TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis convened the first Cabinet meeting since early February on Thursday and ran into a buzz-saw of criticism from the state’s lone Democratic leader, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, for keeping the independently elected members of the Cabinet “in the dark” about Florida’s response to the data and decisions regarding the novel coronavirus.
“Each of us was independently elected by the people of this great state. Each of us received more than 4 million votes and were put here to do a job,” Fried said as she sat alone in the Cabinet meeting room while DeSantis and the other two Republicans on the Cabinet listened remotely by phone.
“In the critical four months of this pandemic, this Cabinet has been left in the dark,’’ Fried said.
Fried said she formally requested that DeSantis have Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and other officials from the Department of Health appear at the meeting “to discuss decisions around the COVID-19 data, which our state in its reopening relies on” but he refused.
She cited the cumulative $2.4 billion drop in state revenue and said she also asked for updates on the state’s revenue picture from the Department of Revenue and the Office of Financial Regulation “but again I didn’t see any of those on the agenda.”
DeSantis and the three members of Florida’s Cabinet, which include Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, share the authority and oversight over several critical state departments. The agencies regulate highway safety, tax collections, insurance and financial industries. As a group, they oversee the state’s bond debt and pension fund, approve the acquisition of land for conservation purposes and provide oversight of where power plants will be built.
But DeSantis, like his Republican predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, has chafed at the shared authority and held fewer joint meetings of the group than many governors, often turning much of the agenda into an opportunity to deliver proclamations and awards.
Although DeSantis has traveled around the state holding pandemic-related news conferences with near-daily frequency for the past two months, DeSantis decided the Cabinet could not meet in person.
“Health and safety concerns as a result of COVID-19 led to the decision to conduct the Cabinet meeting via teleconference,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré told the News Service of Florida on Wednesday. “For Gov. DeSantis, providing a safe and healthy workplace environment is of the utmost concern.”
Despite those apparent concerns, DeSantis has held numerous meetings with reporters in the Cabinet meeting room while neither he nor his staff wear masks. He has attended multiple news conferences with Republican mayors of Miami and Jacksonville.
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A testy start
From the start, DeSantis refused to provide Fried any platform to speak. The meeting began with Fried asking for “a moment of silence to mark the 100,000 Americans and 2,300 Floridians who’ve died” from the novel coronavirus.
He waited 10 seconds and then Fried asked “for a couple of moments” to speak. DeSantis would not recognize her.
The Cabinet agenda included routine items related to a review of the Division of Emergency Management’s 2020 statewide emergency shelter plan, the refinancing of bond issues that saved the state more than $100 million in bond debt, and the annual approval of Florida Forever land purchases.
Not included on the agenda, Fried said, were updates on “the feeding of millions of our Floridians, and our children and families during COVID-19” as well as updates on the wildfires in North Florida “that have burned thousands of our acres and prompted evacuations, as we’ve dealt with severe drought.”
Fried also noted that the Florida Senate refused to confirm DeSantis’ appointee to be the chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings, John MacIver, leaving it up to DeSantis to reappoint him. If the governor fails to act to rename MacIver to oversee the 29 judges that rule on state government issues ranging from workers’ compensation disputes to the locations of nuclear power plants, he loses his job.
“So, just as a final question, while we are reopening, are we going to plan on reopening this decision and considering additional applicants at our next Cabinet meeting?” Fried asked.
DeSantis ignored her.
“Anybody else?” he asked, seeking comment from the other two Republicans on the panel. Patronis quickly jumped in and turned the question into a testimonial.
“Look, hey, I want to thank you and I couldn’t be more proud to be a Floridian watching you and your administration deal with something that has never been seen before in any of our lifetimes: that COVID-19 threat and economic hardships,’’ Patronis said. “But look, I said this to my team that thank God we had Gov. De Santis not Gov. Cuomo.” Patronis was referring to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
He noted how DeSantis and his wife, Casey, brought a new baby “into this world in these times and what you were dealing with.’’ Patronis said he “couldn’t help but get choked up” when DeSantis said his baby’s grandparents hadn’t had a chance to hold her.
He added that his team had phone calls about revenue forecasts, and he wasn’t worried. “I’ve checked what you do get through this pandemic. We will persevere,’’ he said. “You have my support, and I appreciate the things you’ve done to see us through these, these turbulent waters.”
DeSantis did not respond but asked Moody if she had anything to add.
“No governor, I just want to assure you throughout this, we have been in constant communication with the relevant agencies. They’ve been amazingly responsive,’’ she said.
A no-comment ending
DeSantis then adjourned the hour-long meeting. “Well, that concludes this agenda you guys have a good one. Take care.”
After the meeting, the governor was not available for comment, and his communications team did not respond to requests for comment on Fried’s remarks.
Fried first criticized DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic in March, when she urged DeSantis to issue a stay-home order two weeks before he ultimately did.
She told reporters after the meeting she was disappointed at the state’s “piecemeal approach to shutting down” and the failure of the state to provide transparent data for the public to use to make its decisions.
“I’ve been saying from day one, it’s a transparency issue, as we’re opening up our state,” and people need reliable information “to be making personal decisions of whether or not to go out,’’ she said.
She added that she spoke with Rebekah Jones, the former geographic information sciences manager for the Department of Health, and now has more questions “to make sure that we were being as transparent as possible with the data for asking people to make these life-altering decisions of going out in public.”
Jones set off a political firestorm last week when she alleged that the deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Health directed her to “manipulate” data to downplay the threat of COVID-19 in rural counties leading up to the reopening of the state.
Fried said she visited the North Florida beach town of Seaside over the weekend, and “the restaurants were not operating at 25% capacity, they were operating at full capacity. Not a single person in the Seaside area was wearing a mask.”
She said visitors were coming in from Tennessee and Alabama “and it’s wonderful that we’re seeing that economy back up, but it’s at the potential detriment to those individuals that were participating in it. So there’s gonna be a lot of confusion.”
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