Monday, April 5, 2010

Hillsborough County School Board Meeting 4/1/2010

For my first public meeting, I decided to attend the Hillsborough County School Board Meeting held in downtown Tampa.

My preconceived notions heading into this meeting was the fact that this was just going to be some boring meeting where all these elderly people will decide what’s good and bad for all the public schools.

I also figured that while the board welcomes the general public to come to the meetings and address any issues they have with the school board, I figured they would just let them speak their mind and just completely forget about the concerns brought up by the parents.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was the school board concerned with what’s going on with their schools, they also allowed the public to speak and took an interest in what they said even if it wasn’t relevant to any of the topics on the agenda.

For example, two private security companies came to the meeting because they didn’t know who else to approach about getting contracts with Hillsborough County Public Schools. They think that if the schools hire the private security companies it will create more competition and instead of having the Hillsborough county officers in the schools, the officers could be more useful to the city by patrolling streets and preventing crime instead of supervising middle and high school kids.

Another big topic on the agenda was virtual instruction or virtual school. The county wants to make virtual instruction a requirement for graduation for all high school students, because not only it would introduce them to online learning, it will help them for the long term when they go on to college and take online classes.

It would also expand resources for homeschooled children, teen mothers and would help meet the class amendment laws. Expanding virtual school would save the district $97,800.52.

Next item on the agenda was the Grant Application Approvals which totaled at $92,000 and they are used to “support the literacy initiatives…health literacy curriculum and literacy resources for adult basic education, GED, ESOL for adults.” They are supposed to help people that want to further their education or become more “self-sufficient” in the community.

I enjoyed going to the meeting because not only did learn about how Hillsborough County is trying to help their schools but that they do care and it’s not just about politics. I also got to get some first-hand experience as to how the meetings are run.

Preston Trigg: Government Budgets

On Thursday, Preston Trigg, Director of Administration & Special Projects for the Hillsborough County Tax Collector's office, returned to our Public Affairs Reporting class to explain how to understand government budgets.

Trigg explained that in journalism, you have to work through or around budgets, saying that it is unavoidable. He also explained that every government agency has their budgets available and that the government budgets in Florida are open to the public.

Before Trigg came into class, I didn’t know what was on a government budget. From his lecture, I learned that most government budgets are balanced, except federal budgets and in the state of California where budgets aren’t balanced.

Trigg noted to us that government budgets consisted of two components; revenue and expenses, revenues bringing money in and expenses meaning money going out.

When reporting on revenue, look for major increases and decreases as it can tell you a lot about government revenue.

Trigg explained that there were also three different types of expenses: Personnel, Capital, and Operating. Personnel expenses dealt with money associating with people. Capital expenses are usually one time purchases of anything over $1000 dollars. Operating expenses are usually recurring.

Trigg even showed us what a government budget spreadsheet looked like with all the different color coding meaning different things.

The most important thing I took out of Trigg’s visit was that when reporting, don’t report falsely. If you don’t know, you must ask.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dr. Vernard Adams Hillsborough Medical Examiner Visit

On Thursday, we embarked on one of the more interesting field trips to say the least as we visited the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's office.

Dr. Adams explained to us that a Medical Examiner is a doctor with a particular expertise in investigating violent, sudden and unexpected, suspicious, or unattended deaths.

Adams explained to us that the medical examiner's office are charged by the Florida Statute 406.11 and the different causes of death that is within their jurisdiction are as follows:

-Criminal Violence

-Accident, suicide or poison

-Suddenly, when in apparent good health

-Unattended by a practicing physician or other recognized practitioner

-In any prison or penal institution

-In any suspicious or unusual circumstances

-By criminal abortion

-By disease constituting a threat to public health

-By disease, injury, or toxic agent resulting from employment.

Dr. Adams also explained to us some of the records that are and aren't available although technologically they aren't as advanced as they want to be. An example of records that are available to the general public are autopsy report and the medical portion of the death certificate isn't allowed to be seen by the general public.

The most interesting part of the trip was when we were about to see the room where they perform the autopsy, we actually saw parts of a dead body in the room, though we weren't allowed to see the body due to legal issues, it was quite an interesting sight.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

News Channel 8 Visit

Two weeks ago, we embarked on our visit to the News Channel 8 news center to meet with Senior Investigative Reporter Steve Andrews.

Before I get into what we learned from Steve Andrews, I want to say that I was pretty amazed with the newsroom, the set and everything that made news channel 8 work. To be up close and personal at the newsroom was pretty gratifying.

Andrews showed us some of the investigative stories that he and his fellow partners put together throughout their tenure at news channel 8, the most intriguing being the abusive spending of tax payer's money by the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance.

This company was spending hard working people's money for themselves rather than helping needy people find necessary means of work. When Andrews was first beginning this story, he felt that there was something very suspicious about some of the information that he was given.

