Becoming A One-Time Flood Insurance Policy Expert

I’d guess that 80 percent of journalism is having to write about something you don’t know about.

Don’t ask me what the other 20 percent is, though.

It could be something as simple as you don’t know what’s going to come out of a meeting, or covering a religious event that you don’t celebrate or in this case, explaining to people what the hell was going on with skyrocketing flood insurance policies. Thankfully enough noise was made that forced the federal government to delay changes that were making people pay more for flood insurance than their mortgage.

I don’t own a home. And so I don’t pay for flood insurance. So, I have no idea how any of this works.

But I was told to tell people what happened in my community and what’s behind the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. It must have resonated because a law office decided to cite one of my articles as a source in a Tampa Chamber of Commerce newsletter and InsuranceNewsNet picked up the story.

Part of the reporting was to convince the Washington Bureau that the flood insurance problems are not just a Florida problem, but a national issue. I also contributed to a McClatchy Washington Bureau story on the issue, too, when the bureau was able to follow the goings-on in D.C.

Continue reading Becoming A One-Time Flood Insurance Policy Expert

When Nobody’s Home at the Housing Authority

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via @JDeLeon1012 on Twitter

One of the more interesting assignments I had was covering the Bradenton Housing Authority after a federal raid and investigation.

At the time of the raid, the paper hadn’t regularly covered the BHA meetings for at least a year, thanks to layoffs and cuts. I was asked to cover what was going on to assist a rookie reporter and the crime desk. The crime desk covered the initial raid and as the crime beat picked up with activity, I had to take the BHA over full time until another city reporter was hired, who has since then dutifully covered the beat. Mark Young has done a great job when he came on and I was very thankful he could tackle the beat as the Mall at University Town Center and another huge land development, Lake Flores, were about to consume my beat again.

What I found was a public board that was complacent by saying yes to everything by the executive director, signing off on policies without looking at them or fully understanding them and either ignorance or apathy. And for the longest time, denial, until a few of the members came around and realized what happened.

The interim director, who was the authority’s financial director, revealed later she was the whistleblower, but the question was always why did she allow this to go on for so long and not alert anyone else? The inflated salaries for staff certainly helped keep folks quiet. The interim director was also looking for a raise from her financial director salary.

Eventually she resigned for medical reasons and so did another official making $130,000 a year. The agency saved salaries from both of them and paid an experienced director $130,000 to lead it back on track. The new director also pointed out the bias and flaws in a salary study completed under the interim director’s watch.

I filed plenty of FOIAs for this one, some still awaiting to be fulfilled because of the ongoing investigation through HUD-OIG. Just getting coherent information and documentation from the Housing Authority was a mighty struggle, where I had to rely on experts from other housing authorities to verify what I was seeing.

I tracked down the main players, who of course, weren’t willing to talk. My work also grabbed the attention of a U.S. Senator who is known for making a stink over housing authority scandals–mainly pointing out that in one way or another the federal oversight is broken. And the various state and local laws make it difficult to find a solution.

Here are the highlights of my Housing Authority coverage:

Continue reading When Nobody’s Home at the Housing Authority

Freedom of Speech, Religion and French Fries

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Staff Photo by Marc Masferrer

When I reported that a controversial pastor would be moving into my coverage area, I thought that would be mainly quiet after he settled.

Rev. Terry Jones earned international notoriety for burning the Quran along with his views about Islam. He lived in a rural town in Polk County, Fla., and then a Central Florida news outlet mentioned in passing he would be moving to Manatee County.

[Forgive the difference in spelling of Koran and Quran in the clips. The editors and copy desk were battling over style preferences.]

I checked property records and found that yes, he is in the community.

Two years later, my business editor received a call from a reader saying Jones had opened a place in the DeSoto Square mall food court.

It was the most bizarre news tip I ever received. I checked it out and there he was.

When local outlets cover a story I broke first, I typically get miffed. But it was quite an honor to see Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anne Hull write her version for The Washington Post. It’s the tone that I would have wanted to write but knew it wasn’t write for a local audience. Her style is perfect for a national view.

After my story ran, I actually received more complaints about one of his other businesses I didn’t know about—furniture moving. Continue reading Freedom of Speech, Religion and French Fries

Making Sewage Stories Readable

I love sources who can explain boring topics in a way that’s relatable and meaningful to readers.

