The Florida First Amendment Foundation has issued a score card that stamps a red, frowning face on bad bills the Legislature approved during this year’s regular session. The score card contains four of those scarlet visages — each denoting a new instance of lawmakers hiding information from Floridians about their government.
But those bad bills together don’t add up to an outrage as deep as last year’s actions — and inactions — by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet when they flouted the state’s venerated Government in the Sunshine Law to fire former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
Yielding in the face of overwhelming evidence, the governor and Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by media organizations, including the Orlando Sentinel and Sun Sentinel. The lawsuit detailed blatant moves to skirt state sunshine rules. Settling the suit, not fighting it, was the right thing to do.
The right thing to do also includes the governor and Cabinet committing to follow new rules in the settlement. Those rules are based on the transgressions that occurred. Aides aren’t allowed to serve as go-betweens to cut secret deals. If aides have private meetings, they must be recorded and put online. When public business is conducted via personal email, it must promptly be forwarded to a public account. The position of FDLE chief, filled by Rick Swearingen after Bailey’s improper firing, has to be reconsidered, and all future appointments must take place in the sunshine.
In addition to preserving Florida’s open-government tradition, it is important to expose and hold accountable those who violate sunshine provisions. So it’s good that the settlement that Scott and the Cabinet approved in the Bailey case requires the state to pay $55,000 to cover plaintiffs’ legal costs. When all the costs for all the attorneys are included, the total is expected to be about $225,000.
We don’t suppose Scott will crow about that expense while crisscrossing the state to brag about protecting taxpayers. Neither should Atwater, who is supposed to be a watchdog on expenditures, be proud of his role. Bondi — who as attorney general is supposed to enforce the law — ought to be particularly chastened.
It’s unfortunate that Putnam emphasized that the Cabinet has not admitted any wrongdoing. Good faith on his and his colleagues’ part is essential to actually making this settlement work. If they think they did nothing wrong, the temptation to relapse into secrecy will be hard to resist.
It would be so much more promising if Scott, Bondi, Putnam and Atwater were obviously embarrassed by what happened. Floridians could have more confidence that the sun would shine in Tallahassee if this episode were marked by four red faces.
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