Should we blindly trust that government has sufficiently planned for emergencies?

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Posted September 6, 2023 | By Ocala Gazette Editorial Board

Ronald Reagan was the first U.S. President to make the Russian proverb “Trust, but verify” popular in the 1980’s. Since then, it’s been used countless times by elected officials and others to describe their posture of exhibiting faith in someone or something while also doing due diligence to avoid being snookered.

It’s a dichotomy because it says to trust while also suggesting the lack of trust exists.

As journalists covering local government, we similarly wish to exhibit faith in the word of government officials that they are protecting and leading our community in a responsible way.

There may be no more important aspect of our need to work for the people with local officials in the spirit of “trust, but verify” than when it comes to public safety issues. Which led us to question how our local officials are planning for emergencies.

Last year, you may recall, the “Gazette’’ reported the sheriff, who has been delegated the responsibility of overseeing emergency management efforts by the Marion County Board of Commissioners, would not allow the press to observe community meetings for emergency management.

Was there sensitive information being shared in these meetings that should be off-limits to the press and, by extension, the public? According to multiple people who attended those sessions, the answer was no.

But also, according to those same sources, no one in attendance was asking any hard questions of the sheriff or his staff.

So, the “Gazette” started asking for documents that would give readers a glimpse into the county’s emergency plans. We initially reviewed the county’s 2018 Emergency Management Plan, and immediately saw that it was outdated. The most obvious problem was the chain of command for cities under the county’s emergency structure didn’t jibe with the city of Ocala’s charter.

Under the plan approved by the county commission, mayors are in charge of their city’s emergency response, not city councils or city managers. This seemed, on its face, contrary to the city of Ocala’s charter as well as reality. When Hurricane Idalia was looming last week, it was City Manager Pete Lee, not the mayor, who was running things at city hall.

The county’s plan also said the cities could develop their own emergency management plans, but the city of Ocala confirmed they have not done so and see no need to do so if they are “collaborating” with the county during an emergency.

This arrangement seems a bit shaky when the city can’t say for sure who is in charge when trouble arises.

The “Gazette”’ raised these concerns with City Attorney William Sexton and Lee before Idalia blew past Marion County last week. To their credit, they immediately set the issue for the next city council meeting, where Sexton encouraged the council to change the city’s charter to clarify that the city manager was in charge in an emergency. It’s expected they’ll ask the county to update the emergency management plan to acknowledge this revised chain of command.

The ”Gazette” continued examining the emergency planning document and learned that each county department has specific plans they rely on for emergency planning and responses. We asked to see those plans and were told they were exempt from Florida’s public records laws in their entirety.

The county cited a state statute that only protects certain sensitive emergency information. So, we tried again, asking this time for the county to redact all of what it deemed to be sensitive information in the plans and simply provide benign details such as the date of the plan, the author’s name, and titles and subtitles. This, we felt, would be sufficient to give readers an idea of the topics included as well as how old the plan is.

Once again; request denied.

Obviously, we understand why it’s in the public’s interest to keep most details of emergency planning and responses under wraps. After all, no one wants to give aid to potential active shooters or any other public menace.

But should this include the titles of sections of a plan? The dates the plan was adopted and updated?

The county, city and sheriff’s office all say they have emergency management under control in one big, happy collaboration and that you the public, and we the press, should just sit back and wait for self-serving press releases.

That’s a lot of trust they are asking you to have in a relationship that has had its share of bumps and potholes. Look no further than the friction between Ocala and Marion County over the last public safety emergency; specifically, how the county commissioners chose to handle the millions of federal CARES Act dollars that came in to help offset the costs incurred from the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must also point out that our county officials have struggled to keep pace with public safety needs such as fully funding Marion County Fire Rescue during non-emergency times. Should this inspire confidence in their emergency planning prowess?

One of the things that should be most disturbing to citizens is our local government’s insistence, topped by the sheriff’s office, on being the only source of “reliable information.” They accomplish this in part by limiting access to information provided to the press.

Hmm, what other governments out there tell their people to believe only what they are told and not to ask questions? A few countries that none of us want to live in, right?

The people of Marion County are not sheep, blindly believing whatever they are told.

Instead, we follow the Gipper’s old maxim: Trust, but verify.

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