Secret meetings. Deleted emails. Hiding documents from the public. Perhaps nothing exemplifies Florida’s “Government in the Shadows” under Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida more than the ongoing legal battle over redistricting.
The redistricting trial is exposing the partisan hijinks and shady backroom conniving that enabled Republican leaders to pick their voters instead of the voters picking them – a clear violation of the FairDistricts Amendments. We’ve learned how legislative staffers secretly provided draft maps to political consultants like Marc Reichelderfer, who testified on the trial’s opening day that he was shown maps weeks before the public and legislators. Reichelderfer even admitted to editing the maps, which emails suggest was done as part of a larger Republican scheme to essentially rig elections in Florida so that the party in power can stay in power.
And we have learned that partisan operatives drew maps and then schemed to get them filed with the legislature making them look like “interested members of the public” had drafted them. Legislators and staff deny knowing the provenance of those maps. But they picked districts from them —- out of hundreds that had been filed ‘by the public” — and what do you know, they ended up in the adopted map. Coincidence.
The FairDistricts provisions in our constitution say explicitly that “No plan or district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party,” but the redistricting trial has exposed how GOP legislative leaders, including Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, participated in a private meeting where the two leaders agreed on last-minute changes to the maps designed to favor their party.
The redistricting trial has exposed what is only part of a continuing pattern of secrecy and lack of transparency by Scott and Republican Party leaders. Remember Gov. Scott’s much touted “Project Sunburst” that was supposed to give the public access to information by making administration emails public? It proved to be a sham after the media reported how some emails remain private, and how administration officials routinely avoid transparency by conducting business secretly via text messages and personal Email accounts.
Scott claims that he does not use text messages to conduct official business, but recent media reports indicate that his chief of staff does. And top state officials including Scott are facing a public records lawsuit that contends they are flouting Florida’s public records law.
In fact, just last week it was reported that Gov. Scott, unlike his predecessors, does not make his travel schedule available to the public. That means the people he has pledged to serve do not even know in many cases where, about what, and with whom our chief executive is meeting.
In total, these issues only serve to reinforce the importance of Progress Florida’s recently launched Executive Accountability Project, part of a multi-state effort to shine a light on the inner workings of the executive branch of state government. On April 1 Progress Florida made a public records request of Gov. Scott’s office for all electronic communication between the governor and his Chief-of-Staff. We were told none exist. Not one email. Not one text message. Not one online instant message. So much for government in the sunshine.
The redistricting trial has served as yet another reminder of the secretive nature and lack of transparency that has defined the Scott administration and the Republican Party.
Open government advocates, the media, and the public must continue to hold Scott accountable and scrutinize his administration’s opaqueness until we truly have government in the sunshine – not in the shadows.
Mark Ferrulo is the executive director of Progress Florida, a statewide progressive advocacy organization. Column courtesy of Context Florida.