November 23, 2014

Government

Watchdogs on a Leash

The Legislature beefed up the law governing agency watchdogs, but are they still too vulnerable to political pressure?

Cynthia Barnett | 7/1/2009

Since Bragg, Keen and Schuknecht were all given the proverbial “opportunity to resign,” the seven-day law probably wouldn’t have done them any good. In addition, agency heads can put pressure on their inspectors in more subtle ways, ranging from budget or personnel cuts to unwritten policies that inspectors general not publish their reports externally. (Inspector general reports fall under Florida’s public records law if requested, but there is no requirement that findings be published for the public or the Legislature except in certain whistleblower cases.)

The law puts the watchdogs under the supervision of the politically appointed secretaries whose agencies the inspectors are supposed to monitor. The structure makes the job tricky at best.

Schuknecht is among those who’d like to see additional changes to protect the inspectors from politics. Options include an independent oversight body like those in Texas and North Carolina or an alternative structure for hiring and dismissal. In the federal system, most inspectors general are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, reporting to the president instead of agencies. Model state legislation put forth by the National Association of Inspectors General suggests appointment by the governor with oversight by the state Senate and other alternatives to agency heads. The association also recommends a fixed term for inspectors, ideally seven years, that doesn’t overlap with an agency secretary’s tenure.

At the very least, Schuknecht and Bragg say, the law should prevent a secretary from removing an inspector without cause, another suggestion put forward by the national inspector general association in its model legislation.

“In Florida, it’s way too easy to remove someone without any cause at all,” says Schuknecht. “Crosby was a bad apple allowed to operate because of a weak system. If you have the right systems in place, the bad apples can’t operate.”

Miguel says her office would consider any additional suggestions put forward in a bill, though she thinks the current law has “all the provisions that allow us to do our jobs, including collaborating and making referrals to law enforcement.

“That said,” she adds, “our jobs are tough jobs.”

Tags: Politics & Law, Government/Politics & Law

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