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Editorial: What's cooking with 'Wafflegate?'

(The following editorial appeared on The Tampa Tribune website on December 23, 2009.)

TAMPA, Fla. Officials with the state Department of Transportation spent months negotiating in secret with CSX Railroad to cut the deal that would eventually become SunRail - the $495 million purchase of 61 miles of track for commuter rail near Orlando.

The DOT negotiators even signed confidentiality agreements to keep the public out of the know.

And now it appears that maybe, just maybe, they've tried to skirt the state's public records law by sending e-mails relating to the rail legislation that passed earlier this month with words like "pancake" and "French toast" in the subject line.

If DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and aide Kevin Thibault used the breakfast terms in an effort to trick people such as state Sen. Paula Dockery, the leading critic of the CSX deal, and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a sometime critic - both gubernatorial candidates - they should resign.

Dockery discovered the messages after the department belatedly responded to a public records request for thousands of e-mails. She wanted them before the special session but didn't get them until afterwards. When she found three of the more than 8,000 e-mails provocatively labeled she called them "code words" used to throw off anyone interested in the substance of the message.

Sink, meanwhile, called for an investigation of the incident, insisting "this is not the way the people's business should be done." Gov. Charlie Crist complied, and an internal review, dubbed "Wafflegate," is under way.

Kopelousos insists the e-mails weren't meant to confuse anyone. She said it was Thibault's way of trying to get her attention. That explanation may make more sense than the nefarious interpretations, especially since Dockery got the e-mails she wanted. Still, she has every right to be angry that she didn't receive them in a timely manner and was told they didn't exist.

The state Legislature funded the CSX deal over Dockery's objections earlier this month. We thought the revised deal an improvement and justified legislation that would give rail-transit and the economy a boost. But Dockery has been a thoughtful critic and deserved more respectful treatment.

Dockery and Sink are both principled advocates for good government. "Wafflegate" may turn out to be little more than batter and syrup. But they and the people of Florida deserve an explanation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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