TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is going to Israel with a large contingent of business leaders – not surprisingly, especially as the GOP woos Jewish voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election. But DeSantis’ plan to hold a meeting with his elected Cabinet while he’s there has raised concerns about whether officials are violating the state’s open-meeting laws.
When DeSantis first announced the trade mission, he noted that his attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner would accompany him, and that the Cabinet would hold a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem during the trip, which runs from May 25 to May 31.
Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried had previously planned a trade mission to the country, but there was no apparent reason why the other two were going, except for the Cabinet meeting.
“I see no reason to hold a Cabinet meeting in Israel,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the open-government watchdog group First Amendment Foundation. “And we still don’t have an agenda, so I don’t know what they will be doing at that meeting.”
By law, the state has to post an agenda seven days before the independently elected Cabinet members meet, except during an emergency. As of Tuesday, the Cabinet website not only didn’t list an agenda for the meeting, it didn’t even have the meeting on the calendar.
DeSantis’ office isn’t talking about his Israel plans, citing security issues. The Associated Press has made several requests to interview the governor about the trip by phone or in person, and his office said he wasn’t available.
Even Cabinet officials said they didn’t know what is on the agenda because the meeting is being organized by the governor’s office. Fried speculated that it could be largely ceremonial.
“To have all four of us going over to show our support for the state of Israel and economic development between the two countries I think is the bigger picture,” she said.
The Cabinet, which also includes Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody and Republican Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, is scheduled to meet in Tallahassee six days after the officials return home – another sign it will handle state business at home while focusing the meeting abroad on its support for and ties with Israel.
Still, Cabinet meetings are supposed to be accessible for all. But unless they want to pay close to $2,000 for a round-trip airline ticket, not many regular Floridians will be able to attend – even if they can figure out when it’s going to be held.
The FLORIDA Channel, a state-funded video service run by WFSU-TV that covers state government meetings, plans to travel to Israel, but it is still working out details on how to get the content back to Florida.
“They should have an agenda up and they should be telling people where and when it’s going to be,” Petersen said of the governor’s office. “It’s nuts.”
DeSantis isn’t the first Florida governor to embark on a trade mission to Israel. Former Republican Govs. Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott all did the same. The trip could help Republicans politically in a state that is closely divided in presidential politics and where the large Jewish population could be a deciding factor as President Donald Trump tries to win Florida’s 29 electoral college votes.
“There’s no question it’s going to help us,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida. “When people are criticizing members of the Jewish faith and Israel, you have a stark contrast in what Ron DeSantis is doing … letting people know that we do care and that it is a priority for him and the state to be mindful and respectful of the Jews that are living here.”
Gruters sponsored a bill recently passed by the Legislature that prohibits anti-Semitism in Florida’s public schools and universities. It’s possible DeSantis will sign the bill into law while in Israel.
Soon after taking office, the governor pushed for additional money for security at Jewish day schools. He also publicly criticized Airbnb for delisting properties in the disputed West Bank, saying it was a move against Israel, and he persuaded his Cabinet to put the company on a “scrutiny” list for state investments. Before he was elected, he attended the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
This trip will complete his campaign promise to make Israel his first trade mission.