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To protect Confederate heritage, Baxley's bill adds layer of government

A bill that adds a layer of government and takes away local control passed a House panel controlled by Republicans on Monday.

Yes, Republicans on the House's Agriculture and Natural Resources committee seemed to contradict their own principles by narrowly passing HB 493 7-6 that would require Florida’s Cabinet to approve any changes to historic sites in the state park system if anyone objects. Currently, all changes are made by administrators working in the parks system or the Florida Department of Environmental Protection after considering local input.

It wasn’t a RINO who sponsored the bill, but Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the House’s ultra-conservative behind the 2005 “stand your ground” law, among others. He filed the bill in reaction to a request by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to erect a obelisk honoring the fallen Union soldiers in the Feb. 20, 1864 Battle of Olustee.

Though the actual battle itself lasted five hours, the fight over it rages on.

In 2011, the Sons of Union Vets group decided it was time to better honor the Union soldiers who perished in the battle, which itself is commemorated at Olustee Battlefield Historic Park, about 45 miles north of Jacksonville along U.S. Highway 90. It’s the site of annual reenactments. This year’s 150th anniversary attracted 3,000.

Yet while three Confederate memorials salute the 946 Southern casualties, there’s no obvious marker for the 1,861 men from the North who died, were injured or vanished. About a third of those casualties were African-American soldiers.

A granite cross honoring one of the mass graves of soldiers can be seen from the road. But Harvey Linscott, 74, of Ocala, who is a member of the Sons of Union Veterans, said the memorial can’t be seen from the battlefield during the reenactments.

“It’s hidden by trees, the Port-o-Potties and the food shacks,” Linscott said. “Our organization just wants to honor our ancestors. The war is over. We thought this wasn’t going to be a problem.”

They were wrong. Despite getting early support from state staff, a December hearing in Lake City turned ugly. Linscott said he and five other members were shouted down by a group of about 75.

“They were waving the Confederate flag and singing ‘Dixie.’,” Linscott said. “Baxley was at the meeting. He said told the parks staff at the meeting that if they don’t deny it, he would get the state Legislature to put an end to this. That got a big cheer. All of it was shocking.”

Baxley’s bill would no longer allow parks staff from making final decisions about historical sites on state land.

“The citizens of Florida should not have to go beg a team of bureaucrats not to do something,” Baxley said. “They should be able to address elected officials.”

But he contradicted the work of Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, who spent time with the groups to come up with a solution everyone was happy with. Baxley’s bill was a “knee-jerk reaction to one incident,” Porter said.

“There is a process for this situation and I have seen it first hand and I helped facilitate it first hand,” Porter said. “The process worked in my district. We had meetings. We discussed it. And everyone had their side heard. It’s funny how people will say, ‘local control, local control, local control,’ until they don’t get things happening the way they want, and then they want the state to come in and mandate that it be otherwise.”

Parks staff are better qualified to make these type of decisions, Porter said. By handing them to statewide elected officials like the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner, Baxley’s bill will only complicate matters.

“I’ve just heard too many concerns from some park service personnel and Department of Environmental Protection personnel and I shall name no names, that this is just not the correct approach to take,” Porter said. “This is their job, this is why they’re hired, because they can address these concerns from a professional perspective without political influence.”

Porter, who was joined by the five Democrats on the committee, couldn’t convince any Republicans to join her and Baxley’s bill passed by one vote. Although they voted for it, not one Republican spoke in support of it. Nobody spoke from the state’s DEP about it either.

So far, much of it seems for show. It has two more committee stops in the House and its companion bill in the senate has three. It has yet to be scheduled at its first Senate stop, however.

Baxley didn’t sound discouraged.

“I’m not known for doing anything the easy way,” he said.

The important thing, Baxley said, is for the people to be heard.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy gave that land to Florida with the sole intention that it honor only their ancestors, he said.

“I think it’s appropriate for someone to come in and question if a competing monument will detract from that historical significance,” Baxley said.  “There’s an expectation in historical monuments of permanency. If you’re going to change things, that’s a policy decision.

“It’s not Southern as much as it’s descendants and individuals who their families died there to avoid the strafing and burning of their state,” Baxley said. “They were defending Florida.”