It recently was revealed that Gov. Rick Scott had shut down a website that promised public access to emails between the governor and his top staff. With any other governor, it would have been big news. But the much-ballyhooed “Project Sunburst” never delivered on the big promises Scott made at its start, and court records suggest that almost from the beginning, Scott’s administration employed multiple workarounds to evade disclosure.
None of this is a surprise. But it is a shame.
When Scott leaped from private business into the governor’s office in 2011, he had little experience with Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws, and it showed. He drew flak for actions taken even before he assumed office, when emails regarding his transition, and records stored on his iPad, were deleted. In the early days of his governorship, the governor seemed to be hell-bent on evading Floridians’ expectations of transparency and openness.
Scott seemed to turn over a new leaf in 2012, when he announced that all his emails — and those of his top officials — would be hosted on a website titled “Project Sunburst,” complete with search functions and a requirement that all email be posted to the site within seven days. Scott rolled out other transparency measures, including an online salary database and organizational chart.
But the commitment to openness was always mushy; from the start, Scott and upper-level officials claimed they didn’t really use email that much. Most of the emails hosted on the site were formatted communiques — meeting notices, press releases and official reports, according to the Tampa Bay TImes.
The site’s “transparency” became even more tattered in 2014, after Scott turned over reams of actual email conversations sent through a series of private Gmail accounts that had never appeared on the Project Sunburst site. The existence of those emails came to light during extended litigation. Throughout his administration, more than $1 million in taxpayer money has been spent in defending, and settling, open-government lawsuits against Scott’s administration.
So it was little surprise to learn that sometime last fall, the bulk of emails stored on the Project Sunburst site quietly disappeared (though links to Project Sunburst are still scattered across Scott’s official site).
Even the official excuse is flimsy. The Associated Press’s Gary Fineout quoted Scott spokesman John Tupps, who said the site used a version of Microsoft Outlook that is 14 years old.
Do the math. Scott took office nearly seven years ago, and the site went live more than five years ago. Microsoft Outlook underwent major upgrades in 2007, 2010 and 2013.
Tupps said upgrading the site would cost taxpayers “tens of thousands of dollars,” Fineout reported — a pittance compared to the tax dollars Scott spent defending open-government lawsuits. And he promised that all the emails hosted on the Project Sunburst website would soon be available again, and that new emails would show up … eventually.
With just a year left in his second and final term, there’s little expectation that Scott will suddenly become an outspoken (and sincere) advocate for transparency. But the experience of this administration should strengthen Floridians’ resolve that the next governor will do more than pay lip service to the letter and spirit of open-government laws.
This editorial was originally published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal.