Sunday, June 24, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott lets public open his email box with new website

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott, once so wary of the state's public records law that he refrained from creating a state email account, launched a new open records program Thursday designed to give the public access to his emails and those of his 11 top staff members.

Dubbed "Project Sunburst," the unprecedented initiative will provide faster access to email communications involving the governor's key advisers. But while offering easier access to public records, it does not include access to text messages sent via smart phone or direct messages using outside sites, such as Facebook or Twitter.

State officials are required to retain those records independently and it is up to the public to request copies.

"This is a big step forward for transparency," said Scott at a news conference.

Transparency has been an issue for Scott. During his 2010 transition into office, his staff destroyed emails that were public record and communicated extensively using private email accounts. Scott also refused to use email until eight months into office.

Scott blamed the destroyed emails on a private company that hosted the email accounts for his gubernatorial campaign. A law enforcement investigation into the lost emails is pending.

Project Sunburst is the brainchild of Scott's chief of staff Steve MacNamara, a communications professor and former lobbyist who joined Scott's office in July.

"We all know from Day One that everyone is going to be asking for email,'' MacNamara said Thursday. "I don't think it's going to change anything really."

The executive staff who will be turning over their emails include the governor, lieutenant governor, their chiefs of staff, deputy chiefs of staff and communications officials. Their emails compose 80 percent of the public records requests sought by the public.

The emails will be posted daily on a read-only viewer at flgov.com/sunburst. The domain and password are "sunburst." Emails must be posted within seven days of receipt or creation, unless they are deemed exempt from the public records law, and the goal is to push emails online within 24 hours.

"As always, the devil is in the details,'' said Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation whose organization spent $5,000 trying to get the emails of the governor's top staff when Scott came into office. "But providing real-time access to email is a very positive and proactive step."

The emails released Thursday included correspondence from the 12 state officials since Monday at noon. In them were routine reports, schedules and meeting requests, along with oddities, such as a lengthy, rambling message written in all caps from a citizen.

One email addressed to MacNamara from an Orlando candidate for state House, Matthew Falconer, suggested he could help the governor with the Hispanic vote. MacNamara responded: "Thx, Matt. I'll pass this along."

Even the media, and the often-secret developing stories of reporters, became part of the new online record. New York Times national correspondent Serge Kovaleski, for example, got into a lengthy, heated exchange with communications director Brian Burgess over a story he is working on about the prosecutor who recused himself in the George Zimmerman case.

"Before you berate my staff, perhaps you should get your facts straight before seeking answers to questions predicated on false assumptions,'' Burgess wrote, noting Kovaleski wrongly said the prosecutor had been "pulled off the case."

"Perhaps your staff should act more responsibly,'' Kovaleski responded. They exchanged several more testy emails after that.

Scott said he didn't believe the new system would have a chilling effect on communications or persuade critical communications over controversial issues to be driven underground.

"You still have the opportunity to do open records requests,'' he said. "I think we're doing the right thing."

Petersen said that under the current system, most staff members already shield their communications from public record.

"I don't think it's going to drive anything underground that isn't already underground,'' she said. "You're getting what you would get without making a request."

Bonnie Hazelton, director of the governor's Office of Open Government, said the office does not have a system set up to capture messages if state business is conducted through social media but relies on individuals to retain it as a public record.

Tom Dooley, the governor's IT director who worked on the program, said that text messages will be downloaded from smart phones and retained.

Even under the current system, MacNamara himself avoids building a public record. A Times/Herald review of five months of the chief of staff's emails finds that MacNamara prefers phone calls and hand-written notes to email when communicating.

The governor's top adviser routinely responds to even mundane concerns by urging others to "come see me" or "call me" to avoid a paper trail. MacNamara said it's because he's a bad typist and prefers to have face-to-face conversations.

MacNamara said Thursday he couldn't recall how they came up with the name Project Sunburst. It's also the name of a failed Xbox LIVE program that vanished from the market last year after its online servers failed to function properly.