I’d see and hear Joe Barrington at enough meetings in the county about sewer projects that I learned more about where your waste goes more than I wanted to know.

He shared with me a series of problems in the community with both sewers and water–something that mattered in a community that often had line breaks and clogs.

So, we did a series called Liquid Assets to cover these topics. Continue reading Making Sewage Stories Readable

When Mental Health, Safety, Politics Collide

Photo by Phil Grout

See more at: Covering a small town can be more active than what you think.

I learned this when I was thrusted in covering a controversial change at a state mental hospital in town, Springfield Hospital Center. The center has a long history with the town and many residents either work there or knows someone who does.

They understand the hospital’s mission and care. But a change in policy led residents to be uneasy as those who battle mental issues that have committed crimes, some violent, would be transferred to Springfield. The Muncie Building on the campus, shown above, was renovated to house these patients awaiting trial.

Links to full coverage are at the bottom, for as long as the Sun maintains the archive. Continue reading When Mental Health, Safety, Politics Collide

When a Maryland Delegate Ignores the First Amendment

It’s beneficial to be the only reporter at a meeting. At a work session of the Carroll County Delegation to the General Assembly, a Maryland politician took newspapers to task for their delivery method. And her bill to restrict that went further than we thought despite being a First Amendment issue.

At the time in 2008, the bedroom communities in suburban Maryland were inundated with news. Especially free weeklies. It was possible that your home could receive The Examiner, The Eagle, The Advocate, The Gazette — all free publications — in your driveway plus whatever paper you paid to subscribe to. If I recall, the Eagle and Advocate had paid to be sent via the mail.

You can see how this would be a nuisance during rain or on vacation. As a news outlet, you’re having to defend your turf in reporting because you want a job and you want your stories to be read.

In the long-run, this was for naught. Despite a delivery pact being signed, most of these papers aren’t in business. The Gazette shuttered all operations; The Examiner stopped printing papers in Baltimore; The Eldersburg and Westminster editions of the Eagle turned into the Carroll Eagle and was inserted in the Sunday Baltimore Sun; and The Advocate was eliminated as it was owned by the Carroll County Times, which was bought by the Sun.

Continue reading When a Maryland Delegate Ignores the First Amendment

Companies That Call On The Do Not Call List

This story was part of a submission that won 2014 Third-place Business Writing, Class B, Florida Press Club.

One of the business owners decided to harass me on the phone and online after this story.

July 17, 2013

Tampa Bay companies dominate top Do Not Call complaints

By Charles Schelle, cschelle@bradenton.com

MANATEE — Four of the top five companies in the state that logged the highest complaints for violating the Do Not Call list are based in Tampa Bay, and the state is aggressively pursuing violators.

Telemarketing is a regulated business in Florida that requires the company and each salesperson to be licensed, and companies have restrictions on when and with whom they can do business, said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which handles the state’s free Do Not Call list.

“If you’re on the Do Not Call list, companies are not allowed to call unless you’ve done business with them within 18 months,” Gillespie said. Even if your name is not on the list, businesses cannot call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., she said.

The Herald requested the five companies in the state that have the most Do Not Call complaints in the last fiscal year from the Department of Agriculture, and the majority are based in Tampa Bay:

1. Travel Link Corp., 5700 Memorial Highway, Suite 221, Tampa

2. Evo Security, 1940 Harrison St., Hollywood

3. Mortgage Investors Corporation, 6090 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

4. Morgan Air Conditioning, 14807 N. 12 St., Lutz 5. Harrell Home Services, Inc, 6015 Benjamin Road, Suite 324, Tampa Continue reading Companies That Call On The Do Not Call List

When Technology Limits 911 Capabilities

Award Winner: 2008 First-place local government story in Division E for MDDC Press Association

Crossing the line on 911 calls? | The Eldersburg Eagle

Calls sent to Howard, then back to Carroll

By Charles Schelle, cschelle@patuxent.com

Eldersburg Eagle, June 25, 2008

Beverly Burns of Sykesville said she can still hear the scream of a 39-year-old Baltimore Gas and Electric worker who was electrocuted last week outside her home.

Unsure of what those screams meant, Burns picked up her cell phone at about 2:45 a.m. Wednesday, June 18, in her home on Spout Hill Road and dialed 911.

When the dispatcher answered, though, it was Howard County’s 911 center. That center transferred Burns to Carroll County’s 911 center and sent help to the scene.

