Senate moves to ease appointment process after battle over Gov. DeSantis’ DEP Secretary pick
Shawn Hamilton is back. Image via Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Shawn Hamilton
Democrats think the measure is directed at Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried.

Senators have voted to ease the Governor’s appointment process for the heads of three executive agencies, including one agency that is part of a political showdown in the 2022 gubernatorial race.

Currently, the Governor’s pick for Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) requires three Cabinet members to approve the nominee. That threshold effectively requires the Cabinet’s unanimous consent. Legislation carried by Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean (SB 1658), passed 26-12 on Thursday, would instead give the Governor the choice to seek the Cabinet’s unanimous support or the Senate’s majority support.

Controversy around the DEP Secretary appointment process originated last summer when Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Shawn Hamilton as interim DEP Secretary. He later moved to make that appointment permanent. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic member of the Cabinet looking 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.

But during a Cabinet meeting in June, when Fried complained about the Governor’s decision to roll forward with Hamilton’s appointment, the Governor highlighted a conflict between Florida’s statutes and the Florida Constitution.

Florida statutes say DEP Secretary appointments require three Cabinet members’ support and the Senate’s confirmation. The constitution, however, outlines that executive department officials require either three Cabinet members’ support or the Senate’s confirmation.

Bean’s bill would conform state law to DeSantis’ reading of the constitution.

Senators voted 26-12 to approve the measure, with Democratic Sens. Jason PizzoDarryl Rouson and Linda Stewart breaking party lines to vote with the Republican majority.

Despite voting in favor of the measure, Pizzo had reservations.

“The timing of this smells like it’s sort of directed to or toward the one Democratic Cabinet Member that we have,” Pizzo said.

“The time for good government is right now, and that is (why) we bring it before you at this time,” Bean responded.

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. Bean contends that wasn’t intentional.

Still, Fried took issue with the timing of the bill filing last month. She reiterated those concerns on Thursday.

“The Governor and his cronies in the Senate just voted to centralize more power and authority. Rather than follow the law surrounding DEP Secretary appointment, and bringing the nomination before the Cabinet for transparency and proper vetting, he had to change it,” Fried said in a statement.

“Again, my quarrel was not with Interim Secretary Hamilton, it is with the law not being followed,” she continued. “Transparency will suffer, as will the democratic process.”

Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is the front-runner to succeed Fried, told reporters he agrees completely with the bill. The measure is about the process, and it doesn’t matter who is on the Cabinet.

“If I were to win, in theory, I’m taking away some of the influence I would have over that member,” Simpson said. “I think the Governor should have that bill the way that we got it. I think state of Florida should have that bill the way it was done today.”

With changes made earlier this week, the bill would drop a similar three-vote threshold from the Cabinet to a majority-vote threshold for the heads of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Senate still would be asked to confirm the appointments.

The 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.

A 2015 settlement agreement dictates nominees must go through a public interview before the Cabinet votes on the nominee. That settlement arose from a legal dispute against DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, demanding more openness for Scott’s appointments.

In the House, a similar bill (HB 1295) carried by Sarasota Republican Rep. Tommy Gregory awaits a hearing before its final committee stop, the House Judiciary Committee. Before the Legislature can send the bill to the Governor, the House and Senate must resolve differences in their bills.

The House measure would eliminate entirely the possibility that the DEP Secretary nominee goes through the Cabinet, instead leaving the appointment to the Senate’s confirmation.

Additionally, the measure would rename the FDLE Executive Director to Secretary and ask for the Cabinet’s majority support instead of three-vote support. The Attorney General would need to vote in favor of the nominee, and the Senate still would need to confirm the nominee.

For the VA Executive Director, the threshold would drop from three votes from Cabinet members to a majority vote. The Senate still would need to confirm the nominee.

The House bill also would rename the Executive Director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to the department’s Secretary.

Bean’s bill would take effect immediately, while Gregory’s bill wouldn’t kick in until July 1.

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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