ST. PETERSBURG — Standing in front of many of Florida's newspaper editors for the first time Friday, Gov. Rick Scott said charging for public records was more important than the chilling effect the policy could have on scrutiny of state government.
"Part of my job is to make sure I don't waste taxpayer money," Scott said at the Florida Press Association/Florida Society of News Editors annual meeting.
The appearance was a departure for the governor. Since inserting himself into the state's political discussion 15 months ago, Scott has declined interview requests from nearly all newspaper editorial boards, a traditional stopping point for all candidates.
Scott's traveling press secretary, Amy Graham, posted a picture on Twitter of the audience with the message, "Into the lion's den."
But Scott said Friday he's rethinking his boycott.
"I'd like to sit down with editorial boards," Scott said in an exclusive interview for Bay News 9's Political Connections. The interview airs Sunday at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The change comes as Scott has increased his media exposure since May, when a Quinnipiac University poll showed fewer than one in three Florida voters approved of his job performance. It was among the worst ratings of any governor in the country.
Scott remains controversial: He was greeted by about 100 protesters outside the Vinoy Renaissance Resort.
But while he says the low ratings don't bother him, Scott has made a conscious effort to reverse his poll numbers. He has used the Republican Party of Florida to phone voters with pre-recorded messages trumpeting his accomplishments and recently asked supporters to send pre-written letters of praise to newspaper opinion pages.
Despite a flurry of news Scott made Thursday and Friday — he gave his blessing to the controversial SunRail project, signed his first death warrant and signed an overhaul of the state's Meidcaid program — half of the six questions Scott fielded from the newspaper group were about new fees for public records and the perception that he is not as transparent as he promised from the campaign trail.
"It costs us money to do it," Scott said of the charges. "We pass that cost on. It's the right thing to do," Scott said his communications staff was working to put more records online.
Asked if he would post records that have already been requested, Scott said that was "a good idea."
"That's what we'll be doing," he said.
Scott says the number of record requests has "skyrocketed" since he took office and open government advocates agree that no other governor has received as many public record requests as Scott.
Scott has received 743 requests for records in six months, or about 4 per day. About 90 percent of those requests have been fulfilled, Scott's office reported.
But there has been wide disagreement over why new fees were created.
While Scott says it's to cover the costs of duplication and redaction, public records experts say its an attempt to create additional hurdles for the public and the press.
Brian Crowley, a Palm Beach County-based political blogger and a Florida First Amendment Foundation board member, recently noted that Scott charged more ($784.84) for one week of e-mails to and from his communications director, Brian Burgess, than Alaska charged ($725.27) to produce two years of former Gov. Sarah Palin's e-mails.
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.