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  1. Florida Politics

Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet agree to public process in firing agency heads

Published Mar. 11, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet agreed Tuesday that the firing of a Cabinet-level state agency head can only be done in public — a step they avoided in the hotly disputed removal of a state police official three months ago.

The four powerful statewide elected officials, all Republicans, also agreed to take a two-hour refresher course on state open meetings and public records laws that are at the heart of a simmering political and legal battle.

The absence of a public vote before the Dec. 16 removal of Commissioner Gerald Bailey of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has forced Scott and Cabinet members to conduct a detailed self-examination of their own operations.

It spawned an ethics complaint against Scott and a lawsuit by news outlets across the state, accusing all four officials of breaking the law by orchestrating Bailey's removal without a public discussion or vote.

The suit followed a series of Times/Herald reports in which Bailey offered detailed accounts of his dismissal by Scott's former counsel, and Bailey's claims — largely denied by Scott — that the governor's office and campaign repeatedly interfered in the FDLE's operations.

Scott and the Cabinet — which consists of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — on Tuesday also adopted new guidelines for establishing missions for the 10 agencies that jointly report to them.

But Cabinet members slammed the brakes on Scott's call for new performance measures for three Cabinet-level agency heads he wants to replace, with Atwater saying he was "a little surprised" that Scott wanted to impose the new measures without more input from the agency heads themselves.

Scott wants to fire three more Cabinet-level agency heads as part of his call for new leadership in his second term, but he has not given reasons as to why they should be fired and no Cabinet member has criticized their job performance.

They are Marshall Stranburg, executive director of the Department of Revenue; Drew Breakspear, chief of the Office of Financial Regulation; and Kevin McCarty, director of the Office of Insurance Regulation. All three will discuss their goals and performance criteria at the May 15 Cabinet meeting. McCarty has the longest tenure by far of the three and has a high-profile, politically precarious job of regulating the insurance rates Floridians pay.

Atwater, who has equal say with Scott in the hiring and firing of McCarty, gave the insurance regulator another vote of confidence.

"I think Kevin's doing a good job. I do," Atwater told reporters after Tuesday's meeting.

Atwater said he was glad that Scott's performance measures were placed on hold.

"I think they said, 'Time out,' " Atwater said.

McCarty has been Florida's insurance regulator since 2003, a period that includes a series of devastating hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 that wreaked havoc on Florida's property insurance market.

Asked how it feels that Scott is determined to drive him from office, he said: "I've been serving at the pleasure of the Cabinet for 12 years. … That's part of the landscape. That's part of the job."

Tuesday's Cabinet discussion was filled with arcane talk of procedures as Bondi, the attorney general, provided legal advice to her colleagues.

Putnam, the third Cabinet member, emphasized the need to get the agencies' input in the shaping of performance measures.

"They're the ones who have to live with it every day," Putnam said. "They ought to have input in the scorecard that they're being judged by."

The four Republican statewide officials also voted to hold a meeting with their Cabinet aides for a two-hour presentation on Florida's Sunshine Law and public records laws, to be held in public and directed by an acknowledged expert on the subject, Assistant Attorney General Pat Gleason.

They also voted to require that written minutes be kept, transcribed and posted online at all future meeting of Cabinet aides.

"We did not violate the Sunshine Laws, and we look forward to more transparency in the process," Bondi told reporters afterward.

Ten agency heads report to the governor and at least one Cabinet member, including the officials who oversee highway safety, environmental protection, bond finance and the Florida retirement system.

Cabinet oversight of those agencies is deeply embedded in Florida's political system, a process intended to limit the power of a governor to single-handedly hire and fire those officials.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.