Two weeks ago, the mayor of St. Petersburg called Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez to talk about coronavirus preparations.
Rick Kriseman asked his former colleague in the Florida House of Representatives if she could pass on his concerns and maybe arrange a conversation with Gov. Ron DeSantis to talk about logical solutions.
Since then, Kriseman has gotten two phone calls from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
He has participated in an urban mayors conference call arranged by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
He has talked a couple of times to U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.
And he still has not heard back from the governor’s office.
Maybe it was an oversight. Maybe DeSantis is working tirelessly and doesn’t have time for individual phone calls or even a group chat with the mayors of Florida’s largest cities.
Or maybe there is a disconnect between the Governor’s Mansion and the rest of the state.
Because, right about now, that’s what it feels like. It feels like DeSantis has been indecisive and out of touch. In a time of crisis, it feels like the governor of Florida is holed up in an ivory tower with the doors locked tight.
“It’s frustrating when you hear that he’s sitting down and having meetings with the Florida Chamber (of Commerce) and Associated Industries (of Florida). These are two of the largest business and industry-related lobbying groups in Tallahassee," said Kriseman, who added that DeSantis also failed to respond to a March 20 letter from a group of mayors asking for relief for homeowners and renters facing financial hardship.
“He has time to talk with the lobbyists, but he doesn’t have time to talk to any of us on the local level. That’s frustrating."
This isn’t about policy decisions, either good or bad. In these unfamiliar times, there are few perfect answers.
This is about leadership. In the end, that’s what Floridians want from their governor. Most of us are probably willing to follow in whatever direction the governor chooses, but we’d like to know that he has arrived at these decisions in a logical and thoughtful manner.
Instead, DeSantis spent a great deal of time ceding authority to local municipalities. He said he was reluctant to act because he was awaiting further instructions from the White House. And then, boom, he issued an executive order on Wednesday that seemingly took authority away from local governments. Hours later, he issued another order that specifically said his orders trumped the locals.
And then during a Thursday news conference, he backed away from that, too. Except, he suggested, when it comes to churches.
So are you clear on all that? Yeah, neither are local officials.
The philosophies behind the executive orders were not the problem. The problem was a complete lack of communication that had city attorneys scrambling to interpret the conflicting orders and the governor’s comments.
“When there is a real crisis, when push comes to shove, when we were facing (Hurricane) Irma, when we went through Hurricane Andrew, the people on the front line are always the local government. That’s where the rubber hits the road," said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long. “We appreciate our state and federal partners but the key word is partner. It doesn’t work if you don’t communicate back and forth.
“You can’t just issue orders like God, and expect that to work. That’s not how democracy works."
Again, this is not an attack on his decisions or even his timing. It’s a lament that his inner circle looks more like a knot.
Does he need to call every mayor or commission or council chair in the state before he makes a decision? Of course not. But it would help if he and his staff reached out more. Pinellas County Commissioners sat through a meeting on Thursday without ever realizing DeSantis had amended his original executive order 12 hours earlier. How is that acceptable? How is it even possible?
Everyone working from home the past few weeks has learned how to utilize Microsoft Teams or Zoom or some other remote conferencing tool, and yet the governor’s office doesn’t seem inclined to connect with anyone outside of Tallahassee or Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but rather a molder of consensus. And it’s absolutely true that you cannot lead during a crisis by constantly asking for a show of hands.
But you’ll also struggle to get anyone to follow if you consistently ignore their pleas.