Gov. Desantis’ Suspensions Shake Up South Florida Politics

By By David Fleshler and Gray Rohrer, Sun Sentinel

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s aggressive assertion of his authority to remove elected officials left Democrats wondering whether he was targeting their party and who might be next.

The governor Friday suspended Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, a move that followed his decision to remove Broward Sheriff Scott Israel. The ouster of the two Democrats followed the decision by previous Gov. Rick Scott to remove another Democrat, Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes.

Republicans defended Bucher’s suspension as the necessary removal of a bungling administrator, while Democrats expressed concern that the Republican governor was abusing his authority to override the choices of voters.

“I’m deeply concerned,” said Cynthia Busch, Broward County’s Democratic chairwoman. “They’re testing the limits of their power. I’ve never seen elected officials removed just because somebody didn’t like the way they did something. It was always because they were indicted or under investigation.”

Incompetent elected officials have been known to enjoy long careers in Florida, free of interference from the governor’s office. And even criminal charges don’t necessarily cost public officials their positions, as demonstrated by Gov. Scott’s refusal to suspend five leaders of Broward Health, despite their 2017 indictment on charges of violating the state’s open-meetings law.

But in the past two weeks, as the new governor started his term with a whirl of plane trips, news conferences and executive orders, this may have changed. He ousted Bucher and Israel, removed the school superintendent of Okaloosa County, and requested the resignations of the board of the South Florida Water Management District.

The school superintendent and most, if not all, of the water district board members were Republicans, making it difficult to establish a strictly anti-Democratic pattern in the removals. Republican supporters say the governor appears to be stepping in to deal swiftly with egregious, festering problems — mishandled elections, the botched law enforcement response to the Parkland school shooting and the algae blooms that fouled coasts last summer.

“I think this governor is asserting control,” said George Moraitis, Broward County’s Republican chairman. “He feels a mandate to hold our elected officials accountable regardless of the political party, and he’s going to take action, whether it’s on the environment, the conduct of elections, school safety. He’s just going to take action where he sees failures.”

One prominent matter yet to be addressed is the Broward County school district. DeSantis has made no secret of his interest in the removal of school Superintendent Robert Runcie, who has been severely criticized for failures of school security, personnel management and disciplinary policy that came to light after the shooting.

“There were obviously security failures,” DeSantis said at a news conference last week where he announced the sheriff’s removal. “There were some really egregious failures with the school district.”

But there are questions about whether the governor has the authority to remove Runcie, who was appointed by the school board, not elected by voters. There’s been talk he may remove school board members instead, an action that would likely spark a legal fight over the right of duly elected candidates to maintain their seats.

“We had elections last summer for some of the school board members,” said Busch, the Broward Democratic chairwoman. “And that was after Parkland. If the voters felt these people were not qualified, they would not have reelected them.”

At stake, in addition to Runcie’s job and the rights of board members, she said, is the board’s current policy against arming teachers.

“He would open up the gun issue and arming teachers,” she said. “We campaigned hard for those races as a county party. It would be making a decision to try to influence policy in the school district.”

Republicans say the missteps, delays and short tempers in Bucher’s office have made it a toxic place for handling the most important proceedings in a democracy. They say the governor’s action was necessary and should be seen in the context of the elections office’s problems, not through the prism of party politics.

This article provided by NewsEdge.