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News Bites: Hispanics Flock to St. Aug; Duval Prosecutor Record Raises Questions; Fernandina Keeps Its Course

Top print stories featuring The St. Augustine Record, The Florida Times-Union & Herald-Tribune, and Fernandina Beach News-Leader

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St. Augustine Returns to Hispanic Roots

In recent weeks, we have seen immigration issues weighing heavily upon the public consciousness, often in heartbreaking ways. As Floridians, we’ve got enough skin in that game to make Ed Gein blush, and we live every day in communities that have been decisively shaped by our immigrant population. A recent Associated Press story, written by Mike Schneider and reprinted in the St. Augustine Record on June 21, introduces a fun fact of which we should be proud: St. Johns County boasts the state’s largest Hispanic growth rate during the past decade.

“The numbers offer a snapshot of how Florida’s Hispanic population changed from July 2016 to July 2017,” he writes. “They don’t reflect the wave of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida after Hurricane Maria struck the island two months later.” The growth rate in St. Johns County increased by some two-thirds. “North Florida counties led the state in the growth rate of Florida’s Hispanic population last year. But traditional bastions in South Florida and Central Florida led in pure numbers.” Residents there seem perfectly content with the influx of new neighbors. If only the rest of the country felt the same way, we could move on to more pressing matters.

Racial Disparities in Prosecutor's Outcomes Create Questions

News flash: The criminal justice system is deeply flawed, with substantial racial disparities, in terms of both prosecution and sentencing. Shocking, right? No, of course not. The bitter reality of bias in our courts has been common knowledge ever since—well, pretty much forever. It should be no surprise that Florida has its own special challenges in that regard, but even the most cynical observers would be troubled to discover how deeply the problem goes. A recent joint investigation by the Herald-Tribune and The Florida Times-Union went in-depth on the career of one notable prosecutor, Christine Bustamante, whose tenure in Duval County was characterized by outsized sentencing of blacks that went beyond the pale, literally. It’s truly a must-read article.

“In 2015 and 2016 alone—when she handled more than 100 felony drug cases—blacks received sentences that were nearly four times as long on average as those handed down to white offenders,” according to authors Josqh Salman, Andrew Pantazi and Michael Braga, who logged more than 500 hours of painstaking research for this major journalistic endeavor, compiling data from more than 3,000 drug cases into a set of spreadsheets that measured both harshness and leniency. They noted the influence of other factors besides her own personal discretion: judges, police and even the defendants themselves. But the numbers ultimately weigh on Bustamante’s record, and it does not look good. The folks whose cases she tried will be pleased to know that she’s now in the private sector. But, this being Florida, odds are good that she’ll be back, sooner or later.

Fernandina Beach Keeps its Course

On the subject of hot fun in the summertime, golf has always been one of the region’s more popular pastimes, for reasons entirely foreign to some of us. But no matter: It is an inviolable component of the local culture, and it seems like it’s here to stay. Cindy Jackson, of the Fernandina Beach News-Leader, broke news of heavy resistance to the sale of a major golf course development on Amelia Island. There are seven courses within a 15-minute drive, so perhaps some felt that divesting of the public course could bring some much-needed moolah into city coffers, but no dice. Not yet, anyway.

The Fernandina Beach Golf Club is beautiful, but it has fallen on hard times of late. By way of context, Jackson quotes some brutal figures from USA Today: “The state’s municipal golf courses have lost nearly $100 million over the past five years. ... While some dipped into reserves or found one-time sources of revenue, overall, these county- and city-owned courses required $64.9 million in subsidies to stay afloat.” It’s unclear how much the city has kicked in to offset revenue shortfalls at the FBGC, but according to General Manager Steve Murphy, “There’s no doubt the golf industry has bottomed out,” though he does claim the club isn’t too far off from profitability.

“Conservation is probably one or two on the list of reasons to keep the course,” said Murphy. “It’s just a huge amenity to the city. A lot of our visitors come because of this golf course. They can stay here for three months and afford to play golf for three months. The financial impact on the rest of the city is huge.” There’s a great desire to keep that 34 acres as a public asset, even if doing so requires further investment, with one commissioner citing $6 million as the magic number. Mayor Johnny Miller put it best: “When it’s gone, it’s gone. If we sell it, we can’t get it back.”

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