Posted: November 20, 2015 - 9:20pm | Updated: November 21, 2015 - 12:08am
By TIA MITCHELL
Following in the tradition of his predecessors, Gov. Rick Scott rarely misses a meeting of The Florida Council of 100.
As Scott entered the room at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club on Friday to make a keynote address at the group’s semi-annual gathering, onlookers in the lobby could see business executives from across the state applauding and maneuvering to shake the governor’s hand.
Once at the podium, Scott gave a speech about job creation and diversifying the state’s economy. He asked members of the council to back the budget proposal he will unveil in Jacksonville on Monday and perhaps help convince the Legislature to do the same.
At least, that is what reporters were told happened. “The mood was good, the message was strong and the reception was positive,” Jacksonville businessman Steve Halverson told the Times-Union afterward.
The council doesn’t allow visitors or media inside its meetings. Sometimes the council’s work is made public — like in November 2014, when it sent a letter to the Board of Education with recommendations on how to implement new computer-based standardized testing — but the group hasn’t done anything like that in a year.
Board Chairwoman Rhea Law, who leads the Florida headquarters of national law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, said the council doesn’t speak publicly about an issue until it reaches consensus internally.
“We have a lot of things that are in the queue as a matter of fact,” Law said. “I suspect you will finally see some work product after that.”
Leaders of this nonpartisan, nonprofit organization say the recent silence is partially by design.
Halverson, who completed a turn as the council chairman, said the organization has focused on redefining its mission and strategic planning, so the results aren’t easy to see when outside looking in.
“We thought that we were getting drawn a bit too much into just the issue of the day and we weren’t being as aligned around big, tough strategic issues — and not too many at a time,” Halverson, the president and CEO of The Haskell Company said. “We were getting a little bit reactive.”
The council was formed in 1961 as the brainchild of Gov. Farris Bryant, who wanted state business leaders to advise him on policy. It is a private organization and boasts of some of the state’s top executives, such as Publix Vice Chairman Barney Barnett, Florida Blue chief executive officer and Chairman Patrick Geraghty, Jacksonville developer Peter Rummell and Ed Burr, president and CEO of GreenPointe Holdings in Jacksonville.
The council has a small staff — president and CEO Susan Pareigis, who headed the state’s workforce development agency under Gov. Jeb Bush, works out of its Tampa headquarters. Bills are paid using proceeds from sizable dues levied on members, although the council won’t say how much.
Council members volunteer and generally lean conservative, but their main goal is to provide governors with input on issues ranging from education to the environment, regardless of whether a Republican or Democrat is in office.
Going beyond governor
Although a relationship with the governor is important to the council, that isn’t the only focus, Law said.
“We go beyond the governor,” she said, “because, as is true with any public policy initiative, you have to have a broader group that you are interacting with.”
Bush leaned heavily on the group to research topics and back up his policy initiatives, particularly in education; Gov. Charlie Crist rarely consulted the group. Gov. Rick Scott lands somewhere in between, attending council meetings but not viewing the group as essential to carrying out his agenda.
“Gov. (Jeb) Bush used us most vigorously,” Halverson said. “Man he worked us to death, and I say that in a good way.”
Scott said he decided to discuss his spending priorities at the council meeting because he wants support from wherever he can get it.
“I travel around the state and talk to different groups,” he said. “I like them to be active in the political process and let their House and Senate members know the importance of this for job creation.”
The council has voiced support for a provision in Scott’s forthcoming budget proposal to set aside $250 million in new funding for economic development incentives. Individual members have submitted statements backing various initiatives and proposals during Scott’s tenure.
There were rumors for a time that the council had fallen out of favor with the governor’s office after controversy surrounding its meeting in May 2014.
The council had invited former Gov. Charlie Crist to speak at the meeting, but withdrew the invitation after Adam Hollingsworth, Scott’s chief of staff at the time, objected. Hollingsworth declined to be interviewed for this story.
Scott was gearing up his re-election campaign then and knew Crist would run against him. The two were initially scheduled to address the council on the same day. Council members later decided that in order to keep the event focused on business and not politics that Crist should be taken off the program.
“We just made it look like it was a campaign event by having the two of them scheduled right next to each other, and I didn’t know that,” Halverson said. “And it just didn’t seem fair that we would create a de facto campaign event without telling them about it.”
Halverson said the governor’s office was cordial about the whole incident, denying rumors the situation created long-term damage to council relations with Scott. Scott’s office said his attendance at Friday’s meeting is proof there are no hard feelings.
Crist used the whole dustup to his advantage. As a former governor, he has automatic membership in the council and still showed up at the meeting. Crist held a news conference that day to criticize the organization for caving to Scott’s demands.
Diversity issue surfaces
After the May 2014 meeting, African-American Democrats not only accused the council of 100 of showing favoritism to Republican Scott, but pivoted to the broader issue of diversity. That line of criticism — that the council as a whole did not reflect the people of Florida — was valid, Halverson later said.
“Who you pick as members has a lot to do with what you do and how effective you are,” he said.
State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, is among those who criticized the group last year.
At the time, former Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis had retired and stepped away from the council, leaving it without any blacks on the board.
Bullard said he had been concerned about the council’s lack of racial diversity before the dustup with Crist gave him the opportunity to speak out. He has grown curious about how the organization was so powerful it seemed to automatically get a seat at the table to discuss education issues, when other advocacy groups remained on the sidelines.
“I knew the basics as far as who sat on this Council of 100, but in looking at it again in 2014, it was like this speaks to the organization as a whole when you don’t have people of color in any way, shape or form represented in decision-making positions within the organization,” Bullard said.
Since then, the council extended membership to 18 people and seven, were either a minority or female, Law said.
The council declined to provide the Times-Union with the names of its members; there are about 120. But among the 32 people listed on the website as members of the board of directors, six are women including one African-American female. A handful of board members have last names indicating Hispanic heritage, and at least one, Rasesh Thakkar of Central Florida, is Indian-American.
One challenge the group identified is the lack of diversity overall in the top management of Florida businesses, which limits the pool of potential members.
“That’s a much larger social issue, and it’s not one you snap your fingers and correct,” Halverson said. “But it starts with being intentional about creating opportunities for participation i