Scott Names Prisons, Disaster Chiefs

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida


Gov.-elect Rick Scott on Tuesday named an Indiana prisons official to head Florida’s system and turned to the world’s largest company for the high profile job of the state’s emergency management director, making his first two agency head appointments.

Bryan Koon, director of emergency management at Wal-Mart Stores, will replace David Halstead as head of the division that since Hurricane Andrew has become a respected model of emergency response for the nation as it has routinely dealt with major disasters, particularly hurricanes.

Scott named Indiana Corrections Commissioner Edwin Buss to head the Florida Department of Corrections, another high profile – and high pressure - pick because he’ll be expected to help figure out how to slash as much as $1 billion from the agency’s budget over the next seven years.

Both appointments were lauded by observers who said Florida has nabbed two professionals at the top of their respective games.

Wal-Mart is considered a national leader in partnering with state and federal emergency response managers in coordinating efforts leading up to and following disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently spotlighted Koon for work done at the retailer. In his announcement, Scott said he wants Koon to report directly to the governor’s office.

“Preparing for and defending against natural disasters in Florida must and should be at the top of the priority list for any administration,” Scott said in a statement. Doing so, he said would make sure that the director has the governor’s ear and could be held fully accountable for responses.

As head of Wal-Mart’s emergency response team, Koon oversees a network of emergency responders led by a group of 40 executives who watch over the company’s assets from a 4,000-square-foot response center near its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters.

With 1.2 million employees, Wal-Mart has honed its emergency response system through repetition, dealing with a host of issues from wildfires to hurricanes to earthquakes on a global scale, Koon said in a 2007 interview with HSToday, a homeland security trade publication.

“Because of our scale, we deal with [emergency issues] every day,” Koon said. “So we don’t get rusty.”

Once a threat is noted, for example, Wal-Mart begins moving inventory to safe staging areas to provide for regional shifts in weather, wildfires and local states of emergencies. With warehouses, distribution centers and regional headquarters linked by computer, a phone call or email can lead to immediate response.

“What may seem miraculous is something we do every day,” Koon said.

Scott’s choice to replace Walt McNeil as secretary of corrections, Buss, has dealt with prison overcrowding in Indiana, where the inmate population has grown but no new prisons have been built since 2002.

Buss has suggested that part of the problem there has been lawmakers toughening sentencing laws without thinking of the crowding consequences.

“The problem with our criminal justice system is it’s all anecdotal,” Buss said in an interview with the Corrections Reporter earlier this year. “You have some crime that is horrendous in a community and then, of course, the lawmakers come back and everything results in a new crime.

“Just in the last 10 years, there’s been 117 new crimes or enhancements. .. . . We haven’t eliminated a crime. We haven’t looked at redundancy,” Buss continued. “This is significant. I think it’s huge.”

As head of Indiana Corrections, Buss oversees 7,500 employees and 26,000 inmates. Buss’ prior experience included stints supervising two state prisons, during which time he revamped the state’s death penalty procedure. Florida’s prison system, by comparison, holds four times as many inmates – over 102,000 in 146 facilities – with about 160,000 more monitored on probation or parole.

“Given the transformation and pro-taxpayer improvements over the last few years, it was inevitable that other states would come after top talent like Ed Buss,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said in a statement. “He was actively pursued by several new governors. Congratulations to Gov.-elect Scott for winning the sweepstakes.”

Industry representatives say Buss is familiar with re-entry programs and dealing with tight budgets, experience that bodes well for the state, said George Camp, executive director of the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

“He is one of the bright lights in the corrections community,” Camp said. “He’s invested a lot of his time and energy on re-entry programs and reinvesting in community corrections to improve public safety.”

Buss will immediately be under the spotlight, coming to head the prisons agency at a time when Scott has targeted it for $1 billion in cuts over seven years.

Koon will take over an agency that over the years has been highly respected, with its former director, Craig Fugate, having been tapped by President Obama to take over the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the widely-criticized performance of the federal government during Hurricane Katrina. Fugate had led Florida through the busy 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which included major hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne and Wilma.

But since then, the agency has been under a more negative spotlight. Fugate’s successor, Ruben Almaguer, resigned in January of this year, facing allegations of sexism in the leadership ranks at the department, and improper spending. Almaguer denied the allegations, but his protests didn’t do much to instill confidence – he said he was undermined by other officials at the agency who didn’t like him. He was replaced by current director Halstead.

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