Taxpayer advocate Senator Paula Dockery expresses concerns on recent firing and effort to privatize state prisons.
TALLAHASSEE- Florida State Sen. Paula Dockery, long recognized as a taxpayer advocate, is questioning the recent firing of Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary EdBuss.
Dockery, the former chairman of the Senate committee that handles prison issues, expressed her concern about free speech and freedom that public servants have in suggesting reform.
Florida Governor Rick Scott fired Buss last week after Buss had questioned Scott’s controversial move toward privatizing Florida’s prisons. Buss, a nationally recognized corrections reformer from Indiana was recruited by Scott who appointed Buss the new DOC Secretary immediately following Scott’s inauguration as Governor in January.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Dockery questioned Buss’ forced resignation. “The governor hired Ed Buss from Indiana because of his record as a reformer,’’ said Dockery, R-Lakeland. “I think Secretary Buss arrived with the expectation that he would have the autonomy to make changes but I think the governor – and/or his inner circle – was uncomfortable with that autonomy.”
Legislators, reportedly led by Florida State Senator J.D. Alexander, secretly tucked into the budget the requirement that all prisons in an 18-county area from Lake Okeechobee southward would be run by private companies. However, after the measure was adopted, a deputy of Buss’ told the governor’s budget staff that the effort could “cripple the agency” and cost the state $25 million in overtime, comp time, and sick leave benefits owed to the 3,800 employees who would be laid off under the plan.
Privatizing prisons “is not a priority in the Senate,’’ Dockery said. “I don’t think if you had a straight-up vote in the Senate it would pass.’’
Instead, it was tucked into the final budget language by Senate leadership, with no discussion or debate. The committee in charge of the prison budget did not include it in the bill the committee passed; instead, it was added to the budget as proviso language – a signal, Dockery said, that they needed to sidestep the regular review process.
“Everything that’s been done on privatization has been done in secrecy, in private,” Dockery said.
Among the vocal opponents to the idea have been the incoming chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and Dockery.
“If Secretary Buss had been able to fend off the privatization effort for a year, they’d have to battle it over again and maybe they wouldn’t have the votes,’’ she said.
Dockery said that she did not know Buss, and if she had been the governor would have preferred to find someone from Florida. “But once he was picked, and picked for his reputation as a reformer…he should have been listened to.”
Dockery said that as a newcomer to government and politics, Scott “had no knowledge of the prison system and it seems to me he would want to rely on an expert instead of cutting him off.”
She said the sudden ouster of Buss will send a message to other executives working for the governor.
“There is a bit of a chilling effect,’’ she said. “This guy was kind of bucking the system. In the past, secretaries have implemented policies they don’t think are necessarily in the best interest of the public but because they are working for the governor they do what he wants them to do.”
She would prefer to have administrators allowed to speak their minds, and defend it with facts. “The guy happened to be independent enough to question it publicly and that was the death knell,’’ Dockery concluded.