Declaring that Florida's open government laws have been "under attack in recent years," the First Amendment Foundation asked the two candidates for governor to answer three questions pledging to reverse recent trends and operate with more transparent practices if they are elected.
Gov. Rick Scott and challenger Charlie Crist were asked if they would agree to conduct all public business on public computer networks and devices, release a detailed schedule of appointments and travel, and pledge that he and staff will not use private email accounts when conducting business.
Crist, a Democrat, responded that he would. Scott, a Republican, did not respond.
The First Amendment Foundation is a non-profit open government watchdog that receives its support from voluntary contributions and many of the state's news organizations.
The governor's failure to respond comes against a backdrop of increasing questions about his commitment to Florida's open government laws.
During his term, Scott has blocked data about his private air travels from public flight tracking records. He has released only superficial details about his daily schedules. He has used, and allows his staff to use, private email accounts when corresponding on public business, creating additional barriers to public access. And his staff has been encouraged to use private cell phone accounts when sending text messages about politically sensitive issues.
In each case, the governor has said he has followed the law but his actions have drawn lawsuits.
He is is being sued by Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews, a Republican, for allowing his staff to alter calendar entries, for withholding documents from public records requests and for failing to say who opened his private gmail account and the gmail accounts of his staff. He faces another lawsuit, from attorney general candidate George Sheldon, a Democrat, alleging that his financial disclosure forms fail to reflect more than $200 million of his wealth because it excludes assets his wife owns but which Scott remains as the beneficiary.
Here are the responses from Crist:
Q: As governor, will you release a weekly calendar in advance that details your appointments, public meetings, and travel schedule?
Q: Do you pledge that all of the public business of your office will be conducted on public computer networks and devices?
Do you pledge that you and your staff members will not use private email accounts in conducting public business?
In your opinion, what is the state's biggest open government problem and what should be done about it?
"Presently, far too much of the public's business by the executive branch is being conducted in private. Travel, meetings, emails, texts...seem to be out of the public view. Further the executive branch seems to believe it is its job to make it more difficult and as expensive as possible for the public to have access to public records. Government in the shadows is contrary to our Constitution and contrary to the best interests of our citizens!"
The questionnaire was sent to the two candidates on Oct. 10 and they were given until Monday, Oct. 27 to respond, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
Crist replied and they extended the deadline for Scott but he did not reply, she said.
Petersen said in statement that the First Amendment Foundation decided to release the questionnaire because "Florida's open government laws have been under attack in recent years, and there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints received by the First Amendment Foundation's FOI hotline regarding government abuses of our right to know laws,'' Petersen said in a statement.