Gov. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — two potential General Election opponents in the 2022 gubernatorial race — have gone back and forth over DeSantis’ choice for the new head of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). But a look back at comments made in 2019 gives Fried some support in her push for a more open process — and those comments came from DeSantis himself.
DeSantis picked Shawn Hamilton to serve as DEP Secretary, declining to let the Cabinet weigh in on that decision. The Governor argues he has the authority to unilaterally install a new DEP Secretary after Noah Valenstein left the position earlier this year. Fried says the Cabinet must get a say, too.
But amid that dispute, Hamilton has yet to appear before the Cabinet for a public hearing, as stipulated under the 2015 Weidner Settlement Agreement. That settlement arose from a legal dispute against DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, demanding more openness for Scott’s appointments.
The settlement, which the state agreed to, required public hearings of certain appointments, regardless of whether the Cabinet had a vote.
“Prior to any vote by the Governor and/or the Cabinet on an appointment, there must be a public, Sunshine-compliant interview of any candidate to be voted on,” the agreement reads. “This interview could be conducted by the Governor and Cabinet themselves at an open meeting or the Governor and Cabinet could delegate this responsibility to a committee. In the case of a Governor-appointed candidate, the required public interview would be of the Governor’s appointee.”
In a 2019 Cabinet meeting, which featured a dispute over another DeSantis appointee, the Governor nevertheless agreed to operate under the Weidner agreement.
“Today we are going to proceed under the requirements of the Weidner Agreement here for the consideration of some of the appointments that we have,” DeSantis said.
That meeting featured Cabinet members interviewing former Rep. Danny Burgess, who was being considered for the executive director role in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Much like the recent debate over Hamilton, Fried too pushed for a Cabinet vote on Burgess’ appointment while DeSantis rebuffed that request.
“It’s a Governor appointment. It’s not a Cabinet appointment,” DeSantis argued. Nevertheless, the Governor brought Burgess forth for a public hearing in front of the Cabinet.
“I am going to go ahead and have Danny be interviewed. I think that’s appropriate,” DeSantis said during that 2019 meeting.
More than two months after DeSantis selected Hamilton for the DEP Secretary role, a public hearing has yet to take place. Florida Politics reached out to the Governor’s Office asking whether DeSantis would agree to abide by the Weidner Agreement as he previously promised and schedule a hearing for the next Cabinet meeting in December. The Governor’s Office did not immediately respond.
The Weidner Agreement developed following a lawsuit against Scott by Matthew Weidner, a lawyer, and several media outlets. The complaint argued the administration was not complying with the state’s open meeting laws.
The issue arose after Scott forced out Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey without a public discussion or vote. The settlement required those discussions — including appointments — to be made in public.
The Hamilton debate, however, has percolated for months. In September, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis pushed for the Cabinet to take up the Hamilton appointment at a scheduled Oct. 26 meeting. That October gathering was later canceled.
That leaves the dispute over Hamilton’s appointment pending, even as the Cabinet has supported a public hearing. The debate over a hearing leaves separate the issue of whether the Cabinet is entitled to a vote on Hamilton’s appointment.
Fried has cited state law regarding DEP, which states, “The head of the Department of Environmental Protection shall be a Secretary, who shall be appointed by the Governor, with the concurrence of three members of the Cabinet.”
The law also seemingly requires Senate approval in addition to a Cabinet vote. “The Secretary shall be confirmed by the Florida Senate. The Secretary shall serve at the pleasure of the Governor.”
DeSantis has, however, pointed to the state constitution, which allows for either the Legislature or the Cabinet to weigh in on these appointments.
“When provided by law, confirmation by the Senate or the approval of three members of the Cabinet shall be required for appointment to or removal from any designated statutory office,” the constitution reads.
DeSantis referenced that seeming contradiction during a June Cabinet meeting where Fried challenged the Governor over his position that the DEP Secretary is a gubernatorial appointment.
“I think if you actually look at the constitution, it says either the Cabinet or the Legislature, the Senate,” DeSantis said. “The statute said both, but there’s an argument that it conflicts and that it would be one or the other. My sense would be the Legislature would retain their authority rather than give the Cabinet authority, so that would be a live issue potentially, if we end up with a conflict.”