BY MICHAEL C. BENDER,
The St. Petersburg Times/ Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Writer
TALLAHASSEE — During a week dedicated to celebrating the freedom of public information, Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday launched a website devoted to records that push his agenda.
The site was designed to burnish Scott’s open government credentials.
But including information that supports only his legislative priorities suggests the effort was less about accountability than winning a political debate, government records experts said.
“It’s a good start, but it gives us the information they want us to see,” Florida First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Peterson said. “The only way to truly hold our government accountable is if they embrace the spirit and the letter of the public records laws.”
Scott’s site — FloridaHasARightToKnow.com — comes as he increases pressure on lawmakers to pass his top priority aside from the budget: forcing police, firefighters and other government workers to help pay for their pensions.
Published on the website is a list of every retired state worker receiving more than $100,0000 a year from the state pension fund.
The site also includes a database of salaries from workers in the governor’s office, executive agency staff, the Justice Administrative Commission and the state court system; a list of contracts Scott had frozen; and links to the governor’s official website.
“As taxpayers, you have the right to know how every taxpayer dollar is spent,” Scott wrote in a statement on the site. “We will be better if you hold us accountable.”
Scott’s document of six-figure pensions lists 542 retirees with annual benefits totaling more than $64 million.
According to records from the Florida Retirement System, that list accounts for about 1.2 percent of the annual pension benefits paid by the state pension fund.
As of June 30, the state paid 304,337 beneficiaries an average of $17,465 per year.
Asked why Scott released only six-figure benefits, Scott spokeswoman Amy Graham said, “Frequent requests for information regarding state spending were considered when developing the site.” Scott was on a foreign trade mission Thursday in Panama and unavailable to comment.
Bill Mattox, a fellow at the conservative-leaning James Madison Institute who has studied proactive disclosure practices among Florida governments, said listing the largest state salaries or most expensive pension benefits can give taxpayers a sense if something is wrong.
“Comprehensive information is useful and important, but at the same time, selected information can be useful,” Mattox said.
Scott’s selected list enraged some Floridians on Thursday after it was published.
“This is outrageous,” said William Cummins, a retired lawyer in Pensacola who called the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau. “State employees probably ought to be paying into their pensions.”
Many on the list already have.
T. Wayne Miller, a former Lee County Mosquito Control District director, earns an annual pension of $172,027, the 11th most expensive in the state, according to Scott’s list.
Miller, an engineer, retired in 1994 from after nearly 43 years in government.
He paid into his pension until 1974. That year, the state stopped requiring the contributions because it could not afford refunding workers who left their jobs.
Miller said he had “no problem” with the state forcing workers to start paying again.
Eric Jotkoff, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, said the site was aimed at “demonizing the hard-working teachers, firefighters and police officers who serve in our communities.”
“Since everything Rick Scott has done in office has only promoted his extreme tea party agenda, Floridians know this is just more of the same,” Jotkoff said.
Scott’s site comes just two days after he unveiled a campaign-style website, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, that attempted to rally tea party support for his budget proposal. The site asked visitors to send lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature pre-written e-mails urging them to approve Scott’s plan. The site was taken down Tuesday afternoon and had not re-emerged by Thursday evening.
Scott’s latest website comes at the close of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote the benefits of open government and freedom of information.
Scott re-established the state office of open government after winning election and has repeatedly asked citizens to hold him accountable.
But his office also has started charging for public records. Scott, who sent hundreds of e-mails a day as a hospital CEO, has said he stopped e-mailing to avoid creating public records. Meanwhile, Brian Burgess, Scott’s communications director, said reporters are punishing the new governor by requesting hundreds of public records, some of which take hours to pull together.
Scott’s office has received 319 requests since he took office Jan. 4, according to the open government office. Of those, 57 have not been fulfilled.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MichaelCBender.