Editorial: Scott's appointments, secrecy undercut his Irma performance

Gov. Rick Scott, center, assess damage caused by Hurricane Irma during a tour of Big Pine Key on Sept. 13.
Gov. Rick Scott, center, assess damage caused by Hurricane Irma during a tour of Big Pine Key on Sept. 13.
Published Sept. 28, 2017

Gov. Rick Scott gets generally good reviews for his consistent warnings before Hurricane Irma and for the state's response afterward. But even in the midst of dealing with a major hurricane and the recovery, the governor's worst impulses diminish his efforts and his credibility. Scott continues to appoint political allies rather than qualified experts to key positions, circumvents public records laws and prefers secrecy over openness, even in times of crisis.

With two months left in hurricane season, Scott has appointed a 29-year-old political operative with virtually no experience to head the Division of Emergency Management. Wes Maul graduated from law school just four years ago, worked as a travel aide on the governor's re-election campaign and spent time as "special assistant to the governor" before becoming chief of staff to the departing emergency management director a year ago. Now Maul will run the department responsible for preparing and responding to hurricanes?

This is a disaster waiting to happen. Maul is no Craig Fugate, who had the job when four hurricanes cut through Florida in six weeks in 2004 and went on to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And he's no Bryan Koon, who had emergency management experience in the federal government and at Wal-Mart and has had the job since 2011. Koon's departure for the private sector is ill-timed, coming just after Irma and before the end of hurricane season. That doesn't justify appointing someone so unqualified even on an interim basis and putting Floridians at risk.

Yet Scott often chooses political loyalty over experience. He's not the first governor to park campaign operatives in high-paying state jobs without worrying about their qualifications. But his default is personal connection even in high-profile jobs of great responsibility, and his circle of friends is small. Scott appointed Jesse Panuccio as executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity though he had no business experience, and Panuccio resigned when it appeared he would not be confirmed by the Senate. He appointed former Rep. Jimmy Patronis to the Cabinet position of chief financial officer though Patronis has no financial background other than helping run his family's Panama City Beach restaurant. He named Bradenton developer and former U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff as chair of the Constitution Revision Commission, and Beruff will never be mistaken for a constitutional scholar. Now comes Maul, the most unqualified and inexperienced of them all.

Further undermining public trust in the governor is his blatant, persistent disregard for public records and openness. Scott vigorously defends the state's actions regarding a Broward nursing home whose residents suffered without air conditioning following Irma — and 11 of them died. Yet voicemail messages from nursing home officials to Scott's cellphone before the deaths occurred were deleted, which violates at least the spirit of the state's public records laws. It also turns out the Scott administration used software to heavily redact nursing home inspection reports — and those same reports are available from the federal government without the redactions. The state said it would stop using the software after the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported the practice.

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During and after Irma, even routine information from the state's emergency operations center was carefully managed and hard to come by. Contrary to prior practice under other governors, reporters could watch hurricane briefings from behind the glass but could not hear anything. While Fugate became a national figure in Florida as he managed the state's response to hurricanes, Koon was rarely available to the media and Scott hogged the television time.

During his campaigns, Scott cited his experience in the private sector and promised to run state government like a business. But after nearly seven years as governor, he has yet to understand that government is the public's business. His penchant for secrecy and handing key jobs to unqualified friends stains his record and makes it difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt even during hurricanes.