Gov. Rick Scott’s firing of Gerald Bailey as commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement last year wasn’t just a political bungle. The way it was carried out violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s open meeting laws.
If anything good came out of it, though, it’s that the governor and his Cabinet now will be forced to operate in the Sunshine.
The executive branch officers Monday agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the Florida Society of News Editors, The Associated Press and other media organizations (including GateHouse Media, the parent company of The News Herald) in the fallout from Bailey’s firing last December. A month later Bailey revealed he had not, per the governor’s initial assertion, quit voluntarily after eight years as FDLE head. He said he was pressured by the governor to resign after he refused requests by Scott and his staff to falsely name someone a target in a criminal case, hire political allies for state jobs and intercede in an outside investigation of a prospective Scott appointee. Scott has denied that accusation, although he eventually acknowledged he asked for Bailey’s resignation.
WHAT’S YOUR VIEW? WRITE US A LETTER.
That revelation came as news to the Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — who said they were unaware, or worse, misinformed, of the circumstances behind Bailey’s departure when they approved his successor in January.
That led to a lot of backfilling and spinning, until eventually it emerged that the ordeal had been messily orchestrated behind the scenes by the governor’s staff and aides for other Cabinet members. That’s what triggered the media lawsuit.
Firing Bailey in and of itself was not scandalous; the FDLE chief and other department heads serve at the pleasure of the governor and his Cabinet. However, the process for removing and replacing him has to be conducted in public meetings in accordance with the Florida Sunshine Law.
The media and Sunshine watchdog groups sued, and on Monday they won an important victory.
Attorneys for the governor and Cabinet agreed to adopt new procedures to ensure compliance with the Sunshine Law, including:
Requiring the governor, Cabinet members and certain senior staff to promptly forward all public records sent or received on a private account to a government email account.
Recording and posting on the Internet any meeting of Cabinet aides.
Requiring mandatory Sunshine Law training for all employees of the governor and Cabinet members.
Requiring that any communication regarding placing an item on a Cabinet meeting agenda be either in writing to the governor, or raised at an open meeting of the governor and Cabinet.
Recognizing that Cabinet aides cannot be used as conduits to avoid the Sunshine Law.
The agreement also forces the Cabinet to re-do the interim appointment of FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen in accordance with the revised procedures.
It’s a formality, but at least it will provide good practice for doing these things in the Sunshine — something high-ranking public officials should have been familiar with in the first place.
Original article here.