The spotlight turns on Tallahassee today as Gov. Rick Scott is sworn in for a second term, and there will be optimistic speeches and pronouncements about the Sunshine State’s bright future. Yet the governor and the Legislature have driven state government into the darkness with their disregard for public records and brazen attempts to keep public business secret. If this is a day of fresh starts, then Scott and legislative leaders should pledge to honor Florida’s commitment to government in the sunshine instead of fighting it at every turn.
Scott moved from the corporate world to the Governor’s Mansion four years ago, and he brought his penchant for privacy and distrust of the media with him. The result has been the most secretive governor since the late Gov. Reubin Askew championed Florida’s modern public records and open meetings laws more than four decades ago. Scott’s business approach to holding information close erodes public trust in government, and it invites corruption from those who seek to take advantage of working in the shadows.
The erosion of openness since Scott took office is clear. As Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported Sunday, the governor’s travel record has less detail than those routinely released by any of his modern predecessors, and his calendar is heavily edited before it is publicly released. His lawyers have denied in court documents that public records were available or even existed, which proved to be wrong. Then they made a novel argument that the governor’s office does not search for public records on employees’ private cellphones and email accounts — and that such records from former employees had to be requested directly from those ex-workers. That is at odds with the public records law and effectively blocks access to public records by transferring accountability from the government to a private individual.
The hostile attitude toward openness extends beyond the governor’s office and into the state agencies that report to him. As Klas reported, the Department of Health has stopped releasing critical child health data on its website, and the Department of Corrections’ list of prison deaths has not made it easier to examine the circumstances of the deaths. Anecdotal reports of state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection that ignore requests for public information or wait days to respond are also common.
Under Scott, the governor’s Office of Open Government is more obstructionist than advocate for openness. The governor’s effort to post online emails of key staffers, Sunburst, has been a bust. And after Scott declined to accept from the Legislature a privatized effort to make more state budget information available online, the initiative died for lack of a sponsor. A Scott spokeswoman says Sunburst is being improved and that a new policy calls for employees leaving the governor’s office to turn over all public records in their possession.
The Legislature is no shining beacon of openness, either. It took the Florida Supreme Court to force the public release of emails that revealed how Republican consultants circumvented constitutional amendments regarding redistricting. Lawmakers ignored recommendations on making the state budget process more open, and they annually add to the list of public records exemptions. They will try again this spring to keep secret the names of applicants seeking to become president at public universities and state colleges.
Ultimately, it’s the governor who sets the tone in Tallahassee. It’s the governor who sets the example on public records and can insist that state agencies find ways to provide public information rather than hide it. The start of his second term today would be the time for this governor to come out of the shadows and embrace Florida’s long commitment to open government.