A DeSantis-Fried debate breaks out during Florida Cabinet meeting

Gov. Ron DeSantis, at the left; Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to the right at a Governor and Cabinet meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried suggested Tuesday that she’d take Gov. Ron DeSantis to court if he doesn’t comply with laws on appointing state agency chiefs.

During a meeting of the governor and the Florida Cabinet, DeSantis indicated that he’ll bypass the three Cabinet officials when appointing a new top state environmental regulator. That means DeSantis alone would make the appointment, although subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

That didn’t sit well with Fried, who, like DeSantis, is a lawyer.

“We’ll be looking into potential legal actions if he’s violating the Constitution,” Fried told reporters during a break in the regular Cabinet meeting.

Sniping between DeSantis and Fried was a marked feature of the meeting Tuesday. DeSantis, a Republican, has not yet announced for reelection next year but Fried is among a number of Democrats seeking her party’s nomination to try to deny him a second term. (So is Congressman Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg.)

Fried is the only sitting Democratic Cabinet official to have won election statewide.

The clash reflected a unique feature of Florida government: That governors must share power with independently elected state attorneys general, chief financial officers, and commissioners of Agriculture and Consumer Services who form the Cabinet.

That hasn’t been a problem for years, as Republicans controlled all three seats plus the governorship and generally have gotten along. Even since Fried’s election in 2018, a Republican majority on the panel has voted down her attempts to assert herself on policy.

That might not be possible this time because of that state law governing appointment of agency secretaries. Noah Valenstein stepped down as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, effective on June 4 and an interim secretary is running the agency pending a permanent replacement.

Fried asked the governor when he planned to do that.

“We need to make sure that somebody’s appointed and accountable to all of us in the Cabinet,” Fried said.

“It’s an executive appointment and so that’s our prerogative, and we’ll do it when we want to, and we’ll let folks know about it,” DeSantis replied.

DeSantis argued that the Florida Constitution envisions appointment either by the governor and Cabinet or confirmation of a gubernatorial appointee by the state Senate.

“The statute says both, but there’s an argument that it can flip and that it would be one or the other. My sense would be the Legislature would retain their authority rather than give the Cabinet authority. So, that would be a live issue, potentially, if we end up with a conflict,” the governor said.

Here’s what Article IV Section 6 (a) of the Constitution says: “When provided by law, confirmation by the Senate or the approval of three members of the Cabinet shall be required for appointment to or removal from any designated statutory office.”

The Legislature did pass a law controlling appointments to the DEP. It is Florida Statutes Section 20.255 (1) and it says:

“The head of the Department of Environmental Protection shall be a secretary, who shall be appointed by the governor, with the concurrence of three members of the Cabinet. The secretary shall be confirmed by the Florida Senate. The secretary shall serve at the pleasure of the governor.”

Speaking to reporters, Fried hazarded a guess at the governor’s motivation: “He doesn’t want to have to bring a DEP secretary that he’s going to have to deal with me in order for it to be approved,” she said.

“And there’s only three members of the Cabinet,” Fried added.

“The Department of Environmental protection is one of the most essential elements here in state government. It protects our wetlands, our waterways, our natural resources. This is fundamental to who we are as Floridians,” she said.

The Phoenix sought comment from representatives of EarthJustice, the Florida Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and the Everglades Foundation. The organizations either declined to comment or didn’t respond.

A second clash Tuesday involved ratification of a rule arising from Florida’s new “anti-riot” law, which allows county sheriffs to appeal to the state Administration Commission — i.e. the governor and Cabinet — if county commissioners cut their budgets. The rule sets out the process by which that would happen.

Fried cast the lone no vote.

“This continues a disturbing pattern in Tallahassee — bullying local governments into submission,” she said.

“We all support our law enforcement officers in the difficult job that they have to do. But this is straight-up hypocritical interference, yet again, with cities and counties managing their budgets and doing their jobs,” she said.

Fried reminded DeSantis of comments he made in 2018: “I reject the idea that government bureaucrats in a faraway capital could plan our lives better than we could plan them ourselves.”

“Now the so-called party of small government is yet again telling government closest to the people what they cannot do with their money,” she said. “Who is really the big-government bureaucrat in the far-away capital?”

DeSantis said he doesn’t remember the context for that remark and defended the rule.

“What the rule does, it says very clearly to the people of Florida, if your municipal government tries to defund law enforcement, we’ve got your back. We are going to protect you. We are not going to allow some rogue local government to do insane things like defunding the police,” he said.

However, the data don’t support a causal link between police spending and crime rates, according to a May PolitiFact analysis. For one thing, some crime has spiked both in cities that reduced and increased police spending.

Speaking to reporters on another topic, Fried accused DeSantis of “stepping on the backs of Floridians to get to the presidency.”

Should the governor win reelection next year, he will immediately begin campaigning for president, she predicted.

“He’ll be declaring for president, running around the country trying to get the nomination, and then, were he to be successful, he’d be leaving half-way through his four-year term. So, not a single day would he be serving as governor [during] his second term,” Fried said.

DeSantis told reporters that, “I have not formally announced. I think it’s a pretty good bet we’re going to do that. Probably everywhere I go I get people that have all these ideas, and people can say what they want, but, you know, we’ve got a lot to do here. So that’s the focus that I have.”

He indicated Lt. Gov. Janette Nuñez would remain on the ticket.

“When we get to that point, I would anticipate Jeanette to be a part of that, as well,” DeSantis said.