Saturday, September 22, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's 'Sunburst' email project frustrates advocates of open government

TALLAHASSEE — Bad news and controversy are routine in the vast state government under Florida Gov. Rick Scott's control. But don't look for clues in Project Sunburst, Scott's program for email transparency.

That's because Scott doesn't use email as a primary form of communication, and neither does his top aide, chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth.

Workers at state agencies also are wary of using email to alert Scott's inner circle (and consequently the media) to impending trouble.

Anyone can access the email of Scott and his top aides at www.flgov.com/sunburst. But if Sunburst were designed to end secrecy in state government, it hasn't.

"It's been a disappointment, to say the least," said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, who had high hopes because the search for email from Scott's office had been costly and time-consuming.

"The manipulation of content and lack of substantive communications — there's simply not much there of any real value to the public," Petersen said.

Hollingsworth, who puts a premium on accessibility, said his days are filled with meetings and he has no time to access email. He said Sunburst is a catalyst for better communication in Scott's office.

"We actually enjoy getting together," he said. "That sort of interpersonal communication is probably more productive and purposeful than an email system."

The result is that Sunburst, promoted by Scott as an "open and transparent window into how state government works," is in reality a vessel for the mundane work of government: meeting notices, routine reports, personnel moves and news releases.

Sunburst is so bland that partisan Democrats, ever eager to find negative material about Scott, pay little attention to it.

"I haven't had the time, the inclination or the interest," said Mark Hollis, spokesman for Democrats in the state House.

Hollingsworth and Scott's communications director, Melissa Sellers, say they do not use private email accounts for official business.

Another of Sunburst's unfulfilled promises: Scott has not expanded the system to include other agencies under his control as he promised to do "in the coming months" when he launched the system May 3.

Scott himself often poses a question that's ripe for Sunburst: "Is each program achieving what it is intended to?"

What Sunburst does best is serve as a tip sheet for reporters burrowing deep into the bureaucracy and as an online town square where people air their grievances with Scott on everything from property insurance premiums to President Barack Obama's policies.

"Overall, I'd rather have it than not have it," said David Royse, editor of the News Service of Florida.

The brainchild of former Scott chief of staff Steve MacNamara, Sunburst was launched with the promise of unprecedented access to email of Scott and his top aides.

Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan watchdog group, tracks Sunburst daily and finds irregular compliance with Scott's stated goal of making most messages available within 24 hours.

"That's not happening," said Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida.

Integrity Florida also found that some staffers did not comply with Scott's policy to post emails within seven days of receipt.

The governor's staff members are responsible for moving their mail to the Sunburst folder. Some email is necessarily delayed to allow time to redact information that is confidential under state law.

As of 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, emails sent to Scott and Hollingsworth were posted within 24 hours, the group said.

But the group found that it had been nine days since any email to deputy chief of staff Chris Finkbeiner was online; 10 days for Sellers; and 14 days for Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll's chief of staff, John Konkus.

Konkus recently got married and has been out of the office for nearly two weeks.

"Sunburst has been just a small burst of sunlight through the big clouds of government secrecy," Krassner said. "We'd like to see the governor's office deliver on the original promise of Sunburst and meet the governor's expectations of 24-hour disclosure."

Hollingsworth said every employee must obey the Sunburst policy and that every Friday all Sunburst accounts are reviewed to be sure people are complying.

Hollingsworth, who arrived two months after Sunburst, quickly fixed the system's most embarrassing failure: the posting of pro-Scott emails and the absence of those critical of him. All are now accessible.

Asked if Scott's people are reluctant to use email to avoid Sunburst's public glare, Hollingsworth said: "I'm going to leave that for you and others to characterize."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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