, Cape Coral, Lakeland and Punta Gorda is a familiar story for Florida — population pressuring the environment. And raising a familiar question — who pays for the growth?
"It's the lifestyle" that's attracting people to The Villages according to WMFE Villages reporter Joe Byrnes. "As they say, 'it's like Disney World for retirees.'"
Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida called The Villages “Exhibit A of a place where growth has not been paying for itself" to the Florida Phoenix.
"It hasn't been able to pay for its explosive growth," she told The Florida Roundup. "If growth paid for itself, Sumter County would be swimming in cash right now. And instead, the only thing that's swimming in cash in that area is The Villages developer."
Last week, Sumter County commissioners heard complaints about ambulance delays in some of the communities making up The Villages. Some of the delays may have been due to pandemic-wait times at a hospital.
"That's raised a big question about what changes need to be made to address ambulance service. Obviously, it's really important for that community, which has an older population," West said. "Roads and now ambulance service and health care — all of these issues are important and they're complicated."
In 2019, Sumter County commissioners voted to increase property taxes 25 percent to help pay for growing infrastructure. Three of the five commissioners were replaced by voters in 2020. Earlier this year, the new commission voted to increase impact fees paid by real estate developers by 75 percent. However, state lawmakers approved and Gov. DeSantis signed a bill retroactively capping impact fee increases at 12.5 percent a year. An updated financial disclosure by the bill's House co-sponsor, Rep. Brett Hage, shows he earned $350,000 from The Villages of Lake-Sumter Inc., the developer of The Villages.
"Unfortunately, we all have to pay for this expansive growth and the limitation on impact fees," said West. "Without the ability to raise the impact fees and short of raising property taxes, what is left? What is left is a reduction in those public services. So that's what's going to end up happening."
Deadly Year for Manatees
While the alligator may be the state’s best-known animal image, the manatee has to be one of its most beloved.
Wherever the plant-eating underwater mammals gather, people gather to watch and point and wait for the manatee’s whiskers to break the surface for a breath.
So far this year, the state’s tally of dead manatees already stretches over two dozen pages. Over 800 manatees have died — almost three times the average number by this time in a year.
"This is a crisis situation," said WFME Environmental Reporter Amy Green. "The overwhelming majority of the deaths are taking place in Brevard County, the home to the Indian River Lagoon, which has been a very troubled waterway for many years."
The lagoon has seen algae blooms and now is experiencing the widespread loss of seagrass, a key food source of manatees. "It leaves the manatees with nothing to eat," said Green, author of Moving Water, The Everglades and Big Sugar. "In some ways, the manatee situation is only the tip of the iceberg for what we're seeing in the Indian River Lagoon."
The seagrass die-off is especially bad in the northern part of the lagoon, which does not experience as much flushing out effect of the Atlantic Ocean compared to the southern part of the estuary.
"For years we've been warning US Fish and Wildlife Service that the situation was declining dramatically and that we could be facing these kinds of consequences," said Patrick Rose, aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club. "It's the failures over many years that have led to this such loss of food that, in the history of the work we've done with manatees, the first time we've had mass mortality associated with forage or starvation and malnutrition."
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