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A Times Editorial

Abrupt departure for pioneering corrections chief

Gov. Rick Scott isn't saying much about why he forced out one of his best and brightest agency heads after just six months on the job. Highly regarded Department of Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss arrived from Indiana with progressive ideas and a reputation as a reformer. Scott vaguely cites a difference in management style and philosophy for the abrupt change. But the ouster says more about the micromanaging style of the governor and his new chief of staff than it does about any shortcomings by Buss.

Buss ran the Indiana prison system for popular Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, and he was courted by Michigan as well as Florida. He immediately began shaking things up by expanding programs for inmates re-entering society, rearranging shifts for corrections officers and closing prisons. More broadly, Buss speaks clearly about the need for drug treatment and education in prisons, sentencing reforms that enable nonviolent offenders to be placed in less expensive community-based programs, and more discretion for judges in sentencing criminals. Such enlightened views have not been offered by many Florida corrections officials or state legislators over the years, and that's one reason why the state has such an expensive, sprawling prison system.

The transition from a smaller state with less media scrutiny was not entirely smooth for Buss. He brought in too many fellow Hoosiers. He signed a deal with MSNBC to tape television episodes in a Florida prison without Scott's lawyers checking off. Most concerning, he mishandled a health care privatization contract and did not recognize a conflict of interest involving a consultant he hired to work on the contract. But those incidents suggest a need for more coaching and supervision from the Governor's Office, not a hastily forced departure.

It's more likely that Buss was too candid for his own good. After the Legislature rammed through an ill-conceived plan to privatize 30 prisons in South Florida, Buss and his aides revealed it could cost up to $25 million to cover unused vacation and sick leave and other expenses tied to firing thousands of state prison workers. Powerful Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, acknowledged Thursday that he did not appreciate that and supported Buss' departure. It's also no coincidence that Buss started running afoul of the governor's office upon the arrival of Scott's new chief of staff, Steve MacNamara — who was the most powerful Senate staffer.

While Scott dodges questions about abruptly parting with one of his best hires, the message is clear to those running other state agencies: Don't deliver bad news, don't question the Legislature when it's wrong, don't do anything without checking first with Scott's office — and don't sell your old house back in Indiana.

Abrupt departure for pioneering corrections chief 08/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2011 6:06pm]
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