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Transparency lacking in Gov. Rick Scott's 'Sunburst' program

Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks to the media Tuesday in his office at the Capitol. Scott’s much-touted Project Sunburst has fallen shorts in its bid to broaden the email transparency system beyond his inner circle of 11 senior staff members to include the many agencies under his command. The governor’s office still struggles to meet Scott’s own timetable for making messages available.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks to the media Tuesday in his office at the Capitol. Scott’s much-touted Project Sunburst has fallen shorts in its bid to broaden the email transparency system beyond his inner circle of 11 senior staff members to include the many agencies under his command. The governor’s office still struggles to meet Scott’s own timetable for making messages available.

TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott is the first Florida governor to put his emails online, but his much-touted Project Sunburst remains a shining example of a promise unfulfilled.

Scott has not kept a commitment he made more than a year ago to broaden the email transparency system beyond his inner circle of 11 senior staff members to include the many agencies under his command.

In fact, the governor's office still struggles to meet Scott's own timetable for making messages available.

Not all emails are online within seven days, as Scott said they would be 15 months ago. In addition, Scott's stated goal of making many emails available within 24 hours has met with uneven results, giving Sunburst a perpetually cloudy image.

"Project Sunburst had the potential to be recognized globally as a government transparency innovation," says Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, the independent government watchdog group. "The basic promises of the project have not been kept."

Even Scott's top adviser, Chief of Staff Adam Hollingsworth, concedes that Sunburst discourages people from sending emails for fear they will be on public display.

"It actually may have a dampening effect on people's desire to send communications to the office," he said.

Still, Hollingsworth defends the project.

"We have already established a process and a transparency infrastructure well in excess of any other administration or any other unit of government," he said. "Certainly we're always looking for ways to make it better and if we can find ways to do that, we will."

Sunburst — found at flgov.com/sunburst — is a venture that Hollingsworth inherited from his predecessor, Steve MacNamara, who resigned shortly after its launch in May 2012.

It's true that the Legislature, most counties and cities do not post officials' emails online. But Scott said Sunburst would give Floridians "an open and transparent window into how their state government works," and that hasn't happened.

What Sunburst does best is serve as an online soapbox for ordinary citizens to vent their frustrations on a range of topics, from crime to property insurance to race relations to tuition. Some messages are crude and some are occasionally racist, and many give Scott unsolicited advice.

Joe Abrams, Internet marketing manager for TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, emailed Scott on Thursday to say: "The website for VisitFlorida.com is the worst I have ever seen or worked with ... the site is doing NO SERVICE to our state."

Shalonda Rivers of Opa-locka complained to Scott that speed bumps at her apartment complex are damaging cars.

Terry Decker of Panama City complained to Scott about "a trailer load of illegals" living across the street from him, "and you do nothing."

Asked if he tells co-workers not to send him emails because they would be on Sunburst, Hollingsworth said: "What I say is, 'Just know that anything you send me is subject to public record and review by anyone.' "

Julie Jones, executive director of the state's highway safety agency, said no one in Scott's office has ever told her not to send emails because they would be public.

"It doesn't affect me at all," said Jones, because the disclosure doesn't apply throughout the vast state bureaucracy.

Soon after state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned Aug. 1, news stories cited an email he sent two days earlier, calling his life a "living hell" after revelations he had altered Indiana's school grading formula to help a charter school run by a prominent Republican campaign donor.

Bennett's email never showed up on Sunburst; reporters got it the old-fashioned way — through public records requests.

Hollingsworth's Sunburst email inbox is virtually devoid of any substantive information. Its contents are staff members' confirmations of attendance at meetings.

Hollingsworth, who routinely puts in 15-hour days, says personal communication is a lot more effective.

"It's a more productive way for me to do business by walking into someone's office, asking a question and hearing their answer," he said.

As a matter of practice, Hollingsworth does not respond to text messages sent to his cellphone, saying it's wrong for the state to transact business that way. He said Scott's cellphone does not send or receive texts, so the two key decision-makers do business over the phone.

"The governor and I talk five times a day," Hollingsworth said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Transparency lacking in Gov. Rick Scott's 'Sunburst' program 08/25/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 25, 2013 9:45pm]
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