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  1. Florida Politics

'Sunburst' email system a step in the right direction for Gov. Scott

Published May 22, 2012

When Gov. Rick Scott addressed an elite group of Florida business leaders at the Willard Hotel in Washington a few nights ago, the doors were shut tight, ensuring that whatever Scott said would not be reported.

That was bad. But here's the good news: We now know what Scott told the famously private Council of 100, thanks to Scott himself, and his newfound commitment to sunshine.

The key points of Scott's speech and a "survey" he gave his guests can be found online as part of "Project Sunburst," the new website that offers the public a glimpse of the massive daily email traffic in and out of the governor's office.

"Intro — priorities," reads the first page of Scott's Council of 100 speech, followed by the key points of jobs, education and keeping the cost of living low. The material was in the in-box of a press aide.

The Council of 100 cares a lot about higher education, and the group clashed with Scott on two big issues in that policy area.

The council favored a bill to let the University of Florida and Florida State University set market-rate tuition, which Scott vetoed, and the group opposed making Florida Polytechnic the state's 12th university, which Scott approved.

After his speech, Scott gave the Council of 100 a nine-page survey of questions, many of which were framed so as to put the state's condition in a favorable light.

Question No. 1: "For the two years ending June 2011, what was the average annual change in the total budget of the 11 state universities?"

Five choices followed.

The "right" answer was plus 9.85 percent, according to Scott.

That's Scott spin. The figure is somewhat misleading because it includes universities' rents, concessions and donations. State support for universities, in fact, has been on a steady decline for years. Earlier in the day, university leaders had emphasized to the same Council of 100 that the state now provides 21 percent of the universities' budgets, down from 30 percent four years ago.

Scott didn't tell the full story, which we wouldn't have known if the speaking materials weren't online.

A lot of the online email is dry stuff, such as weekly reports from the bureaucratic trenches, forwarded copies of news stories.

But when editors of most Florida newspapers gush with praise for one of the country's least popular governors, that's a significant development.

The Florida Society of News Editors praised Scott for Sunburst, which displays emails to and from Scott and 11 staffers on flgov.com/sunburst (the username and password are both "sunburst").

"We want to commend you," the editors wrote Scott. "Your efforts undoubtedly will inspire other public officials and local governments in Florida to follow your lead."

The system is flawed. For example, it would be better if email to and from the governor's budget office could be viewed. But Scott gets credit for improving transparency in government and for setting an example for the rest.

The candidate who refused to meet with editorial boards in 2010 now does so often. The governor-elect whose emails were carelessly deleted during his transition to power now lets the public see email online. That's progress.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.

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