Why is the governor leaving important environmental posts unfilled?

August 6, 2020 7:00 am

Florida’s Green Swamp, a treasure of cypress domes and forested wetlands. Credit: Southwest Florida Water Management District

One of the trickiest jobs a governor has is picking the right people to run various state agencies. Ideally, he or she must find people who have a good background in that field who are willing to put in the hours and who will do the kind of job that will serve the public.

A second option is to hand out the jobs to donors and campaign workers regardless of their qualifications, then cross your fingers that none of them screws up in a way that makes headlines. If they do, you can always pretend you never heard of them.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has chosen to go a third way, one that none of his predecessors ever attempted:

Don’t fill the jobs at all.

That way, there’s nobody to screw up and make headlines. It’s a genius move, really.

Case in point: Florida’s five water management districts. These are little-known but important agencies, created by the Legislature in 1972 after the state experienced its worst drought in history amid a wave of uncontrolled development that drained the dwindling water supply. Each of the five covers all or part of more than a dozen counties, their structure organized around the state’s major regional watersheds.

The five districts issue permits for water use and wetlands destruction in their region and protect developed areas against flooding.

They have the power to levy taxes on property owners to pay for what they do. They are required to meet a strict budget schedule that has been laid out in state law. Together the five boards control hundreds of millions of your tax dollars, as well as ensuring your house won’t wind up full of water.

Some of their permitting decisions are controversial. For instance, next week the Suwannee River Water Management District is scheduled to decide whether to allow a company called Seven Springs to pump 1.15 million gallons of water a day out of the aquifer and sell it to Nestlé to be bottled.

The board will have to make that decision while missing three members, because DeSantis hasn’t put anyone in those seats.

Governing boards

Here’s how it breaks down. Four of the five water districts are supposed to have governing boards of nine members each setting policy and making spending and permitting decisions. The fifth one, for purely political reasons, has 13 seats on its governing board.

Right now, all but one of these boards is short-handed because DeSantis has nominated no one in more than a year to fill the empty seats.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jim Gross, executive director of Florida Defenders of the Environment and a former employee of the South Florida Water Management District (1993-1999) and the St. Johns River Water Management District (2003-2015). Without enough board members, “it’s not clear to me that they can take action on anything.”

“Anybody who cares about water in Florida would be concerned about this,” said Honey Rand, a former Southwest Florida Water Management District employee who literally wrote the book on Tampa Bay’s water wars of the 1980s.

“It’s either incompetence or a strategy,” said Emilio “Sonny” Vergara, who served as executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District from 1997 to 2003 and executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District from 1978 to 1984. “And if it’s a strategy, I can’t imagine what the strategy is.”

The only board with no vacancies is the South Florida Water Management District, which among other things oversees the state’s part of the multibillion-dollar Everglades restoration project. The reason why it’s got all nine members: Shortly after taking office, DeSantis accused the West Palm Beach-based board of being in the pocket of Big Sugar, and so he demanded that all of them resign and give him “a clean reset on the leadership of the board.”

All five water management districts report to the state Department of Environmental Protection, so I talked to DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein about the vacancy problem. He told me the governor knows how important the water district boards are to the future of the state — the proof being his replacement of the South Florida board.

“You saw how much the governor cares about those picks when he first came into office and felt that the South Florida board wasn’t reflective of what the public needed,” he said.

But every time I asked him about the other boards, Valenstein said, “You’ll have to ask the governor’s office.”

I tried. I sent several emails to the governor’s press office but got no response. (UPDATE: Early Thursday morning, Fred Piccolo, the governor’s communications director, responded by saying, “Unfortunately we have no comment.”

As to DeSantis, you might think, “Oh, he’s just really busy holding those daily press briefings on coronavirus while not issuing a statewide mask mandate, which is such an obvious move that even the governors of Alabama and Mississippi have done it. That’s why he isn’t taking care of this important but boring stuff governors are supposed to do.”

But the vacancy problem predated the pandemic. It’s been going on for so long that I wrote a story about it last fall for the Tampa Bay Times. I did that after two of the water boards were unable to muster a quorum for key meetings on their budgets. At that time, DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said her boss wasn’t negligent — he was just being really, really careful.

