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Tim Nickens

The prince of darkness

‘GIVE AN INCH…" • That was the sarcastic tweet last weekend by Brian Burgess, the communications director for Gov. Rick Scott. He complained about a Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau article describing how Scott's selective release of information about large public pensions advances his political agenda. • Burgess' point: The poor governor gets criticized for not being transparent, creates a website to provide more public information, and still gets criticized by whiny reporters. • My assessment of this snarky tweet: The Scott administration views Florida's Sunshine Laws as a nuisance and the release of public records as a personal favor. It treats public records as private corporate documents and grudgingly distributes what it wants, when it wants — and to whom it wants. • Nearly three months into the job, Scott acts as though he is still the CEO of a private hospital company who has no legal obligation to be transparent. He says he supports open government, and he signed an executive order his first day re-establishing the Office of Open Government created by Gov. Charlie Crist. But it's been downhill since then. • Scott is the Prince of Darkness, avoiding the sunshine of open meetings and public records whenever he can. The two most egregious examples:

Private dinners with state legislators at the Governor's Mansion.

Scott refuses to allow reporters inside, a break from the practice of his predecessors that forces lawmakers to skirt their own rules regarding public meetings. On one occasion he invited inside the friendly editor from Sunshine State News, a conservative-leaning website of suspicious origin that refuses to reveal its ownership. She predictably found the governor "utterly charming." Negotiations with the Tallahassee press corps over allowing a journalist or two inside to be the public's eyes and ears broke down when the press corps correctly refused to let Scott pick the reporter.

A new policy that assesses a fee for answering public records requests to the governor's office that take more than 30 minutes to process.

The administration apparently believes reporters are venting their frustration with Scott by deluging him with demands for public records. But that is the best way to get information about what a public official is up to when he does not operate in public. While the policy is legal, previous governors have not employed it, and it has a chilling effect on the flow of public information. In practice, it can take a week or more for the administration to estimate the cost of providing records, followed by days or weeks of waiting for the records themselves after payment is made. That is not what state law contemplates, and the apparent strategy is to make the process too cumbersome for the media and the public to bother.

By his actions and his inactions, Scott's indifference to the public's right to know is obvious. He acknowledges he does not use e-mail because he does not want to create a public record that might reveal his thinking. His office so far has refused to reveal who flies on his private plane or who visits him in the Governor's Mansion. His agency heads are muzzled, under orders to get approval before speaking publicly.

Earlier this month, Scott declined an invitation to walk a block from the Capitol and attend the annual luncheon of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit that promotes open government (full disclosure: I am chairman of the foundation's board of directors). His office also canceled public records workshops with state employees routinely conducted by the foundation and the Office of Open Government. I could take it personally, but the governor also hasn't responded to a letter sent two months ago by the Florida Society of News Editors seeking a conversation about issues involving access to records and meetings.

Scott has created a facade of openness. He held one town meeting on Twitter — good luck having a serious public policy discussion in 140 characters — and another last week on Facebook. He will direct his driver to pull over so he can chat for a few minutes to reporters waiting on the side of the road. Those are no substitutes for the prompt disclosure of public records, access to meetings with legislators that ought to be public and broader opportunities for Scott to give more thoughtful answers than sound bites.

The Scott administration revels in its disdain for traditional media and seems to enjoy the daily infighting. To his credit, the governor made a funny video for the annual press skits this month in which he pretended to telephone other Republican governors to seek advice in dealing with a hostile press (No, Gov. Barbour, I don't think a bottle of scotch will work). It would have been even better if he had bothered to show up at the skits as other governors have over the years.

This is not just a routine skirmish between a governor controlling his message and a frustrated Tallahassee press corps. This is not about new media such as Twitter vs. traditional media such as newspapers. This is about a lack of respect for the constitutional rights of all Floridians to have access to their state government and the information necessary to hold it accountable. Scott is more hostile to open meetings and public records than any governor in more than 40 years, and he has created a dark cloud over Florida's Sunshine Laws. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't expect that cloud to lift any time soon.

The prince of darkness 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 7:40pm]
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