Gov. DeSantis, Think Beyond Those Ill-Advised SFWMD Board Resignations

Everglades – AP Photo

Gov. Ron DeSantis proclaimed in his inaugural address that making water quality a priority in Florida isn’t just the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I absolutely agree with him. I believe the governor has the best of intentions.

But I hope water isn’t a priority he will continue to delegate away, particularly in matters concerning Everglades restoration. The new governor could have a devil of a job later walking back some of the decisions he’s leaving to men of questionable motives, Congressman Brian Mast of Martin County and Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.

DeSantis confirmed Thursday it was Mast who recommended replacing all of the SFWMD board members.

“One of the recommendations that Congressman Mast has provided to me was that we really need a fresh start at the South Florida Water Management District, and so today I have sent correspondence to all of the board members thanking them for their service but requesting their resignation,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

A day later, not a single board member was prepared to step down — not even Miami-Dade farmer Sam Acursio, Lee County engineer Rick Barber or Palm Beach County attorney Jim Moran, the members whose terms expire in March.

Which prompted a thoroughly offended Mast to blast out a press release Friday:

“Yesterday the Governor made clear that he does what he says,” the release stated. “He has a bold vision to fix Florida’s environment and improve our water quality. What’s also clear is that the board members of the South Florida Water Management District do not share this vision. The arrogance displayed over the past 24 hours by the board is indicative of how they have operated for the better part of the last decade — without transparency and with disdain for the people of South Florida who have been made to suffer through lost summer after lost summer. They have failed to exercise even the most basic, legally-required level of transparency, and therefore, should be removed for cause.”

This statement and others Mast has made suggest that somehow, blue-green algae and Red Tide are the fault of the 16-county volunteer board of governors who don’t care about water quality and sneak around behind the public’s back to serve “special interests.”

I’d like to hear what he bases his accusations on. He never says. SFWMD is among the most efficient, the most wide-open and transparent agencies in state government. Its board meetings are televised, the public is welcome, the District’s website fills in the gaps, and a highly professional staff has met every CERP and CEPP deadline it’s possible to keep.

Senate President Bill Galvano has said the Senate shortly will follow the procedures outlined in Senate Rule 12 to make a decision on executive suspensions. As I understand it, a Water Management Board governor can only be removed for cause. That generally includes the following: malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence or permanent inability to perform official duties; arrest for a felony or for a misdemeanor related to the duties of office; indictment for the commission of a federal felony or misdemeanor or state felony or misdemeanor.

It will be interesting to see what the Senate decides here. I believe senators will do the right thing. But, in the meantime, I wish the governor would rescind his order. What a chilling effect suspending the SFWMD Governing Board — tainting their legacies and long service in the process — could have on those contemplating service on another volunteer state board.

Mast talks as if he’s been following SFWMD business and Governing Board meetings “for the better part of the last decade.” Of course he hasn’t. He’s getting his information from the Everglades Foundation’s Eikenberg.

Eikenberg is mining Mast and DeSantis’ antipathy toward sugar for all it’s worth.

The fake outrage by the Foundation over the November board meeting vote on the lease extensions is a perfect example of their outrageous hypocrisy, which I’ve written about many times before.

Eikenberg was intimately involved in crafting the language of Florida Statute 373.4598, which specifically required the SFWMD Governing Board to extend the farming lease on land set aside for the EAA reservoir until such time as construction was ready to begin. Yet, Eikenberg and the Foundation still had their knickers in a twist when board members followed the letter of the law that they helped draft.

As long as I can remember, the environmental community has encouraged Governing Board members to make their own decisions and not be influenced by the governor. Yet, with the lease extension, they wanted members to disregard the advice of their own attorney and hold up on the vote they had been discussing for months, to let the governor weigh in.

What a grand opportunity for the Foundation’s chief exec, with the Sierra Club in tow, to move forward with their plan to shred SB 10 and take more agricultural land:

Get all-new Governing Board members who will take months to get up to speed on District business, install an executive director or Everglades czar who owes allegiance to Eikenberg and a staff afraid to open their mouths. Voila, you have the Everglades Foundation driving SFWMD’s agenda.

A letter from the Sierra Club to Gov. Rick Scott, an affront to conservative principles of private property rights, said it plainly last July:

“We need a plan to store, clean and convey the water south in the sugar lands. This has to begin now. The money is there to acquire the land. The voters voted for it. The sugar industry must share some adversity in this time of emergency. Why is it okay to flood the estuaries, but not the land planted in sugar? Why aren’t the sugar growers offering to help? Why don’t you make them? There is too much pain going around. It’s devastating people’s health and their property. It’s killing fish and manatees. It’s hurting Florida. It’s time to send water south for the sake of us all.”

And never a word of the larger problem, controlling the majority of pollution, which comes into the lake from the North.

Everglades restoration delays have nothing to do with the Governing Board, its lease, agriculture, the SFWMD staff, the Florida Legislature or the previous governor. Our federal partners are 100 percent to blame.

Mast should return to Washington and unleash his angry rhetoric on the foot-draggers there.

It’s ironic our new governor, who wants so much to make a positive difference, would choose a federal official to chair his Transition team on water issues. I’m afraid the new administration at the Capitol ultimately will learn the hard way who the truth-tellers in Florida’s Waterworld are.

Reach Nancy Smith at [email protected] or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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