Questions raised over planned Florida Cabinet meeting in Israel
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Questions raised over planned Florida Cabinet meeting in Israel

Gov. DeSantis to meet with Agriculture Commissioner and others thousands of miles from Tallahassee, which may not be in line with state’s transparency laws

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Boca Raton, Florida, January 15, 2019. (Bruce R. Bennett/Palm Beach Post via AP)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Boca Raton, Florida, January 15, 2019. (Bruce R. Bennett/Palm Beach Post via AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is going to Israel with a large contingent of business leaders — not surprisingly, especially as the GOP woos Jewish voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

But DeSantis’s plan to hold a meeting with his elected Cabinet while he’s there has raised concerns about whether officials are violating the state’s open-meeting laws.

Concerns have also been raised in state media about the as-yet unannounced costs of the mission, which is expected to include about 80 people, mostly state lawmakers and businesspeople.

When DeSantis first announced the trade mission, he noted that his attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner would accompany him, and that the Cabinet would hold a meeting at the US embassy in Jerusalem during the trip, which runs from May 25 to May 31.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat and the first Jewish woman ever elected to Florida’s Cabinet, had previously planned a trade mission to Israel — like DeSantis, the trip is a campaign promise to voters.

Her visit, which is set to begin before the larger mission arrives on May 25, will focus on women entrepreneurs, Israel’s disaster relief expertise, and Israeli research and development in various fields, including the burgeoning medical marijuana industry, the Florida Phoenix website reported, citing Fried’s office.

In this January 30, 2019 photo, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks at a pre-legislative news conference, in Tallahassee, Florida. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon, File)

Fried is a former medical marijuana advocate.

But there is no apparent reason why the other two Cabinet members, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, are going, except for the Cabinet meeting, AP reported.

“I see no reason to hold a Cabinet meeting in Israel,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the open-government watchdog group First Amendment Foundation. “And we still don’t have an agenda, so I don’t know what they will be doing at that meeting.”

By law, the state has to post an agenda seven days before the independently elected Cabinet members meet, except during an emergency. As of Tuesday, the Cabinet website not only didn’t list an agenda for the meeting, it didn’t even have the meeting on the calendar.

Meetings also have to be recorded and open to the public, under the state’s famously broad Sunshine Law. Two members of the same board are not even allowed to discuss any matter that might involve government business without it being declared a meeting.

DeSantis’s office isn’t saying much about his Israel plans, citing security issues, though it has noted he plans to spend the visit promoting Israeli tourism to Florida and looking into sharing technological and water-management expertise.

Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at a rally, November 5, 2018, in Orlando, Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Cabinet officials said they didn’t know what is on the agenda because the meeting is being organized by the governor’s office. Fried speculated that it could be largely ceremonial.

“To have all four of us going over to show our support for the state of Israel and economic development between the two countries I think is the bigger picture,” she said.

Fellow Cabinet members Moody and Patronis, both Republicans, each told reporters they were taking commercial flights – Moody will be flying economy class, her office told the Phoenix – and taking only one staffer.

The Cabinet is scheduled to meet in Tallahassee six days after the officials return home — a sign it will handle state business at home while focusing the meeting abroad on ties with Israel.

Cabinet meetings are also supposed to be accessible for all, AP said, which a meeting in Israel would make difficult for ordinary Floridians. Moody’s office said a video broadcast of the meeting was planned.

According to a manual put out by Moody’s office, “The fact that a meeting is held in a public room does not make it public within the meaning of the Sunshine Law; for a meeting to be ‘public,’ the public must be given advance notice and provided with a reasonable opportunity to attend.”

The Florida Capitol building. (Michael Rivera/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)

The FLORIDA Channel, a state-funded video service run by WFSU-TV that covers state government meetings, plans to travel to Israel, but it is still working out details on how to get the content back to Florida.

“They should have an agenda up and they should be telling people where and when it’s going to be,” Petersen said of the governor’s office. “It’s nuts.”

DeSantis isn’t the first Florida governor to embark on a trade mission to Israel. Former Republican governors Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott all did the same. The trip could help Republicans politically in a state that is closely divided in presidential politics and where the large Jewish population could be a deciding factor as US President Donald Trump tries to win Florida’s 29 electoral college votes.

“There’s no question it’s going to help us,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida. “When people are criticizing members of the Jewish faith and Israel, you have a stark contrast in what Ron DeSantis is doing … letting people know that we do care and that it is a priority for him and the state to be mindful and respectful of the Jews that are living here.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, gives the state of the state address on the first day of legislative session March 5, 2019, in Tallahassee, Florida. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

Gruters sponsored a bill recently passed by the legislature that prohibits anti-Semitism in Florida’s public schools and universities. It’s possible DeSantis will sign the bill into law while in Israel.

Soon after taking office, the governor pushed for additional money for security at Jewish day schools. He also publicly criticized Airbnb for delisting properties in the disputed West Bank, saying it was a move against Israel, and he persuaded his Cabinet to put the company on a “scrutiny” list for state investments. Before he was elected, he attended the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem.

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