Bill easing appointment of Gov. DeSantis’ DEP Secretary pick gets Senate makeover
Shawn Hamilton is back. Image via Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Shawn Hamilton
The new language also addresses the heads of the Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Senators have altered a plan to allow the Governor to appoint the state’s top environmental official without the Cabinet’s approval, putting the measure back on track in the Senate committee process.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee postponed a hearing on the bill (SB 1658) earlier this month when Sen. Aaron Bean, the Fernandina Beach Republican sponsoring the bill, said the measure needed to be “fine-tuned.” After changes were made to the legislation Monday, the committee voted 4-1 to advance the proposal.

As originally filed, the measure only removed the requirement that three members of the Florida Cabinet approve the Governor’s pick for Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), sending the appointment only to the Senate.

The amendment would instead allow the Governor the choice to court support from three Cabinet members or seek the Senate’s consent.

Since the Cabinet was compressed to just three members in 2003, the three-member threshold for the DEP Secretary’s appointment has effectively meant the Secretary needs the Cabinet’s unanimous consent. One of the Cabinet positions, Agriculture Commissioner, is currently held by a Democrat, Nikki Fried.

“Our founding fathers didn’t think about unanimous vote,” Bean said. “They wanted a checks and balances to move forward.”

Controversy around the DEP Secretary appointment process originated last summer, when Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Shawn Hamilton as interim DEP Secretary. DeSantis then moved to make the appointment permanent. Fried, who looks to challenge DeSantis in this year’s gubernatorial contest, contends the Governor lacks the legal authority to appoint Hamilton without the Cabinet’s unanimous support and without a public interview.

Despite the timing, Bean told Florida Politics he doesn’t think the bill is intended to check Fried.

“I really think it’s a good government thing for the future,” Bean said. “We will make this change … regardless (of) how that’s gonna go down. But it prevents gridlock.”

Fried took issue with the timing of the bill when it was filed this month.

“Unfortunately, this is par for the course when it comes to transparency from Florida Republicans. DeSantis is too scared to have a real discussion about the DEP nominee so instead, he’s having his allies in the Legislature change the whole appointee process and circumvent oversight from the Cabinet. Maybe now he’ll stop canceling meetings and start doing the state’s business,” Fried asserted in response to an inquiry from Florida Politics.

The House’s analogous bill (HB 1295), carried by Sarasota Republican Rep. Tommy Gregory, passed from the House State Affairs Committee earlier this month along party lines.

Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart, one of two Democrats on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, voted with Republicans on Monday.

“Good bill,” Stewart told the committee.

By contrast, Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Loranne Ausley, the lone Senator to vote no, told the panel she believes there is a reason appointments to the head of DEP and a handful of other agencies require the Cabinet’s unanimous vote.

“It just seems to me it’s been working, it’s been in place, and DEP’s an important agency that does a lot of things that impact the entire state. And to have all Cabinet members being able to weigh in on that is pretty important,” Ausley told Florida Politics.

Like the House bill, the Senate bill now also addresses more agency heads than just the DEP Secretary. The Senate bill would drop the threshold for the heads of the Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Veterans Affairs to majority votes from the Cabinet instead of the three-vote mark. The House bill also addresses the head of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, making a similar change.

The Senate bill also includes a double jeopardy provision for the DEP Secretary. It would prevent, for one year, the Governor from reappointing the same individual to the DEP Secretary position if the person’s appointment went through the Cabinet and the Cabinet failed to approve the Governor’s nominee.

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.

Gregory’s bill would take effect in July. Meanwhile, Bean’s version would take effect immediately.

The House version next heads to the Judiciary Committee. The Senate version is scheduled to go before the Senate Rules Committee Thursday, a rare second committee stop within one week. The Rules Committee is also the bill’s final planned committee stop, meaning the bill could soon go before the full Senate.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


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