Pittman: A lesson on open records from Red Cross.

Cross was a classic Florida character, a state legislator who strolled the marble halls of Tallahassee clad in a white suit, a Stetson and a string tie. He pushed for a spirit of openness in government.
State Sen. J. Emory (Red) Cross of Gainesville crowns Debra Holifield of cross City queen of the Annual Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch Benefit Rodeo. Times (1967)
State Sen. J. Emory (Red) Cross of Gainesville crowns Debra Holifield of cross City queen of the Annual Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch Benefit Rodeo. Times (1967)
Published June 24

Dear Gov. DeSantis,

You’re a Florida native, as am I. You were born in Jacksonville and grew up in Dunedin, while I’m Pensacola born and bred. I’m writing to you because I fear there’s a bit of our shared Florida history you may not be aware of.

The law used to require Florida’s schools to teach Florida kids about Florida history. These days that requirement seems as old-fashioned as requiring kids to learn to write cursive or telling school boards they don’t have to hand over tax dollars to corporations that want to do what public schools do.

Teachers used to make us memorize all 67 counties and some of the significant dates in Florida history, such as when Juan Ponce de Leon gave us our name (1513), and when we somehow bamboozled the rest of the states into letting us join them (1845). We also learned about Significant Figures in Florida History, such as Andrew Jackson, our first territorial governor — although the teachers never mentioned that he actually hated Florida and couldn’t wait to scoot back home to Tennessee.

One Significant Figure in Florida History we did not learn about, but should have, was Emory J. “Red” Cross. There should be a statue of the man in Tallahassee, and his face should be emblazoned on the wall of every county courthouse and city hall in the state.

Red Cross was a classic Florida character, a state legislator who strolled the marble halls of Tallahassee clad in a white suit, a Stetson and a string tie. The man invented his own nickname to make sure voters remembered him.

He spent 16 years in the Legislature, and during that time he spent a decade pushing to pass a Government in the Sunshine Law. For nine years, he couldn’t even get the bill out of committee.

You know who blocked it, Governor? It was Cross’ fellow Democrats, led by a group called the Pork Chop Gang. They controlled both houses of the Legislature back then, just as Republicans control it now, and they were notoriously awful. They wanted black and white kids to go to separate schools. They tried to rid the state’s colleges of anyone who was gay. The only voter they wanted to hear from was the wealthiest man in Florida, St. Joe Co. boss Ed Ball, who controlled banks and railroads and more than a few judges and politicians.

To Cross, that wasn’t right. What particularly upset him was that they used government secrecy to make a buck. Some of his colleagues found out the route for Interstate 75, bought land needed for the highway and sold it to the state for a tidy profit.

“The people were getting ripped off by secret meetings, not knowing what public officials were doing behind closed doors,” Cross told the Gainesville Sun in 2004.

Finally a federal court ruling about fair voting districts took power away from the Pork Choppers and handed it to the more populated urban areas that deserved it. With the change in the Legislature, Cross was able to get his Sunshine Law passed. It was signed on July 12, 1967, by Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor in the 20th century. That’s how open government became one of Florida’s hallmarks, along with expensive theme parks and Ponzi schemes.

So, Governor, that’s why some people were upset when you decided to hold a Cabinet meeting in Israel last month. Visiting foreign nations is nothing new for Florida governors, partly because they can feel more popular overseas than they do back home. The problem is, holding a public meeting 6,000 miles away from the public violates the spirit of what Red Cross was all about.

We still don’t know who paid for the trip or what it cost. Meanwhile, the only people who could afford to go with you were the servants of the modern-day Ed Balls — lobbyists for big industries who always want something from the state.

Your people said the meeting complied with the Sunshine Law because the voters could watch it on a glitchy live stream. But how were they supposed to show up for the meeting and talk to their elected representatives? That’s the whole point of the law Claude Kirk signed, Governor — not just to ensure the public’s informed, but also to make sure the voters can have a say in what their elected representatives are doing.

If you’re so desperate to get out of Tallahassee, then why not hold a Cabinet meeting every month in a different town around the state? Go to Okahumpka to consider clemency cases, or Briny Breezes to vote on buying land for preservation. Folks there would be thrilled.

Here’s the point, Governor. If you slam the door on the public’s access to what you’re doing with their government, you’re no better than those nasty Democrats who blocked Red Cross. Surely you don’t want to be like THOSE guys.

Sincerely, me.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com or . Follow @craigtimes.

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