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  1. Florida Politics

Perspective: It's our Cabinet, and it's a mess (w/video)

[ CAMERON COTTRILL | Times ]
[ CAMERON COTTRILL | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2015

TALLAHASSEE

A country preacher opened a recent meeting of the Florida Cabinet with a simple prayer for the state's top elected officials.

"Lord," said the Rev. George Hall of Avon Park, "thank you for our governor, Rick Scott, and his Cabinet."

It's a simple enough mistake. It's not his Cabinet, even though recent events suggest otherwise. Under the state Constitution, the three Cabinet members — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — are independently elected members of a collegial body in a power-sharing arrangement unique among the 50 states. But to see them in action, you wouldn't know it. The turmoil that has engulfed state government in recent weeks makes the Cabinet look like Scott's plaything.

Cabinet members, who answer to Florida voters and not the governor, were painfully slow to question Scott's latest stealth maneuver: the abrupt dismissal, with no explanation or vote, of Commissioner Gerald Bailey of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who reported to Scott and the Cabinet. But any close Cabinet-watcher could see it coming.

Since Scott, a neophyte with scant knowledge of Florida history, took office in 2011, the public Cabinet has become an extension of Scott himself: scripted and superficial with plenty of self-promotion. Rather than a forum for policy discussions, meetings occur less frequently and are mostly fluff and photo-ops. They begin with a beaming Bondi parading around the Capitol meeting room holding a lovable dog being offered for adoption. Gone are robust discussions of education and the environment that are part of the Cabinet's purview.

Bailey, 67, was ousted from office on three hours' notice. The ax fell two weeks after the arrival of Scott's new chief of staff, Melissa Sellers. The 32-year-old Sellers, a former Louisiana political operative, had no policy experience in Florida and had recently run Scott's re-election campaign, where friction with FDLE was so common that agents referred to Scott's inner circle of out-of-state aides as the "Louisiana Mafia." Scott publicly said Bailey resigned, and the governor quickly appointed a personal favorite at FDLE as Bailey's interim successor with no discussion or search.

Bailey called Scott a liar, saying he was forced out by Scott's lawyer, Pete Antonacci, and that the lawyer said he had the "concurrence" of Cabinet members. When Cabinet members finally did react to Bailey's ouster, they said they were blind-sided.

"Their level of curiosity is baffling to me," said Mark Ivester, who spent 15 years as a Cabinet aide to former Comptroller Gerald Lewis, and who has been a harsh critic on Facebook.

The result leaves many unanswered questions about whether the Cabinet members — the only people with the power to stop Scott — are doing their jobs. Their acquiescence has raised questions about the independence of the state law enforcement agency, created in 1967 to assist local police agencies, conduct high-level criminal intelligence and probe public corruption.

The affair also raises questions about the independence of the Republican Cabinet and its willingness to take on a governor from the same party. As events erupted into a full-blown fiasco, all three, two of whom want to be governor some day, have harshly criticized Scott and demanded changes in how Cabinet agency heads are appointed, evaluated and replaced.

"This is a very serious issue about the governance of our state," said lawyer Martha Barnett, a member of the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission that recommended a downsizing of the Cabinet from six members to three, which voters approved. "The Cabinet members have a constitutional responsibility to have looked at Commissioner Bailey," Barnett said. "It sounds to me like people either forgot it, didn't know it or ignored it."

A much-belated public discussion of Bailey's ouster and a plan for managing appointments is set for Thursday at an unlikely venue: near the midway of the state fairgrounds in Tampa, chosen long ago as the meeting site to mark the opening of the state fair.

Voters established the current three-member Cabinet in 1998. Until then, the original Cabinet had six members, a vestige of the state's agrarian origins, built to restrict the political reach of governors, many of whom resented it. Republican Gov. Claude Kirk dismissed an all-Democratic Cabinet as "the six dwarfs."

Cabinet members were long viewed as being controlled by the interests they regulated, such as banking and insurance. Three members were driven from office by scandal in the 1970s, and marathon meetings were spent approving purchases of pencils and paper.

"There was a time when the Cabinet micromanaged Cabinet agencies. The pendulum has swung too far the other way," said Putnam, who has been Scott's loudest critic and offered the most substantive reform proposals.

They include quarterly reports from Cabinet agencies, annual reviews of agencies' performance and an appointments selection committee. He also would require that agencies' budget requests be given to the Cabinet at the same time they are given to the governor and Legislature, not months later.

Putnam was angry when he learned that at Bailey's final Cabinet appearance on Dec. 9, the FDLE chief had been muzzled by Scott and told not to offer a plan to reduce high turnover due to low pay for FDLE lab analysts.

Scott's actions have raised questions about whether Cabinet aides, working in private, may have circumvented Florida Sunshine Law. Bondi, generally Scott's most loyal Cabinet ally, agrees that back-channel talk among aides to Scott and Cabinet members might have been illegal.

"We need an absolute, thorough change in the way things are being handled," said Bondi, who suggested involving open government legal experts in a review. "Everything has to be done in the sunshine."

Atwater has called for a halt to Scott's talk of replacing any other state agency heads. "I believe the Cabinet should now take its time to develop a very clear process, by agency," he said.

Atwater's predecessors are stunned.

Former Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican who served on the Cabinet from 1994 to 2002, said he was shocked that any Cabinet agency head would be ousted and replaced without Cabinet members' involvement in a nominating process and search. "This should not be a system where one person can wander off and do whatever he wants to do," Milligan said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.