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Governor launches a program to push staff emails online

Gov. Rick Scott launched a new open records program Thursday dubbed "Project Sunburst," designed to give the public -- and the media -- access to the emails to and from the governor and 11 top staff within seven days of writing them.

At a news conference at the Capitol, the governor touted the effort as a great leap forward.

"This is a big step and it will be nice as we keep adding agencies,'' Scott said. "The public and you have way faster access to information.''

To access the system, click here. Domain and password are "sunburst".

The initiative was lauded by the state's top public records watchdog as an improvement to the way the governor's office operated when he first took office. 

"As always the devil is in the details,'' said Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation whose organization spent thousands trying to get the emails of the governor's top staff when Scott first came into office. "But providing real time access to email is a very positive and proactive step."

It also helps Scott the governor who has struggled to repair his open government-averse reputation. Weeks into office, the governor's transition staff inadvertently destroyed emails and the governor, wary of the state's Sunshine Law, refused to use email until eight months into office.

The idea is the brainchild of Scott's chief of staff Steve MacNamara, a communications professor and former lobbyist who joined Scoff's office in July.

Unanswered, however, is whether the move may backfire. Will the instantaneous glare of the new system, staff may resort to using less accessible means to conduct state business -- sending direct message via Facebook and Twitter or text messaging through smart phones?

Peterson said that under the current system most staff members already shield their communications from public record. "I don’t think it’s going to drive anything underground that isn’t already underground,'' she said. "You’re getting what you would get without making a request."

Bonnie Hazelton, director of the governor's Office of Open Government said Wednesday the office does not have a system set up to capture those messages if state business is conducted through social media and texting but relies on individuals to retain it as a public record.

Even under the current system, MacNamara himself avoids building a public record. A Herald/Times review of five months of the chief of staff's emails finds that MacNamara prefers phone calls and hand-written notes to email when he communicates.

The governor's top advisor routinely responds to even mundane concerns by urging others to "come see me" or "call me" to avoid a paper trail. MacNamara said it's because he's a bad typist and prefers to have face-to-face conversations.

When asked about Sunburst in an email last week, MacNamara replied "it's a secret."

MacNamara said Thursday he couldn't recall how they came up with the name Project Sunburst. It's also the name of a failed Xbox Live program that vanished from the market after its online servers failed to function properly.

MacNamara said he expects some server problems with his Sunburst system as well, as it may take time to work out the kinks of the program.