"We're going to have server problems, too,'' MacNamara warned. He said the system cannot accommodate more than 100 users at a time and there will be times when it doesn't work as intended.

"We're just trying to save everybody time,'' he said. "It's going to keep them honest."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

Comments
Six candidates waltz into their seats as qualifying ends. The rest still have a fight

Six candidates waltz into their seats as qualifying ends. The rest still have a fight

Six local candidates across Tampa Bay — all county commissioners and city council members — effectively won their elections Friday by default: No one qualified to run against them.The rest still have a fight.Some will square off in an Aug. 28 primary...
Published: 06/22/18
Former Tampa police corporal qualifies as Democrat to run for Hillsborough sheriff

Former Tampa police corporal qualifies as Democrat to run for Hillsborough sheriff

TAMPA — A Democrat has officially joined the race for Hillsborough County sheriff.Gary Pruitt, a 50-year-old former Tampa police corporal who now works as director of security at a local mall, qualified Friday to challenge Republican Sheriff Chad Chr...
Published: 06/22/18
Carlton: Could anything be more partisan than going nonpartisan?

Carlton: Could anything be more partisan than going nonpartisan?

So Hillsborough County commissioners — most of them, anyway — want voters to consider dropping political parties from certain elections, making those races nonpartisan instead.This would mean when you go to vote in those elections, you won’t know if ...
Published: 06/22/18
Hotel renovator approved by council to restore New Port Richey’s Hacienda Hotel

Hotel renovator approved by council to restore New Port Richey’s Hacienda Hotel

NEW PORT RICHEY — A seasoned historic hotel renovator and operator is going to take a crack at getting New Port Richey’s city-owned Hacienda Hotel back into action. New Port Richey City Council members, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, u...
Published: 06/20/18
Pope Francis criticizes Trump’s family-separation policy on migrants, says ‘populism is not the solution’

Pope Francis criticizes Trump’s family-separation policy on migrants, says ‘populism is not the solution’

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis stepped into a growing controversy over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, criticizing the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexican border and saying that "populism" and "creating psychosis" are not t...
Published: 06/20/18
Raburn out in State House 57 race. Now who’s in?

Raburn out in State House 57 race. Now who’s in?

Well, that didn’t last long.U.S. Army veteran Michael Sean McCoy filed to run as the Republican candidate in the State House, District 57 race just hours after incumbent State Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, announced he was stepping down.McCoy, who live...
Published: 06/19/18
Updated: 06/21/18
Romano: A Tampa Bay ‘superstar’ caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s border policy

Romano: A Tampa Bay ‘superstar’ caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s border policy

At this moment, she is Tampa Bay’s most influential export. A smart, accomplished and powerful attorney making life-altering decisions on an international stage.But what of tomorrow? And the day after?When the story of President Donald Trump’s border...
Published: 06/19/18
‘Don’t leave me, Mom’: Detainee tells of separation from son

‘Don’t leave me, Mom’: Detainee tells of separation from son

SEATTLE — The call came at mealtime — an anonymous threat demanding $5,000 or her son’s life. So Blanca Orantes-Lopez, her 8-year-old boy and his father packed up and left the Pacific surfing town of Puerto La Libertad in El Salvador and headed for t...
Published: 06/19/18
Trump defiant as border crisis escalates, prepares to lobby House GOP on immigration bills

Trump defiant as border crisis escalates, prepares to lobby House GOP on immigration bills

WASHINGTON - As he prepared to visit Capitol Hill, President Donald Trump on Tuesday continued to insist that Congress produce comprehensive immigration legislation, while anxious Republicans explored a narrower fix to the administration policy of se...
Published: 06/19/18
Trump, GOP to huddle as outrage builds over border policy

Trump, GOP to huddle as outrage builds over border policy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Calls are mounting on Capitol Hill for the Trump administration to end the separation of families at the southern border ahead of a visit from President Donald Trump to discuss legislation.Trump’s meeting late Tuesday afternoon with...
Published: 06/19/18