After Rick Scott issued an executive order on his first day as governor re-establishing the Office of Open Government, we said time would tell how sincere he was about standing up for Floridians’ right to know.
The inescapable answer, four and a half years later, is…not so much.
For one recent example, consider that state lawmakers just passed 20 new or renewed exemptions to the “Government in the Sunshine Law,” yet Scott hasn’t used his veto pen once. While some exemptions were defensible, the group included overly broad, poorly considered measures to keep secret some videos from police body cameras and conceal the addresses of U.S. service members since 9-11 from public records.
The first bill will limit outside oversight of police – one of the primary reasons for cameras. The second will create costly burdens for public agencies without eliminating other sources of the information it purports to conceal. Scott, however, spurned pleas from open-government advocates and signed both bills.
Another example illustrates the cynicism of the Scott administration on this issue. Three years ago, the administration launched Project Sunburst, a program that promised to make his emails and those of his top staff available to the public online. In March, Scott’s office told the Sentinel that he had stopped using email for any state business. That policy shift followed reports from last fall that the governor had been using a private email account for state business and failed to include some of those emails in the public record.
And as Associated Press correspondent Gary Fineout recently reported, there are more emails available through Sunburst from former top staff than current ones. There are emails associated with his current chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, but almost all are incoming emails. The few outgoing emails suggest she relies on other means, outside of public view, to conduct public business.
When we asked the governor’s office about these black holes in Sunburst, it offered this non-response: “As the first administration to ever put entire employee email accounts online, we are always looking for ways to improve the transparency of all of our operations and communications.”
Reporters who cover the governor are used to such talking points instead of straight answers to their questions. But open government isn’t just a media concern. All Floridians have a constitutional right of access to the government they bankroll through their taxes. And common sense says public officials are more likely to operate above board, and spend tax dollars responsibly, when citizens are watching. Officials also make better policy when citizens are engaged.
Scott has another three and a half years to go as Florida’s chief executive. He shouldn’t wait to turn over a new leaf, and rehabilitate his legacy, on open government.