Senate President Don Gaetz cancels on governor to avoid rule violation

Gov. Rick Scott invited Senate President Don Gaetz to dinner Thursday and the senator gladly accepted, before realizing that going might violate Senate rules and the Florida Constitution.

Scott invited legislators to a holiday reception at the Mansion and Gaetz said he and his wife were invited to stay for dinner.

“They’ve asked Vicki and I to stay afterwards,” Gaetz said. “I guess he wants to talk to me.”

Scott often favors substantive discussions over small talk, and the success of his agenda in the second half of his term will depend in large part on Gaetz’s support.

Gaetz said the two men have not spoken since he became Senate president Nov. 20.

Reminded that Senate rules and the Constitution prohibit the Senate president and governor from discussing official business in private, Gaetz said: “I’ll try not to.”

But soon after,Gaetz canceled.

It may have looked like an innocent get-together at the most festive time of the year, and a spokeswoman for Scott said the event was “purely social.”

But under rules re-enacted by the Senate two weeks ago, the Senate president cannot meet privately with the governor without first issuing a four-hour notice to the public and news media.

No notice was given before Thursday’s event.

The Senate counsel, George Levesque, interprets the rule to cover social occasions between the two leaders, according to Gaetz’s spokeswoman.

“It was definitely our fault,” spokeswoman Katherine Betta said. “Next time, we will notice it.”

The Constitution contains a provision, approved by Florida voters, that says discussions of official business between the governor and Senate president or House speaker must be “reasonably open to the public.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was also invited to the reception, but said he could not attend.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, has set a tone different from his predecessors by calling for higher ethical standards for elected officials in Florida — especially legislators.

In his Nov. 20 acceptance speech as Senate president, he told the Senate: “You and I will be judged ... by what we do to reform the way we run elections and raise the standards of ethical conduct from the courthouse to the state house.”

Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a group that monitors government compliance with open meetings and public records laws, praised Gaetz for cancelling on the governor.

“I think this is the appropriate response and hopefully it sets the tone for the upcoming legislative session,” Petersen said. “Even though this meeting may have been less formal than others, clearly Sen. Gaetz takes the responsibilities of his office very seriously.”