TALLAHASSEE – Project Sunburst, a public email-disclosure system started by Gov. Rick Scott after he took office in 2011, has been more of “a sunshine bust,” an open-government advocate said Thursday.
The First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based watchdog group, sent an email to its members saying the system “has shed little light on the activities of the governor, his staff or his working relationship with the departments of state government.”
The idea was that anyone can log on to the website flgov.com/sunburst to read the latest emails sent among officials in the state’s executive branch, including Scott and state agency heads.
Now, “Scott himself no longer uses the account to send emails,” the foundation said.
“The outgoing correspondence of Scott’s chief of staff is not posted … nor is that of the aide who serves as the cabinet affairs director or the account of the lieutenant governor,” the foundation added.
Another public-integrity watchdog explained why a commitment to open records, including emails, is important, especially in a state famed for having the best public-records law.
“People have more trust in their government when it operates in an open fashion,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida. “When things are kept confidential, people wonder why the government doesn’t want information (going) out to the public.”
To be sure, government emails generally are still public records in Florida. But Project Sunburst was supposed to eliminate a big hurdle: specifying and filing formal public-record requests for emails and other documents.
When a reporter checked the site Thursday and searched for messages, a file called “Executive Office of Governor Rick Scott” listed “no items to show.”
Barbara Petersen, an attorney and president of the First Amendment Foundation, said Scott “made a big deal out of rolling out Project Sunburst, saying he and his administration would be transparent.”
Years later, “it was all baloney,” Petersen added. “What was there was a lot of administrative stuff,” like meeting request reminders, “that had no real substantive value.”
The state’s spirit of open government has been battered in recent months.
In June, the governor, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater settled a lawsuit alleging they broke open-meeting laws in the ouster of then-Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
And in November, the Associated Press reported that Scott had for years “exchanged emails dealing with vetoes, the state budget and his speeches from a private email account” and not the official account subject to disclosure.
In response at the time, Scott’s office said, “there were occasions the governor failed to forward messages” to his public email file.
A spokesman also told the AP that the governor no longer uses the private Gmail account in question.
In response to the foundation’s email to members Thursday, a Scott spokesman said the governor was the first “to ever put entire employee email accounts online.”
“We are always looking for ways to improve the transparency of all of our operations and communications,” spokesman Stephen Lawson said.
In fact, advocates were hard pressed to name a similar system in another state that worked any better to disclose official emails.
A commitment to openness seems to vary depending on who’s in the governor’s office, Petersen said.
“It’s almost administration by administration,” she said. “It seems like Scott bends over backwards to stop you from getting information.”
Original article here.