Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has downplayed the importance since last year of formal meetings with the state’s top elected officials, is scheduled to conduct his first Cabinet meeting Thursday since COVID-19 became a crisis.
Democrats have cited the lack of meetings among the Cabinet during the virus emergency to dig at the Republican governor.
A Cabinet meeting provides a public venue for its sole Democratic member, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has openly criticized DeSantis and may run against him in 2022. Fried had asked the governor to schedule a Cabinet meeting March 2 and again in April.
The published agenda for Thursday’s meeting did not directly mention any virus-related discussions, although some state officials were expected to make presentations about current economic issues and the Cabinet was expected to discuss the statewide emergency shelter plan as Florida’s hurricane season begins.
Florida’s Cabinet – which also includes the Republican attorney general, Republican chief financial officer – met only one time so far this year, on Feb. 4, before the coronavirus was widely recognized as an emergency situation. The governor declared an emergency March 9. Florida has reported more than 52,000 cases and 2,200 deaths.
Democrats, including Fried and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, have openly criticized DeSantis for holding off on Cabinet meetings. Fried said in an April 16 press statement that without the regular briefings, state agencies were “dangerously left in the dark.”
Fried has been snubbed by DeSantis, left off his task force advising the governor on when it might be safe to reopen Florida’s businesses and government offices during the pandemic. Republicans have accused Fried, who oversees one of Florida’s most important economic sectors, of “whining.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Diamond said in an interview with Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. He is the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee. “Without those public briefings and public discussion of how we’re managing those funds, I don’t really know where we are.”
Fried said in a statement: “The people of Florida expect their statewide leaders to work together during this unprecedented challenge. Regular briefings on the state’s COVID-19 response are necessary for Florida’s independently elected Cabinet members, which together with the governor oversee critical state agencies.”
The governor’s press office did not immediately respond to questions about the Cabinet schedule.
DeSantis has appeared at public news conferences frequently during the pandemic, most recently on Tuesday when he appointed two new Supreme Court justices, including what he said was the first Caribbean American appointed to any supreme court in the United States. The governor was required by law to fill the vacancies in March but said the virus emergency had delayed his choices.
Earlier this month, Fried asked the governor, surgeon general and director of the health department’s disease control division to invite officials to the Cabinet meeting who this month fired Rebekah Jones, a state health department employee who worked on the COVID-19 dashboard. Jones has told reporters she was fired for refusing to change data to downplay the threat of COVID-19 in rural counties leading up to the reopening of the state.
DeSantis has said Jones was fired for insubordination. He also has noted that Jones is the subject of pending misdemeanor stalking criminal charges in Leon Circuit Court, where she has been accused of harassing a former boyfriend she said is the father of one of her children. She is expected in court June 17 there.
Fried has urged the Cabinet to investigate Jones’ claims about her firing.
This week’s Cabinet meeting was originally scheduled to be May 12 but DeSantis canceled it days earlier, citing health concerns for anyone who might attend.
Florida’s Cabinet has generally met once or twice each month. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who preceded DeSantis, also scaled back Cabinet meetings.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org