Kick in the Butt

The News From Tobaccoville

What's a little bitty cigarette butt when measured against this big, cluttered world of ours?

Well, add up all the debris from the world's 1.2 billion smokers and you've got a serious litter problem, to say nothing of lethal chemicals killing plant and animal life and non-biodegradable plastic fibers from filters jamming landfills and waterways.

Some Broward County citizens calling themselves Broward Beautiful, partnering with city and county agencies, recently decided to get a handle on the local problem and come up with some solutions. Focusing on Hollywood's downtown entertainment area, where smokers pop out of bars and restaurants to light up quickies on the sidewalk, volunteers did a one-day butt census in June.

Fort Lauderdale, with its reputation as one of the booze-guzzling capitals of the world, has accordingly taken on the sobriquet Fort Liquordale. Tailpipe might have to lobby to have Hollywood designated Smoketown or Tobaccoville. Broward Beautiful's one-day count of discarded butts, just along Hollywood Boulevard and Harrison Street, was 1,534.

Sounds like a lot, says Lisa Liotta, deputy director of the city's Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency. "But it's probably no worse than any other downtown environment," she says.

Nevertheless, city officials, as well as property and business owners, wanted to be proactive. Do something. Those little bits of paper and fiber cluttering the gutters and sidewalks don't look good.

"One problem is that the average Broward County resident doesn't even know that cigarette butts are considered litter," says the county literature on cigarette litter prevention. "The same person who would never think of tossing garbage like fast food wrappers, drink bottles, or cans out their car window doesn't even consider it litter to toss a cigarette butt on the ground."

Not litter, eh? In last year's International Coastal Cleanup, with volunteers from all over the world spending a day raking beaches and hauling litter from the sea floor, a quarter of the tons of debris collected was cigarette butts and filters.

Unsightly, yes. But also toxic. Most filters are made of cellulose acetate, a fine plastic thread bunched into little bails that trap tars and toxins. Washed into the sea after a big rain, they release poisons that are threatening microcosmic sea life at the bottom of the food chain.

The good news is that cigarette litter can be significantly reduced with a little consciousness-raising and some outdoor ashtrays.

The county paid for 23 cigarette urns (about 100 bucks apiece) and placed them around Hollywood's core restaurant-and-club area (Harrison Street and Hollywood Boulevard between 19th and 20th avenues). Then, two months after the first survey, the butt-counting squad went back. This time they counted 882 discarded butts, a 43 percent reduction.

A long way to go? Sure. But definite signs of progress.

Swimmin' With the Sea Cucumbers

It was big news in 1990 when Atlanta-based company Eternal Reefs came up with a novel alternative to traditional burials. Wouldn't it be great, company founders thought, if after death, you could become part of an underwater reef rather than go six feet under in a casket all alone? The company started mixing cremated human remains with concrete, forming roundish "reef balls" with swiss-cheese-like holes and dropping them on the bottom of the ocean. These days, according to company materials, little fishies are darting in and out of 400,000 reef balls in 3,500 locations around the world.

This month, though, the Neptune Society — the nation's biggest cremation company, with corporate offices in Fort Lauderdale — has upped the ante. Reef balls look like mere cinder blocks compared to Neptune's $30 million project, the Neptune Memorial Reef, a full-blown recreation of the Lost City of Atlantis. Sculptor Kim Brandell has been molding the parts — columns, arches, lions, and a "fish bench" — and the first pieces have been dropped just 3.25 miles off Miami Beach in 45 feet of water. Costs run from $1,500 for placement in a stand-alone column to $7,000 to rest in peace in the bases of the two bronze lions. It took four years to get the required permits for the project, but when the sixteen-acre site sells out, it is expected to hold the remains of 125,000 people — and serve as a primo dive spot.

The 'Pipe doesn't like waxing morbid, but isn't that where most Floridians are heading anyway? With global warming at full throttle, every cemetery in the state promises to be underwater someday.

Oh, you wanted to be underwater in a picturesque locale. Well then, try the Neptune boys.

