Lucy Morgan: Putting the 'public' back in public office

A governor’s response to open government sets the tone for all other public officials in Florida. By any measure, Gov. Rick Scott’s response is a failure.
A governor’s response to open government sets the tone for all other public officials in Florida. By any measure, Gov. Rick Scott’s response is a failure.
Published March 13, 2015

Some governors are slow learners. Gov. Rick Scott is beyond slow. He doesn't learn. He doesn't appear to care about public access to records, meetings and information traditionally available to Floridians.

Most governors have a bit of trouble getting used to working in the fishbowl of state government, particularly if they won election without stopping off in another elected office that operated in the Florida sunshine.

Take Gov. Jeb Bush. His first day in office was a disaster from a public records and access standpoint.

On Jan. 6, 1999, Bush's first full day in office, his staff initially refused to release his schedule beyond saying he would be in his office. They didn't agree it should be a public record. And that was only the beginning.

Because we couldn't get a schedule, I directed Times reporter Peter Wallsten to stake out in the governor's reception room and take notes of those coming and going so we could tell readers what the governor was doing on that first day.

We didn't expect to catch him flagrantly violating a provision of the Florida Constitution that required public notice when the governor meets to discuss legislative action with the Senate president or House speaker. But it happened right in front of us.

First, House Speaker John Thrasher appeared for a meeting. And just as the governor's staff was denying that the Senate president might be included, Senate President Toni Jennings appeared.

The battle was on. Frustrated and angry reporters filled the entry to the governor's office as communications director Cory Tilley tried to quell the uproar. First they denied that any important business had been discussed. Later Thrasher, now president of Florida State University, said they had discussed tax cuts and education.

Bush and his staff appeared to be unaware of the constitutional requirement that such meetings between the governor and legislative leaders be open to the public. But before the day was over everyone was promising to obey the law in the future and Thrasher was insisting that the governor got the message. "I think he understands and got the message,'' Thrasher told reporters. "I think it is more of a problem of his staff getting organized.''

He was correct. Things got better.

Bush was not the only governor who objected to having the details of his daily schedule made public. There is almost always a struggle, but most governors quickly get accustomed to it.

It is important to reporters who cover the state capital and attempt to keep Floridians informed. It can be especially important when there is some sort of emergency.

Most governors have distributed their daily schedules a day ahead. In Tallahassee it is a widely circulated public document with details of who the state's chief executive will be seeing and where he will be going. Generally all other officials defer to the governor when scheduling to do something important.

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Some governors have gone out of their way to keep Floridians informed. Gov. Bob Graham included his daily travel schedule down to the names of all passengers on state airplanes, the departure and arrival times, the identification number of the aircraft being used and the names of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who accompanied him.

No recent governor has given as much access to the goings on in his office as Graham did. Back then, reporters could simply walk into the offices of his leadership team and ask questions. Public records requests were quickly filled.

I once asked Graham's office for copies of all correspondence between his office and a particular sheriff. I thought it would take weeks. The documents arrived by overnight mail and included all letters over a period of several years. That happens when the staff sees their role as communicating with Floridians and not just promoting the guy in charge.

Gov. Bob Martinez continued many of the practices Graham had initiated. And Martinez, a former Tampa mayor, did not bristle at the sudden attention to the details of his life.

"I always presumed surveillance,'' he said when asked about the news that the Miami Herald had staked out presidential candidate Gary Hart.

Accustomed to the more secretive ways of Washington by the time he was elected, Gov. Lawton Chiles was a little less forthcoming. There were days when we didn't know where he was. Most of the time, Chiles was out of the mansion in the early morning hours to hunt turkeys. That's where he was the morning Department of Community Affairs Secretary Bill Sadowski was killed in a state plane crash.

Because Chiles frequently ditched the law enforcement agents who accompanied him, it took them half the day to find him on the day of the crash.

In the 30 years I watched governors up close, only Gov. Charlie Crist walked into office with a plan for keeping the records of his administration public. He created an Open Government office, hired Pat Gleason, the state's best known expert on access and public records, and directed state agencies to comply with the law.

More importantly, when we ran into trouble with an agency, Gleason and sometimes Crist personally stepped in to help.

All of this changed when Scott was elected. He ditched the airplanes that traditionally helped the governor and Cabinet members travel to distant cities from a capital that is difficult for most Floridians to reach, under the guise of sparing taxpayers the cost of operating the planes. He does not make most of his travel public and never discloses who travels with him on his personal airplane.

On any given day most of us don't know where Scott is or what he is doing. This is how he was able to join sugar lobbyists in a secret trip to the King Ranch in Texas. It was only discovered later when the Tampa Bay Times gained access to Texas hunting license records.

The sale of state airplanes also left Cabinet members who might be political competitors to a governor without an easy way to travel the state and keep in touch with constituents. Scott uses his own airplane, never discloses the names of those who travel with him and tells us only what he wants us to know about his travels.

Scott and his staff rarely even answer questions posed by reporters. Instead they repeat talking points released earlier.

The governor made a lot of noise about putting his emails online, but much is missing when a controversy occurs. After he was re-elected in November, Scott admitted he and staffers had been conducting business in private emails they had not disclosed.

His office has been especially uncooperative when times get tough. After he was caught lying about the firing of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, Scott repeatedly refused to answer questions about the situation. When confronted with a Department of Corrections in chaos and under investigation for the deaths of inmates, his administration issued a gag order forbidding anyone at Corrections to respond to questions.

Scott kept the Open Government office that Crist created but it is essentially a joke. Meaningful responses to questions or requests have disappeared behind press releases. Any governor's response to open government is important. It sets an example for the rest of state government as well as cities and counties who are covered by the law. Scott fails by any measure.

Lucy Morgan is a retired state capital bureau chief and senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times.