Assault on open government

Among Florida’s recent governors, none has a worse record on transparency and open government than incumbent Rick Scott. Now Mr. Scott is apparently trying to render Florida’s public records law effectively meaningless by adopting a policy that makes it next to impossible to obtain access to public communications.

His latest effort to skirt the obligations of transparency, revealed in a lawsuit over his secret plans to raise money for a project involving the Governor’s Mansion, was justified by a claim that public employees can routinely conduct state business using private email accounts. They then become “custodians” of their own records.

This is a stunning assault on Florida’s constitutional right of public access, but well in keeping with the pattern and practice of a governor who has never seemed to understand, or appreciate, the obligations of transparency imposed on Florida’s public officials. He acts more like the CEO of a privately operated hospital chain, which he once was, than a public servant required to conduct the public’s business in public.

Until now, all emails and communications by public officials have been a matter of public record, accessible via a public-records request. By allowing public employees to use private email accounts to conduct business, however, Mr. Scott and state employees can deny that any such public records exist in state files.

Anyone wanting access, therefore, has to determine which state employees — current or former — may have those communications. Seekers of information may be obliged to file lawsuits. The burden is on the employee to release them or fight the request. They are the ones who have to hire lawyers to represent them in handling public-records requests.

This is a policy never before employed by state government, a reversal of precedent that makes the public-access law inoperable on a practical level. It effectively takes the state out of the loop on state business and creates a barrier that blocks public scrutiny of public affairs.

The project to create a “governor’s park” around the chief executive’s mansion is, in itself, perfectly defensible, but the way the governor has gone about it raises multiple questions about what’s going on behind the scenes. Why, for example, were public employees raising funds for a private endeavor on public time? What promises were made, or expected, by big-time donors to the project like FPL and U.S. Sugar? We don’t know because the communications were not part of the original public record.

None of this is new for Mr. Scott. Ever since he was elected, he has displayed a disturbing tendency to conduct the public’s business in secret. This pattern of playing fast and loose with the right of access was initially revealed when it became known that documents involving his transition from candidate to elected official had been destroyed.

That could have been attributed to rookie error, a mistake by someone with no experience in public office who simply didn’t know better. But the record since those first days shows a clear pattern of shielding the governor’s activities from public view. As a result of his reluctance to disclose his travels or meeting schedules, the public often does not know where he goes, whom he goes with and with whom he meets.

Florida has a proud tradition of open government that Gov. Scott apparently considers an inconvenience. Floridians deserve a governor who honors that tradition instead of one trying to destroy it.