Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau by Mary Ellen Klas
June 30, 2017
For all the talk of shrinking government and making it work like a business, there is one man in Tallahassee who knows exactly why that talk is folly.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who stepped down as CFO on Friday after serving 17 years in state government, the last of which as the state’s fiscal watchdog, knows where every penny of the state’s $83 billion budget goes. He also knows where to find the waste — and he’s tried to expose it.
Florida will spend more than $60 billion this year hiring outside contractors to do state work. But, as Atwater found when he took the job in 2011, state agencies often don’t hold vendors accountable for the services they agreed to provide. Agencies allow them to charge for things not included in the bids, fail to recover damages when the vendor won’t complete a task correctly or on time, and renew contracts when a vendor fails.
“You don’t have to go far to track that back to a lobbyist who had a client,” Atwater explained.
In other words, unlike a business, Florida government gets lobbied. Companies big and small, nonprofit and public, hire lobbyists to use political influence and cozy relationships to give them an advantage in the contracting process. Working in silos, agencies make billions in financial decisions using a patchwork of inconsistent standards, often with little oversight, and the process costs taxpayers.
Atwater, whose office pays the bills, made it his mission to try to change that — by exposing the state’s expenses to the sunlight and posting all state contracts online.
The effort won national awards, saved taxpayers millions and made transparency in contracting the new Florida standard. It is the lasting legacy of his nearly two decades of public service that spanned from a stint on the North Palm Beach Village Council to the Legislature and executive branch. But the intransigence of a slow-moving bureaucracy and the influence of a powerful lobbying corps hired by corporate interests have stymied Atwater from achieving even more success.
Atwater, 59, retired to become vice president of initiatives and CFO at Florida Atlantic University. In an interview with the Herald/Times last week, he outlined what more needs to be done to make state government work more effectively and why he believes Florida’s sunshine laws are essential to protecting taxpayers’ millions.
Florida has “some of the most advanced sunshine laws and public disclosure laws in the country” and, rather than weaken them, he said they “should absolutely be protected” because they allow for the public to trust their government. [READ MORE]