Already a stark difference is apparent between Gov. Rick Scott’s approach to Florida’s Sunshine Laws and that of his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist, who enthusiastically endorsed open meetings and public records laws. Scott has a businessman’s penchant for operating outside public scrutiny and is showing an unfortunate tendency toward secrecy.
Today is the start of Sunshine Week, when media outlets across the country focus on issues of transparency in government and access to government records and meetings. Florida has traditionally cherished strong open government, which is guaranteed in the state’s Constitution and is a basic necessity in a democracy to ensure citizens can hold their leaders to account.
But that doesn’t mean all is well. Every year there are attempts in the Legislature to exempt more government records from public view, and this year is no different. Without the governor standing as a sentry to discourage new incursions, it could be a difficult legislative session for government-in-the-sunshine.
As a multimillionaire who made a fortune acquiring hospitals, Scott knows how to do business. Now, Scott’s business is also the public’s business, and he is resisting.
Scott’s first misstep was to enter into a contract that included a confidentiality clause with a private head-hunting firm to recruit for top administration posts. Scott used his own money to pay the New York-based Gerson Group. Even so, all documents collected or created by the firm for Scott should have been made publicly available in compliance with public records law, as the work was done on behalf of the state.
Since taking office, Scott acknowledges avoiding e-mail because it creates a public record. He has directed his agency secretaries to get permission before talking publicly, and there have been difficulties getting his office to promptly respond to public records requests. His staff has routinely tried to segregate and corral media access to events, contrary to long-standing Tallahassee tradition. And Scott has hosted small groups of Republican lawmakers in closed-door events at the Governor’s Mansion, a violation of Florida’s open meetings law if legislative business was discussed.
Open government allows public oversight of how tax dollars are spent and how policy is made. This is especially important when one political party so dominates control of government, as there is no real check by the minority party. Scott should realize that government transparency is a core Florida value, rather than look for ways to operate behind closed doors.