Far too often, Gov. Rick Scott has needed reminders that he must respect Florida’s open government laws just as much as other public officials and agencies.
The latest example is Scott’s secretive behavior in forcing out Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, which has resulted in a lawsuit filed by St. Petersburg attorney Matthew Weidner — one joined by The Florida Times-Union and numerous other media and citizens organizations — alleging the governor and the Florida Cabinet violated the Sunshine Law.
It’s shameful that this lawsuit was necessary.
After four years in office, Scott should realize that both Florida law and tradition require adherence to high standards of open government.
Florida’s sunshine laws are a matter of pride in this state, but they need constant protection from watchdogs and citizens alike.
It’s too bad that it’s necessary to again tell Scott, the Cabinet and other public officials that they have an unceasing responsibility to Floridians to obey open-government laws and operate in transparent fashion.
And if there are questions, they should be resolved by more openness, not excuses for more secrecy.
It’s clear Scott abused the spirit of properly consulting with the Florida Cabinet — which includes Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam — when he allowed aides to pressure Bailey to leave his position as the state’s lead crime-fighting official and maneuver Rick Swearingen into place as his replacement.
The Cabinet members have offered differing, confusing accounts regarding what they knew about Scott’s desire to remove Bailey.
But it’s obvious that the effort was largely driven by the Governor’s Office with a conscious eye toward booting out Bailey with as little transparency and open discussion as possible.
The meetings with aides took place without advance notice as the Sunshine Law demands. The law is clear that aides may be used for information only, not as substitutes for a board meeting.
The meetings with aides weren’t held in a public place, as also demanded by the Sunshine Law.
And no minutes were kept detailing who was present and what exactly was discussed, yet another obligation that did not meet what Florida’s Sunshine Law demands.
There’s little doubt why these minion meetings were held. They represented a cynical attempt by Scott, with little resistance from others, to circumvent his clear responsibility to adhere to the Sunshine Law. The aides quietly did the dirty work of arranging for Bailey to be pushed out.
Scott was wrong, and the Florida Cabinet shares blame for allowing an environment to develop that encouraged the governor to think he could get away with it.
All of them, in effect, flouted the spirit of the Sunshine Law by failing to allow Florida’s citizens to be fully informed, in real time, about the process behind abruptly removing a major state official like Bailey, who has intimated that his forced ouster/firing was in part politically motivated.
And it affirms the fact that Scott and others must be held accountable for their utter contempt for the concept of open government, which is the intention of the Sunshine Law lawsuit.
The lawsuit is a much-needed, justifiable step to get to the bottom of the cloaked secrecy employed by aides — with knowing, approving winks from Scott and others — in the Bailey case.
But it shouldn’t be the only step taken.
There should also be an investigation by an outside agency to thoroughly probe, in transparent fashion, exactly what happened during the orchestration of Bailey’s exit. The key phrase is “an outside agency” — because it is clear that the State Attorney’s Office in Leon County, led by Willie Meggs, isn’t a viable option to carry out such an objective investigation.
Meggs has embarrassed himself by rushing to dismiss Scott’s nose-thumbing of the Sunshine Law as no big deal. He appears to be openly hostile to the idea of standing up for the rights of Floridians in this case.
And the fact that Meggs recently dined with Scott and others in the Governor’s Mansion also doesn’t inspire much faith in the state attorney’s hunger for carrying out a Bailey probe.
Based on his attitude to this point, Meggs would likely approach the task with the enthusiasm of an accommodating lapdog and not that of a tenacious watchdog.
Scott has admitted he could have handled the Bailey dismissal better — a vast understatement — and has proposed a more predictable and transparent process.
At a recent Cabinet meeting in Tampa, members agreed to undergo training in the Sunshine Law, make public minutes of Cabinet aides’ meetings and review the questionable tradition of having aides communicating with each other on Cabinet issues.
The lawsuit being brought against Scott and the Florida Cabinet by plaintiffs, including the Times-Union, is a reminder of the folly in not letting the sunshine in.
Original article here.