Did the rail service get approval too fast?
By Nancy Smith of Sunshine State News
It sure helps when the board chairman of an agency charged with deciding whether your environmental impact plan meets muster is also your bought-and-paid-for consultant. So, approval worked out very nicely, thank you, for All Aboard Florida/Brightline.
It took less than 20 minutes Tuesday — less than the time it takes most people to break for a morning coffee — for Orange County commissioners to approve the environmental impact for the planned rail service’s 22 miles of right of way through wetlands between the county line and Orlando International Airport.
All Brightline had to do was agree to convert 100-plus wetlands acres along the beachline, mitigating the loss of fragile environment by buying additional lands, then deeding them over to the county conservation district.
The key to Brightline’s success? It was John Miklos, who represented All Aboard Florida in front of the commission, in his capacity as president of the private environmental firm, Bio-Tech Consulting.
Getting that kind lightning action out of your county commissioners … now, that’s one damn-good consultant, you say.
But what few people realized — except county commissioners who kept mum and WFTV-9’s Christopher Heath who did not — was that Miklos is also the appointed head of the St. John’s River Water Management District. That’s the state regulatory board with oversight over Central Florida’s water — the same state board that reviewed the project.
Nice job exposing this one, Christopher Heath. Not that the Florida Commission on Ethics folks are clutching their pearls over what seems to me is a clear ethics breach. Miklos has a history of conflicts of interest. In 2016 he was hauled before the commission, reported for working as a consultant for the city of DeBary while the city tried to make a land deal with the SJWMD. But he wriggled off the hook when notoriously forgiving ethics commissioners found no probable cause.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Heath tried to interview Miklos for clarification about his role as consultant and the District’s role as the environmental impact plan’s deciding agency. But he declined.
At least the SJWMD staff issued a statement for WFTV-9 viewers: “The district reviewed their application for an environmental resource permit. An environmental resource permit does not go to the governing board. It’s reviewed and issued by staff.”
And, of course, staff is never influenced by the chairman of the board.
Imagine Brightline trying to pull a stunt like this in Martin County, where angry citizens defend outsized puddles as never-ever-to-be-disturbed wetlands.
Orange County citizens, no matter how much you look forward to your first promised Brightline ride in 2021, it’s OK to be outraged.
You’ve just been disrespected by a sham of a process that ought to be in place to protect your interests and the state’s laws.
Maybe somebody will lodge a conflict-of-interest complaint and this time the Commission on Ethics will take a closer look at double-duty chairman-consultant John Miklos.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @NancyLBSmith