Florida's public records laws are among the strongest in the nation and help ensure residents know how government officials are acting on their behalf. They are prized by the public and generally supported by elected officials from both political parties. Yet Gov. Rick Scott fails to grasp the importance of openness, and his administration's hostility to public records threatens to further erode public confidence in his leadership.
The latest example of efforts by Scott's aides to circumvent public records laws are revealed in an e-mail by the governor's top adviser, Mary Anne Carter. "I rarely check and almost never respond to work e-mail because of the open records law," she warned U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office in a message sent from her private e-mail account. Carter's aversion to open government should not be surprising, because Scott says he never uses e-mail in order to avoid creating public records.
Even more insulting is the defense of conducting the public's business in secret by Scott's communication director, Brian Burgess: "There are things we don't want to broadcast to our opponents." That sounds like something from the Nixon administration. Exactly who are the governor's opponents? Floridians who want to know what the state's top elected official and his staff are up to with their tax dollars and their government?
There is a learning curve for all new administrations, and conducting business in a fishbowl can require an adjustment. That is particularly true for a governor with no prior experience in public office who was chief executive officer of a large private hospital company. But the transition period is over, and the governor and his top aides show little interest in adapting to open government or respecting public records laws. In fact, they go out of their way to avoid them.
Scott's public calendar is less specific than those of his predecessors. He refuses to allow reporters to attend his meetings with legislators at the Governor's Mansion, forcing lawmakers to circumvent their own rules. The heads of the state agencies he directs generally cannot speak publicly about public policy without permission from his office. Scott has created a dark cloud over Government in the Sunshine. It is unhealthy for the state, but also for his own administration.
While Scott pledges support for open government, his cumbersome policies dealing with requests for public records appear designed to frustrate and intimidate the public. Under his system, it can take weeks to obtain routine e-mails regarding public business, and the fees are unreasonably high. None of the three elected statewide Cabinet members has such a grudging, inflexible approach to providing similar public records. Whether Scott's system is technically legal is one question. But there can be no doubt that it violates the spirit of Florida's long commitment to public records and government transparency.
The First Amendment Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes open government, has made routine public records requests for the e-mails from Carter and other top aides to the governor for the last two months. (Full disclosure: The Times was a founding sponsor of the foundation, and editor of editorials Tim Nickens is chairman of the foundation's board of directors.) Burgess, who has been slow to respond to requests for his e-mail, inaccurately portrays the tension over public records as retribution from the state's newspaper editorial boards, whom Scott has declined to visit. The reality is that the administration has a high number of public records requests from the public and the media because it is so secretive in the way it conducts public business. This is not about newspapers. This is about the public's right to be informed about the business of the state and the importance of transparency as a check on government.
Carter and Burgess joined Scott's administration after working for his campaign and for Conservatives for Patients Rights, Scott's political committee that fought President Barack Obama's health care reform. Now they are public employees conducting public business, not partisan operatives fighting political enemies. It's up to Scott to insist on respect for public records and to open up an administration that is the most secretive in modern Florida history.