Tuesday, 22 October 2019

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G Government Affairs

Arab-American, CAIR-Florida and other civil rights groups challenge DeSantis’ cabinet meeting in Israel

By By Christine Stapleton, For Palm Beach Post, On 26 May 2019, Read Original
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A coalition of state and national Arab-American and civil rights groups cite statutes and case law in arguing that the May 29 cabinet meeting violates state law.

The nation's largest Arab-American grassroots organization, in coalition with 10 other state and national civil rights groups, delivered a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday accusing the governor of violating the state's Sunshine Law by holding a cabinet meeting in Israel.

The four-page, single-spaced letter sent by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington cites statutes and case law in making its case that the May 29 cabinet meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem violates Florida's Constitution and opens the cabinet members up to criminal penalties.

"Your decision to host a meeting thousands of miles away would be the first time that a Florida Governor holds a Cabinet meeting outside of Florida, and yet you have failed to demonstrate the need for this alternate location or how it justifies overcoming the interests of the public in having a reasonable opportunity to attend," the group wrote in the letter.

Another concern is the possibility that Palestinian and other Arab and Muslim Americans seeking to attend the meeting would face travel and visa discrimination. According to the group, in 2015 the U.S. State Department expressed concern following reports of Palestinian Americans being denied entry into Israel.

Warnings posted on the State Department's website noted: "Many Palestinian nationals or dual nations seeking to enter via Ben Gurion (airport) have been sent back to the United States upon arrival, forfeiting expensive airline tickets," according to the letter.

"Conducting any state decision-making in a place that most Floridians cannot attend - and in which certain Floridians would face discrimination - is a violation of the Florida Constitution and undermines the transparency goals of the Florida Sunshine Law," the group wrote.

The trade mission is being sponsored by Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership that promotes business in Florida. The delegation will travel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where a cabinet meeting will be held Wednesday at the U.S. Embassy.

What makes DeSantis' trade mission unique - and controversial - is his decision to hold a cabinet meeting 6,588 miles from Florida's capital in Tallahassee. A cabinet meeting has never been held out of the country and concern about violations of the Sunshine Law began shortly after DeSantis announced the trip to Israel during a visit to a synagogue on April 9.

But the letter from the ADC elevates the controversy to a civil rights issue, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.

"There are both Sunshine Law issues and civil rights issues, but fundamentally it is a Constitutional issue," Petersen said. "I just keep asking why? I'm dumbstruck."

Abed Ayoub, the Legal and Policy Director at the ADC, said the group - founded in 1980 - has never encountered a cabinet meeting being held in a foreign country.

"It's extremely troubling and goes beyond what the law allows," Ayoub said. "Politics aside, you should not have a cabinet meeting in another country."

Neither the governor's office nor Enterprise Florida have released the estimated cost of the trip. However, Florida taxpayers will not be on the hook for travel expenses racked up by all members of a 98-person delegation, according to a report in the Florida Phoenix. Neither the governor's office nor Enterprise Florida have released the estimated cost of the trip.

Business and religious leaders, academia and lawmakers - 74 in all - are paying their own way, said Helen Ferré, DeSantis' communication director, in a statement to the Florida Phoenix.

Ferré did not say whether taxpayers would pick up all the costs for DeSantis, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement security detail and at least 20 other government personnel, including a team from the Florida Channel, which hopes to simulcast the meeting.

After repeated requests from the media for information about costs, delegation members and the agenda for the cabinet meeting, DeSantis' office on Wednesday released a bare-bones agenda and the list of those who would accompany him.

Large and frequent trade missions headed by Florida governors are not uncommon. Former Republican Gov. Rick Scott was joined by 70 business and education leaders, including the president and CEO of Florida Power & Light, for a trade mission to Israel in December 2017. Former Gov. Jeb Bush took 16 trade missions during his eight years in office, including trips to the United Kingdom, Canada, Peru and Spain.

The law protects the public's right to attend public meetings and sets rules, including where and when meetings can be held. There also is case law and an attorney general's opinion that recommends public meetings not be held in locations that unreasonably restrict public access or are not easily accessible to the public.

The cabinet is not required to hold its meetings in Tallahassee and can even holding a meeting via teleconferencing, said Barbara Petersen. However, attending the cabinet meeting in Israel requires a passport and thousands of dollars in travel expenses.

"Holding a meeting in Israel? How does that comport with the requirement that the public be given a reasonable opportunity to attend? Petersen asked. "It's not like they are having a meeting in Lakeland."

A few journalists will travel with the delegation but many who routinely cover cabinet meetings cannot afford to do so. Still, DeSantis said the meeting complied with the Sunshine Law because it would be broadcast live via the Florida Channel.

"Don't you worry," DeSantis said. "It will be broadcast for all to see."

Although the governor's office initially described the meeting as a business meeting and not merely ceremonial, the agenda released Wednesday appears benign and ceremonial, the cabinet taking up a resolution on Isreali-Florida relations and hearing presentations on victims of terror, water quality and emergency management.

While in Israel the governor also intends to sign a bill, HB 741, that cracks down on anti-semitism in public schools, from kindergarten through graduate school. Although the bill was passed unanimously, some Muslims questioned why the bill also did not crack down on Islamophobia in public schools.

"He addresses the problem of anti-semitism but totally ignores Islamophobia," said Wilfredo Ruiz, communications director at the Florida office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, adding that at least 500,000 Muslims live in Florida. "As a community we feel ignored. It's the lack of empathy that moves Muslims."

Ruiz said he has no objection with the trade mission to Israel but holding a public meeting of the state's highest officials overseas is troubling.

"We believe that all government business should be done in the state," Ruiz said.