“I’ve been sitting here for two days wondering if we weren’t routed through Howard County, could those extra minutes made a difference for that man?” she said Friday in a call to The Eagle.

The BGE worker died of cardiac arrest en route to University of Maryland Shock Trauma, according to a press release from the Sykesville Police Department. He was not identified in the release.

Scott Campbell, Carroll County Department of Public Safety administrator, said he could not give a definitive answer, but from what he was told about the situation, the system worked as it is supposed to, and he said there’s no issue with AT&T, Burns’ carrier.

Communication companies typically place three 120-degree panel antennas to route calls, Campbell said. Those antennas receive 911 calls in a full circle, he added.

“At least one of its towers are pointing toward Howard County and vice versa,” he said.

Campbell gives Mount Airy as the best example of the case given that it is split among Carroll, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties where cell phone users dialing 911 might get a call center from either of those counties – depending on where they are standing, he said.

When a caller is routed to a neighboring jurisdiction, dispatchers have specific guidelines and procedures of what to do, he said. Callers can help by stating clearly where they are, he said.

“I’m very happy to hear the process worked the exact way it’s suppose to,” he said. “It’s a very brief transfer process.”

Terrible instance

The 911 center received numerous calls about the incident, Campbell added. According to a press release by the Sykesville Police Department, the power failed at 2:36 a.m., and the worker was pronounced dead at 4:37 a.m.

Additional antennas to pick up signals in Sykesville to be routed to the Carroll County 911 center might not change the parameters of how calls are routed, Campbell said.

Still, he said he would follow-up on the Burns’ concern.

“We will, in fact, determine what AT&T sites are in the area,” he said. However, Campbell stresses that the situation is not unique to AT&T. It’s a wireless communications issue, he said.

The county does not have a 10-digit phone number to use for emergency calls to directly reach the Carroll County 911 center, Campbell said. He discourages calling the Department of Public Safety’s business lines, too, because of the tools that workers can use in the 911 system.

“Truthfully, to not use 911 would be usurping all of the 911-affiliated benefits of calling 911,” he said. “We would not be encouraging that at all.”

Burns lives above the sub-station on Spout Hill Road near Springfield Avenue and wanted to run outside and help the worker, whom she said she could hear crying for help. Her husband stopped her from proceeding for her own safety, she said, not knowing what exactly happened.

“I like to send my condolences for the family,” she said. “I was just scared for my own safety.”

Long Bar Pointe Watchdog Reporting

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2014 Second-place Lucy Morgan Award for InDepth Reporting, Class B, Florida Press Club, “Long Bar Pointe” series

In May 2013, I was assigned to take a look at a massive coastal development being proposed. It initially was a county government story but the editors thought I should take a look at it because it involved commercial, retail and residential construction.

It wasn’t just a rezoning request anymore. The initial story, which was out before any major competing outlet had anything, turned out to be quite the journey during that summer.

I learned a lot about what Floridians valued on that stretch of Sarasota Bay. The coastline is not built up with major waterfront high rises on this stretch. For as much as it can be, folks call this a piece of Old Florida. And it included neighboring Cortez Key, which is Florida’s oldest continuing working fishing village. I learned much more about seagrass and what it does than I ever thought I would. (And its differentiation from seaweed.)

On the flip side, you have a very powerful co-developer with connections to the governor. That developer, Carlos Beruff, formally announced on Feb. 29, 2016, that he is running for the U.S. Senate.

Florida is also a state where private property rights are held in high regard, and they had a special case to make because they had rights that extended into the water. The development team wanted to offer something that cannot be found in Manatee and Sarasota counties. They wanted to have a one-of-a-kind project with a promise of jobs, tourism, meeting space, and services. The drawings were beautiful, it looked like an amazing development, but was it compatible? Could they even get the permits to do things like dredge a canal and make an inland marina or boat basin—depending whose term you use?

All of this came to a head to a public hearing on Aug. 6, 2013. The hearing ended in the early hours of Aug. 7, 2013. More than 1,000 people turned out to give their thoughts–both sides. It was so big, the county had to book the convention center to hold the meeting. By that time, all of your local outlets covered the issue.

The development is now in the court system as the developers lost a court case against Manatee County and is now appealing the decision. Long Bar Pointe, as the development project, is now called Aqua.

Here is a rundown of the links to the coverage:

 Read more from these stories below:

Continue reading Long Bar Pointe Watchdog Reporting