When it was announced that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s other top elected officials and nearly 100 top-tier lobbyists, business executives and academics were planning a historic trip to Israel in late May, the fuzzy details and lack of clarity surrounding the trip drew the ire of journalists and open government advocates who feared violations of Florida’s premier open government laws.
Florida’s open government, or “Sunshine” law, requires that the public be able to both view and offer comments during public meetings, but how much access is possible when the public meetings take place more than 6,000 miles from the Sunshine State?
A plurality (46 percent) of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, said it was perfectly appropriate that the meeting was held abroad.
About 26 percent of Influencers said it was not appropriate, and 28 percent weren’t sure.
Gene Prescott, president of the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, said the meeting was kosher since it was “cosmetic,” or served to give exposure to the state, not to conduct state business.
“In a few days, it opened doors for Florida business to pursue opportunities with Israeli counterparts,” he said.
Bob McClure, president of Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute, agreed and suggested the definition of “open” be redefined. He mentioned that since technology like Skype and FaceTime exist, people can listen in other ways.
“The same people who complain about Jerusalem rarely attend a Cabinet meeting in person,” McClure said. “They watch or listen on their phone, tablet or computer. Same for Jerusalem.’’
U.S. State Department rules prevented the media from live streaming the Cabinet meeting at the U.S. Embassy. The Florida Channel, which is funded by the Florida Legislature and produced and operated by WFSU-TV, was originally the only outlet permitted to have a live stream. Miami station WPLG was also able to live-stream the Cabinet meeting their website, Local10.com.
The First Amendment Foundation, joined by several news organizations including the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, did not find the meeting so open. The groups sued to stop the Cabinet from holding its scheduled meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, alleging that the body was in violation of the open government law.
The emergency complaint was rejected, and the meeting went on with a live stream.
Carmen Castillo, president and CEO of SDI International Corp., said she didn’t approve of the meeting regardless of the legality.
“While I’m not certain that any laws were broken, depending on the reading of the legislation, holding a meeting concerning state matters in Jerusalem caused sufficient hardship on Floridians who might have otherwise attended such a meeting,” she said.
Terry DeCarlo, an LGBTQ activist and former director of the LGBT+ Center Orlando, disagreed with the trip on principle.
“I am now and have always been vehemently against what I feel are these unnecessary, public paid for trips to ‘sister cities,’ ” he said.
Other Influencers were less certain whether the trip was acceptable, weighing the positive effects of a successful trade mission with the pushback surrounding possible open government violations.
“Whether the decision to hold a Cabinet meeting during the trip was an efficient use of time given the participants on the trade mission or a violation of Sunshine laws, as alleged, I do not know,” said University of Miami President Julio Frenk. “Overall, I think international engagement is important and beneficial to Florida’s economy.”
Bob Ward, president and CEO of the Florida Council of 100, a bipartisan, nonprofit group that advises the governor, state agencies and the Legislature, supported the meeting — as long as no decisions were made there
“It’s a unique issue,” he said. “On the one hand, if decisions were being made, then the public and the press should be able to attend. My understanding is that the agenda did not include action items and the event was televised live.”
This story was updated to include all outlets that streamed the Cabinet meeting.