Editorial: A lesson in open government in Florida

Published March 6, 2015

They routinely attract little public attention or news coverage. Yet last week's meeting of aides to the governor and Cabinet illustrates the importance of Florida's public meetings law. Only by requiring that the public's business be conducted in public can Floridians know what elected officials are up to and assess the potential impact.

For example, it became clear at the aides' meeting that Gov. Rick Scott remains determined to fire three more leaders of state agencies that report to the governor and Cabinet. The governor created a firestorm when he ousted Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, who also reported to the governor and Cabinet, without public discussion or a public vote. Open government advocates and media organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times, have filed a lawsuit against the governor and Cabinet and alleged Bailey's ouster violated opening meetings requirements enshrined in the Florida Constitution and state law.

Undeterred, Scott wants Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Tuesday to approve new performance measures for agency heads that report to them. That's fine, but several important details came out when the aides discussed the situation in public.

First, Scott would rig the performance measures to make it easy to fire agency heads by requiring in some cases that 100 percent of the goals be met. Nobody is perfect, particularly the governor. Second, Scott would remove a requirement that Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty's office "protect the public from illegal or unethical insurance products and practices.'' That would be a key mission for the insurance commissioner whom Scott would fire without explanation.

Finally, it is instructive for the public to see that the aides for Cabinet members raised appropriate concerns about Scott's power play. It was particularly helpful to hear the reservations from Atwater's aide. State law appropriately requires the state's chief financial officer to sign off on the hiring and firing of the insurance commissioner.

This is exactly the reason Florida has the unique governor and Cabinet system and strong public meetings requirements that should be enforced. Executive power is shared, and openness helps Floridians ensure those powers are not abused.