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.