“When it comes to water management, he wants to make sure his appointments are people who share his vision for Florida’s environment,” she told me last September.

Yet here we are nearly a year later, and nothing has changed — and those same budget meetings are coming up again.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District in Brooksville has nine of its 13 board members. The Suwannee River Water Management District, based in Lake City, has only six members out of nine. The Northwest Florida Water Management District, which covers most of the Panhandle, has only five members.

The one that’s the worst off is the St. Johns River Water Management District. It has just four of its nine members.

Quorum rules

State law requires these boards to have a quorum when making decisions on how much to tax you or how to spend your money or anything else. A lawyer would tell you that if they don’t have a quorum, that means they cannot take a vote or do anything else. A board meeting with no quorum has all the legal authority of a bunch of buddies getting together to drink coffee and complain about the gubmint.

A quorum equals one person more than half the board. That means the boards with nine members need at least five to show up at these meetings to have a quorum, while the one with 13 needs at least seven.

Thus, a couple of the boards that are short a few people can still muddle along all right. However, the vacancies may be for seats that represent certain counties, and if the board goes forward without them, that means those areas are being taxed without having any representation, which I seem to recall we fought a war about in 1776.

For the Northwest Florida district, the need for a five-member quorum means everyone has to show up at every meeting, no exceptions. For the St. Johns River district, it means they can’t legally vote on anything at all. That board is one person shy of a quorum — and with the Oct. 1 start of their budget year racing up pretty quickly.

In fact, it may be even worse off than it appears. One of the St. Johns four isn’t even supposed to be there any longer. His term expired in March, but state law lets him stick around for a few months while the governor finds a replacement.

Except there’s no indication DeSantis is looking for anyone to staff those boards.

I took a quick spin through the governor’s appointments office web page this week. It shows that during the past year the former Navy Judge Advocate General attorney has appointed a slew of judges and judicial nominating commission members (not to mention a Supreme Court justice who hasn’t been a lawyer long enough to qualify).

But I had to go back to July of last year to find an appointment he made for one of the water boards — and it was a reappointment of someone that former Gov. Rick Scott originally appointed.

I put in a call to a spokeswoman for the St. Johns River Water Management District, where the four seats that are vacant are the ones representing Nassau, Baker, Duval, Clay, St. Johns, Putnam, Alachua, Marion, Flagler, Lake, Volusia, Seminole, Orange, and Osceola counties.

When I asked about how the board can even hold meetings right now, she referred me to a notice on its web page saying they’re operating under DeSantis’  emergency coronavirus orders and a similar order from the agency’s executive director, Ann Shortelle.

Theories of the case

I have now read both those orders three times. DeSantis’ order suspends “any Florida statute that requires a quorum to be present in person” for a meeting, allowing these boards to meet via Zoom. But it does not eliminate any need for a quorum at those online meetings. The same goes for Shortelle’s water management district order.

As I talked to Florida water experts about this situation, one put forward the theory that this is all part of a plot to eliminate the water districts and their taxing authority. The theory claims this is a conspiracy by pro-development forces to gut local control over water resources and hand it to Tallahassee. I am not sure I buy that.

Another theory is that DeSantis is being ill-served by his advisers, who figure nothing about Florida water issues is important other than the Everglades.

“Maybe nobody in his inner circle has explained to him how important these boards are,” Honey Rand said. When government officials fail to deal with the important stuff, “most things get to the top of the priority list only when they get to be a crisis.”

It’s true that DeSantis’ background makes him more reliant on advisers than earlier governors (except Scott, who had never run for office before winning his first governor’s race).

DeSantis has been a congressman, so he’s familiar with the federal government. But, unlike Charlie Crist, Jeb Bush, Lawton Chiles, et al., he never served in local or state government before moving his family into the governor’s mansion.

Still, he’s got degrees from Harvard and Yale, so you’d think he would be able to figure out how things work by now, well into his second year in office.

After all, we’re paying him $130,273 a year to do his job. Of course, maybe by not doing his job, he’s trying to suggest that that’s another position that doesn’t need to be filled.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.