The Florida Senate will vote Wednesday on whether to permanently remove or reinstate former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis removed from office in the wake of the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At issue is not only Israel’s fate but the Senate’s use of its authority to effectively invalidate the voters’ will by removing a locally elected official and enabling the governor to fulfill a campaign promise. Senators should base their decision today on the facts, not partisan politics or the understandable grief of the Parkland community.
After a marathon hearing Monday, the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-7 along party lines, with all Democrats dissenting, to recommend that the Republican-led Senate uphold the governor’s decision to remove Israel from office. Because Israel is a constitutional officer elected by voters, state law requires that the Senate approve or reject the governor’s decision to suspend him. Monday’s committee meeting was a prelude to the full Senate’s participation Wednesday as a de facto jury. The vote is expected to be along partisan lines to remove the former sheriff, but the repercussions for this precedent will be far wider and potentially more damaging to sheriffs throughout Florida who one day may have their own political adversary in the Governor’s Mansion.
DeSantis and several Parkland families blame Israel for the 17 deaths at Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. In January, only three days after taking office, the Republican governor fulfilled a campaign promise by suspending Israel, accusing him of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” stemming from his handling of the Parkland attack and a 2017 shooting at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport that left five people dead.
But a Naples lawyer and respected former Republican state legislator whom the Senate hired to serve as a special master in the case rejected DeSantis’ claims. In a non-binding report, Dudley Goodlette found that the governor failed to establish that Israel’s leadership was to blame for the deadly incidents. In the airport case, Goodlette found, the governor cherry-picked complaints and built a “faulty premise” to attack Israel for staffing levels at the airport. And while he faulted Broward deputies for not rushing into Douglas High to confront the shooter, Goodlette found that blaming the sheriff for the personal failures of several deputies would "establish an unworkable precedent,” for “even well-trained and supervised employees can make grievous mistakes.”
In both cases, the special master acknowledged that Israel’s department could have performed better. But he rejected the governor’s sweeping complaints that Israel’s deputies were poorly trained and that his command system was “ultimately a failure.” The evidence, Goodlette wrote, “suggests that the Stoneman Douglas shooting was a culmination of individual failures." That is in line with the determination of a state commission report on the shooting, which found that a Broward deputy on-scene was “derelict in his duty” and “failed to act consistently with his training.”
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, walked out of committee before Monday’s vote, but questioned the fairness of the hearing and called out the pressure on Republicans to support the governor. The other senators representing Tampa Bay - Republicans Bill Galvano of Bradenton, Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, Ed Hooper of Clearwater and Wilton Simpson of Trilby, and Democrats Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Janet Cruz of Tampa - should be similarly concerned. They should make independent decisions Wednesday without regard to partisan politics -- and they should give greater weight to the findings of an independent special master who said flatly the governor did not make his case.
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