Honoring Florida's constitutional requirements for open meetings and public records has been one of Gov. Rick Scott's toughest adjustments from private business to public office. Now, just as the administration has been making positive changes, comes the revelation that the e-mail accounts of most of Scott's transition team were deleted soon after he took office and that public records probably were destroyed in violation of state law. The governor should redouble efforts to ensure every avenue has been pursued to find those transition records and that such an egregious affront to openness will not occur again.
Michael C. Bender of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported Friday that the private company that provided e-mail service to the governor-elect and his transition team closed the accounts in January. That meant the e-mails in those accounts probably were lost for good. Yet even though public records requests for the transition e-mails were made by the Times/Herald and other media outlets as early as January — and Scott's camp discovered in April that the accounts were closed — the governor's camp acknowledged what happened only this week. A more candid, prompt disclosure that the accounts had been closed by the private vendor would have benefited the governor.
In the worst light, there are signs of a coverup. The same month that Scott's team discovered the transition accounts had been closed, communications director Brian Burgess illogically told Bender that the Governor's Office was not the custodian of the transition records. That would be the same Brian Burgess who has failed for months to produce e-mail he has generated as a public employee in response to public records requests by the First Amendment Foundation. The foundation requested Burgess' e-mails in March and April, paid more than $2,600 for them by June, and has yet to receive most of them as of mid August. State law requires that public records be produced within a reasonable time period, and there is no reasonable explanation for Burgess' willful disregard for state law and the Florida Constitution.
In the best light for the governor, the Scott transition attorney made a good-faith effort to produce as many of Scott's transition e-mails as he could round up from other sources. Chris Kise provided the Times/Herald with 69 e-mails that Scott sent as governor-elect and 78 that he received. But there are references in those e-mails to other e-mails that were not included in the documents, suggesting some probably are lost. Kise's recommendation that guidelines be written for retaining records for future transition teams is a good one, and the state ought to provide computer servers and e-mail for the transition teams of incoming governors and Cabinet members to ensure compliance with public records laws.
Scott has made improvements regarding public records. His revised policy for calculating fees for public records from his office makes those records less expensive, and it is more in line with common practice and state law. More significant improvements are in the offing to ensure the public has timely access to e-mail and other public documents from the Governor's Office.
Transitions are hectic times and the learning curves are steep. That is particularly true for incoming governors with no experience in public office who surround themselves with advisers from out of state with no appreciation for Florida's public records laws. Scott should offer every assurance that such disregard for preserving public records will not occur again. If it does, there will be no room to plead ignorance and call it an honest mistake.