Friday, January 19, 2018
Politics

Steve Bousquet: Florida's Cabinet system has gone to the dogs

Attorney General Pam Bondi is Florida's chief legal officer.

But sometimes it seems as if she's chief beagle officer.

Bondi absolutely loves dogs. She loves them so much that some of the most memorable moments at meetings of Gov. Rick Scott and the three Cabinet members are her tributes to man's best friend as she tries to find homes for pets in shelters.

Zeke, a lovable German shepherd mix recovering from a gunshot wound, was the center of attention last week. In a room filled with firefighters awaiting a bill-signing ceremony, there were "awwwws" all around as Bondi paraded Zeke around the room.

There's no question that Bondi's passion for finding homes for dogs is heartfelt. But if this is the liveliest (and least scripted) development when the governor and Cabinet convene, have their twice-monthly meetings become an anachronism?

Florida's Cabinet is a unique power-sharing system among the 50 states. But it feels creaky, and not just because of the dog days of summer.

Take last week, when the Gang of Four met for nearly three hours for the second time in June.

The pastor who gave the invocation made the simple and common mistake of referring to the governor and "his Cabinet." But the other three officials don't work for Scott: They're all elected statewide just like him and they are his equals in business that comes before the Cabinet.

Scott jobs adviser Jesse Panuccio gave an upbeat picture of the state's improving economy and joked that the unemployment rate has fallen "every month since I took this job."

Scott then gave posthumous Great Floridian awards to the families of two former Supreme Court justices. All four officials then honored corrections officer Stanley Petersen for heroism in a horrifying incident in which a fellow guard lost his life.

The ceremony brought everyone to their feet.

Ash Williams, executive director of the State Board of Administration, gave a glowing assessment of the health of the state pension fund.

Cabinet meetings have largely become bore-fests since the current members came into office together in 2011. Bondi and Scott were joined by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The most unusual agenda item last week was a vote to approve an innovative oyster harvesting lease to help the struggling Gulf Coast industry. The lessee happens to also be the owner of the popular Spring Creek Restaurant, a rustic hideaway known far and wide for its succulent seafood. (Its oyster stew and fried mullet were featured in a New York Times travel piece in March.)

"It was devastating when the New York Times put it in their travel section. Good for them, but bad for the rest of us," Putnam said with a twinkle in his eye.

This year marks 10 years since the Cabinet was downsized from six members to three members following a decision by voters. Five years ago, veteran Cabinet aide Kent Perez wrote an article for the Florida Bar Journal in which he spoke for many.

"For those of us in the day-to-day workings of the executive branch of government, we cannot help but sometimes wonder if the Florida Cabinet model of government best serves the people," Perez wrote.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected].

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