The main point for why Andrews has had a successful career comes down to three points: Be Persistent, Be Patient and Be Polite as it will go a long way for your career.

He went on a hunch and his hunch was right as he later realized that the tips he was given were false tips and from there he used those false tips to put the pieces together and put together a wonderful piece that got the attention of the public.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

William March Visit

What do you get when you combine an old New York Times report, a determined investigative reporter, and public records? You have a compelling story that could have you in deep trouble with the law. That is exactly what happened in a story done by our latest visitor to our class, William “Windy” March, chief political reporter for the Tampa Tribune.

March explained to us that he works with public records on a daily basis and believes that he uses them more than the average reporter because of the fact that he covers politics.

He also explained to us that when he was starting out as a reporter that it was kind of difficult to find the records he needed because the technology back then wasn’t as advanced. Technological advances definitely helped him gather his information from public records much easier.

He gave us a better understanding about public records and how effective they are in an investigative story, especially with the technological advances.

March explained to us that when he was reading his daily New York Times, he came across a political story that dealt with people and organizations who gave money to political parties. These monies, “soft money”, is considered illegal because it is a non-limited amount of money that could be given to a political party and there is only a certain amount of money a person or organization is allowed to donate.

This would be the end of the story had he not come across Miami businessman Mark Jimenez who gave money to the Clinton/Gore re-election campaign. March had never heard of this man and felt that he should do some further investigation on this businessman.

What he found through public records was that Mark Jimenez was the owner of Future Tech and that his company was giving a thousand dollars to the campaign. What was more shocking was that his employees were also giving a thousand dollars. When March found this out, he quickly got the word out and Jimenez was arrested for money laundering.

March explains that with the help of public records, he wouldn’t have been able to find all the information needed to bring down a person doing an illegal act.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Preston Trigg: Hillsborough County Tax Collector's Office

Today in class we were to read up on tax records and we got a better understanding of tax records from Preston Trigg, Director of Administration and Special Projects at the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s office.

Trigg explained to us some of the history behind the tax collecting in Florida. He went on to explain that it was established by the Florida Constitution and that it is referred to as a constitutional officer, along with the sheriff clerk of court, property appraiser and elections supervisor.

The tax collector’s office collects and distributes property taxes, special assessments and they collect approximately $2 billion a year.

Trigg also explained that the tax collector’s office issues driver’s licenses, license tag renewals, titles for boats and cars, hunting and fishing licenses and handicapped parking permits. According to Trigg, tax records have been urged to privatize and limit public access on driver’s licenses.

Trigg then described to us some of the records that are available to a reporter if they were doing a story on a certain subject. Some of the records that are available are as follows: property tax, business tax, and motor vehicle records.

Property Taxes deal with the value of houses, plus taxes and delinquencies, which are a link to the property appraiser. Most of the records that a reporter would use for their story would be property taxes because of the simple fact that it is the more accessible to the general public. The property tax records are accessible online.

Preston Trigg’s visit gave me a better insight on what is done and what is kept at the Hillsborough County tax collector’s office and how records are once again are easily accessible but hard to get.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hillsborough County Jail Visit

Imagine yourself driving back home from a great party with several people and alcohol. Now, imagine yourself getting stopped by the police for drinking and driving. Do you know what happens once you’re taken to jail? Most people don’t, but our class got to see firsthand how a person goes through a DUI jail stay.

Lieutenant W. Addison and Captain R. Stein conducted the tour of the facility to let us have a basic understanding of the typical DUI bust.

Capt. Stein explained to us that when a person receives a DUI, they usually go through the typical field sobriety test, and if they fail, they get arrested. That is what most people know. When they are taken to the jail, they are first sat down for a 20 minute observation period to see how the person is after being arrested.

After the 20 minute observation period, you are then taken into the testing room to find out what has you intoxicated. That room has a camera and microphone and everything in that room is recorded and that tape can be used for a story if requested because it is a public record.

Once you are done being tested, you are then taken to central booking. Your property is deposited and recorded. Then you are photographed and fingerprinted and those also are public records once in the police archives.

Deputy Santana, the booking deputy, explained to us that the arrestee fills out an inventory form giving the details of their possessions. For example, they would fill out how much money they came in with and the exact possessions they have on their person. Santana also explained that they usually book 200 inmates a day.

They are also given fact sheets that explain to the officers who they are, what they are in jail for, which pod they are in and any other information necessary.

Once they’re booked, they are taken to their assigned pod. Each pod holds up to 72 inmates. The pods are also assigned based on behavior. If you’re on good behavior, you tend to have a little more freedom and be able to roam around the pod. But if you’re on bad behavior, you’re put in isolation and you are put on 23 hour lockdown and only an hour to shower, eat and have yard time.

From this visit, it made me realize that I never want to be arrested for anything as I don’t ever want to go through the process that we learned about. It was a rewarding experience to understand what goes on after being arrested.