An open-government watchdog group and several news outlets sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of the Cabinet on Tuesday in an effort to stop them from holding a Cabinet meeting while on a trade mission in Israel.
The lawsuit argues that the meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, violates the state's constitution and open-government laws, which require that Cabinet sessions be open to the public. Florida residents who don't happen to be in Israel won't be able to attend, and the meeting's planned location, at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, has generated security concerns that will further restrict access.
The lawsuit was filed by The First Amendment Foundation, Gannett Co., Gatehouse Media and the owners of the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. The Associated Press and other news outlets plan to join the suit.
The meeting was organized as part of a trade mission DeSantis is leading with a delegation of nearly 100 business leaders, lawmakers, state university officials and others. The governor's office wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but has labeled the meeting as "ceremonial."
That doesn't matter, said First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen.
"The fact that there even saying, 'Oh, it's only ceremonial, therefore we don't have to open it to the public' shows to me a basic misunderstanding of the Sunshine Law," Petersen said. "This has nothing to do with the trade mission. This has everything to do with our Cabinet holding a meeting in a foreign county. And I don't care if they were holding the meeting in Montana, I'd have the same concern."
The lawsuit seeks an order to stop the meeting. If a judge doesn't act on time, then it seeks to have the meeting declared a violation of state law and to void any actions taken during the gathering. The members of the Cabinet are Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
Fried said she hopes the Cabinet meeting will follow the spirit of accessibility.
"While we have not yet been served the lawsuit, my understanding is that the governor's office is working to address the situation," she said, according to a pool report set up by the Florida Society of News Editors.
Sitting in a hotel lounge in Tel Aviv, Moody and Patronis said they hadn't heard about the lawsuit, according to a pool report set up by the Florida Society of News Editors.
Hours before the lawsuit was filed, DeSantis discussed the meeting at a networking reception in the residence of U.S. Ambassador David Friedman.
"Holding a meeting of the Florida Cabinet in the embassy in Jerusalem, that is going to be a real neat thing," DeSantis said.
DeSantis and the independently elected Cabinet jointly oversee several state agencies. The agenda posted on the Cabinet website lists the signing of a resolution in support of the Florida/Israel relationship and presentations on victims of terror, water quality and emergency management.
The meeting will be broadcast by The FLORIDA Channel, a state-funded news outlet that covers state government. A handful of other Florida reporters covering the trade mission won't be allowed to take equipment in that could provide live coverage, including cellphones and laptops.
Even if no votes are taken, information-gathering sessions are still considered to be open to the public, Petersen said. She noted that the topics on the agenda relate to issues Florida has recently dealt with, including a red tide bloom, Hurricanes Michael and Irma and the school shooting that left 17 dead in Parkland.
"These are all issues that we're extremely concerned about, and the right of access guaranteed by our constitution makes no mention of ceremonial meetings being exempt from that right of access," Petersen said. "We don't want our future Cabinet meetings to be held anywhere but in the state of Florida."