State agency head appointments eyed

By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet on Friday interviewed the top candidates to head state agencies dealing with veterans and revenue collection.

DeSantis and Cabinet members did not vote, as the new governor said they were in the process of reviewing and readopting appointment standards for Cabinet agency heads.

Those standards, previously approved in 2015, came after a controversy and litigation following accusations that former Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members had orchestrated the removal of the head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement while circumventing open-government laws.

New Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the application, interview and appointment process for all of the agency heads under the collective supervision of the governor and Cabinet “deserve a full measure of transparency under the Sunshine Law.”

“The people of Florida expect it, and it is the law,” she said.

The governor is in charge of most state agencies, but several, such as the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Department of Revenue, fall under the governor and Cabinet. DeSantis, who took office Tuesday, said an appointment process needs to be adopted or readopted for the heads of agencies that also are under the Cabinet.

“We do need to discuss the Cabinet appointments that are not the governor’s appointments and arrive at the best way to be able to do that,” he said.

However, DeSantis said he wanted to proceed with interviewing state Rep. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican whom he is supporting to be the next executive director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Although the veterans’ agency is under the governor and Cabinet, DeSantis noted the law gives him the power to appoint the executive director with approval by the Cabinet members.

Burgess, who is an attorney, was first elected in 2014 to represent a House district covering eastern Pasco County. He was re-elected in 2016 and 2018.

He is a 32-year-old captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, which handles Corps, which handles military justice and legal affairs.

“To get a young guy like you out there helping our veterans’ community, I think, will do a lot of really good things. I think you have the passion for it and that’s important,” said DeSantis, who is a U.S. Navy veteran.

He said he would ask the Cabinet members to vote for Burgess at a later meeting.

All three Cabinet members --- Fried, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis --- spoke favorably about Burgess.

Moody said her experience as a former circuit judge gave her an understanding of how many veterans end up in the court system. She said Burgess’ legal background would be an asset in helping veterans adjust to civilian life.

Among his priorities, Burgess said he wanted to continue to improve “transitional services” for veterans, noting Florida is expected to be the home for the largest group of post-Sept. 11, 2001 military veterans in the country.

He said the veterans face a variety of issues including post-traumatic stress disorders, suicide and homelessness.

Burgess said one of his goals would be to make sure veterans are aware of the programs and benefits designed to support them. He also said he would like to see “veterans courts,” which focus on veterans’ needs in the criminal justice system, set up across the state.

DeSantis and the Cabinet members also interviewed Jim Zingale, whom the governor has recommended to head to the state Department of Revenue.

Zingale is a Tallahassee veteran who previously ran the revenue agency, which is in charge of tax collection and child-support enforcement, for more than seven years. He also has extensive experience as a top legislative aide and for the past decade has worked as research director of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida and as a consultant.

“His resume speaks for itself. In fact, we really are lucky that he would be willing to serve again,” DeSantis said.

Zingale said he sees the Department of Revenue as providing “a human interface” between its technical goal of efficiently collecting taxes while helping businesses and residents comply with the tax laws.

“That was the culture when I left. I think that still is the culture today. It is what a Department of Revenue needs to be trying to do. It needs to be trying to make compliance easy for everybody,” said Zingale, who ran the agency when Gov. Jeb Bush was in office.

News Service of Florida