Felonious Charges

Usually it's a bad idea to go to court against the Seminole Tribe — especially when its police department is involved. But John Thomas, an Air Force serviceman and veteran of the Iraq War, knows a few things about warfare, and his Boca Raton attorney, Alexander Penalta, knows about the legal kind.

As detailed in a New Times article last spring, Thomas was arrested in the early morning hours of April 23, 2006, outside Murphy's Law, a bar within the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino entertainment complex.

Thomas' friend had been involved in a scuffle with a bouncer, and Seminole police alleged that Thomas interfered with the arrest of his friend by pulling Officer Susie Lawson by her shirt, causing her to fall. Thomas was charged with assault on a law enforcement officer, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Lawson, though, told two versions of that story — in the second, Thomas' alleged attack became more aggressive and fit more neatly into the state's definition for assault on an officer.

The shaky performance of Lawson and other officers in depositions may have convinced the state attorney to drop the felony charges. The incident resulted only in a single misdemeanor charge — for trespassing, based on Thomas being slow to leave the bar area.

Of course, Thomas still has a mountain of legal bills, but he can't file a civil suit against the Seminole police — they enjoy the same sovereign immunity as the tribe they serve. So last week, Thomas filed suit against Murphy's Law and its overzealous bouncer.

Ain't No Sunshine

What does a rusty car part have to do to get some city government documents around here? If the 'Pipe had kidneys, they'd be long gone in payment of those exorbitant fees that city governments charge to look at public files.

The state's Sunshine statute — which guarantees reasonable access — is helpful. Without it, reporters would often get nothing. Charlie Crist's signature on the Open Bill of Rights last week should help reporters dig — quickly and inexpensively — into documents from state agencies. (Added bonus: the bill also says state agencies have to be nice while handing over proof of their misdeeds.)

But there's nothing in the new Bill of Rights about local agencies. City officials can still charge exorbitant fees for opening a file drawer and pulling out a folder. Although the Sunshine statute requires that documents be handed over "promptly and in good faith," there's not much recourse if they aren't. What can a journalist who's working on deadline do? Sue?

For "Wish I Was in Dixie," staff writer Ashley Harrell's November 15 cover story about racism in Dania Beach, the charges for documents were obstructively pricey: $426.44. That was after Harrell downsized the request to a more affordable stature.

The big expense: Dania's Human Resources Director Mary McDonald's charges for "labor." According to the statute, a reasonable charge for the services of city staff is perfectly OK. Of course, it depends on what your definition of "reasonable" is.

Was it reasonable for McDonald to slip in a charge to New Times, without advance notice, of $65.37 an hour for her own file-seeking efforts? How about the charge of $25.35 an hour for the labor of clerical assistant Ina Williams, who sat in the room doing her usual work while Harrell read documents?

McDonald says responding to Harrell's request was time-consuming. "We don't have staff for this," says McDonald, who said she put in overtime hours to satisfy the request for files. "If you want someone to research all files for discrimination, the only person here to do that is me."

Tailpipe wonders whether there might have been other forces at work in exacting those fees. McDonald couldn't have been thrilled that New Times was investigating discrimination claims which McDonald herself investigated and declared unfounded. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigators subsequently dismissed her findings and recommended that the city approve a $17,000 settlement with former Dania Beach employee Taurus Barron, who had charged that there was a pattern of discrimination against employees in the city's water treatment plant.

Without the documents to prove it, the case would never have come to light in New Times.

Barbara Peterson, chairwoman of the recently created State Commission on Open Government, says the effects of the Open Bill of Rights may "trickle down" to local governments by "setting the right tone." Tailpipe knows the definition of trickle. It means: When you're looking for potentially-damning documents, don't expect much cooperation from city officials for a long, long time.

Bush Compassion

President Bush, in an annual pre-Thanksgiving ritual last week, pardoned a couple of turkeys. "May" and "Flower," as the two were dubbed, were "rescued" by the president and sent to live out their days in Florida. "May they live the rest of their lives in blissful gobbling," the president said at the turkey-pardoning photo-op. Tailpipe has tracked down the pair's new Florida digs, shown here.

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Edmund Newton