Back to school: Gov. Scott and Cabinet get 'sunshine' refresher
State business came to a halt Tuesday as Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members got an unprecedented 90-minute public refresher course on Florida's open meeting and public records laws.
Their teacher was Florida's acknowledged expert on the subject, Assistant Attorney General Pat Gleason. It was not strictly academic, but political, as a result of the secret ouster of a top state police official and Scott's role in it. The four state officials agreed eight months ago that the course was necessary.
Gleason's seminar, held in a nearly-deserted Cabinet room, stemmed from a controversy that erupted last December when Scott directed his then-counsel, Pete Antonacci, to force FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey to resign. By law, Bailey reported to the governor and Cabinet, but he never received a public discussion or vote on his job status.
Scott later said his Cabinet aides privately sent word to aides to all three Cabinet members that he wanted "new leadership" at FDLE, and that "Cabinet staff raised no objection." Two dozen Florida news outlets sued Scott and the Cabinet, alleging the sunshine law was violated, but the case was settled out of court with requirements for new sunshine safeguards and no findings of wrongdoing.
Gleason's power-point included this: "The Cabinet aides are not subject to the sunshine law unless they are being used as a liaison to communicate information on Cabinet matters from one member of the board to another."
Without referring to the Bailey episode, Gleason told the officials: "If staff is being used as an intermediary to convey information from one person to another, that's not authorized under the sunshine law."
Her tutorial covered the history of the sunshine law from its adoption in 1967, including its central provision that two members of the same collegial body cannot discuss public business in private. She discussed requirement that minutes be kept of public meetings and the need that records must be produced in a reasonable period of time.
The proposal for beefed-up sunshine training was advanced by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam last February "on the appropriate method of Cabinet communications." Putnam made the proposal at a Cabinet meeting in Tampa on Feb. 5, less than two months after Bailey's removal, and Attorney General Pam Bondi quickly endorsed the idea and suggested Gleason give the training. Putnam also urged that minutes of Cabinet aides' meetings be put online and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater suggested they be televised. Before the Bailey incident, neither was the case.
Gleason's lecture was steeped in Florida history. She noted that the sunshine law finally got through the Legislature in 1967 after a decade of persistence by the late Emory "Red" Cross, a former state senator from Gainesville.