Florida’s water-board appointments show Critical Race Theory is no theory

When you do the math, you can see why no Black members have been appointed

April 21, 2022 7:00 am

Southwest Florida Water Management District. The district has a 13-member governing board. Credit: Southwest Florida Water Management District.

When I need a good laugh, I check the latest news about Ron DeSantis. Our governor is a comic genius!

Just look at his record and you’ll see what I mean. Early in the pandemic, when he was naming “essential businesses” that could remain open, he included professional wrestling. How I laughed about that, and so did the rest of the nation.

And remember when he said he wanted the state to buy a Panhandle bridge with a curse on it? Oh, how I howled about that one.

More recently his re-election campaign announced that the governor was selling his balls. Golf balls, that is, in a package that said FLORIDA’S GOVERNOR HAS A PAIR. You didn’t have to be Beavis and Butthead to get a giggle out of that one.

Then, amid the ongoing manatee die-off, he appointed to the state wildlife commission a guy who had racked up a fine for driving his boat too fast through a manatee protection zone. That’s comedy gold!

I haven’t laughed this hard since the last time I watched 'Blazing Saddles.'

Last week, his education department unveiled his greatest joke yet. In a classic 5 p.m. Good Friday news dump — generally reserved for releasing embarrassing disclosures in hopes no one notices it — the department issued a press release that said the DeSantis administration had rejected a bunch of math textbooks for elementary school kids.

Why? Because the publishers were trying to indoctrinate kids with Critical Race Theory! (Insert “rimshot” sound effect here.)

I haven’t laughed this hard since the last time I watched “Blazing Saddles.

Solving for X

During a press conference this week, DeSantis said he couldn’t give any specifics about what was wrong with the offending textbooks, calling it “proprietary information.” That was a tip-off he’s just pulling all our legs.

Malcolm X. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Banning elementary school math textbooks for somehow sneaking in Critical Race Theory is as silly as banning all math because the numerals are Arabic. The liberals must be trying to tempt kids to join that noted terrorist group, Al-gebra! Next, they’ll assign them to solve an equation for X — meaning Malcolm X!

Are you wondering what Critical Race Theory is? Well first, let me offer a hearty congrats on awakening from your recent coma. Critical Race Theory has lately emerged as a major ranting point among some melanin-lacking politicians.

Critical Race Theory is a 40-year-old idea generally discussed at the grad school level, not the grade school level. The idea is that racism springs from more than just one individual’s hatred of people for being different. Instead, it says that racism is embedded in legal and political systems and policies and has been for decades.

Here, let me give you a real-world example:

Florida has five water management districts. Each one covers more than a dozen counties. Each one levies property taxes. Each one issues permits for water use and wetlands destruction. They’re supposed to protect developed areas against flooding.

Each one is run by an appointed governing board. Four of the boards are supposed to have nine members setting policy and making spending and permitting decisions. The fifth one, for purely political reasons, should have 13 seats.

That should add up to 49 people, all of them gubernatorial appointees. (See? I can do math — with a calculator.)

And right now, there’s not one Black person.

Black people make up about 17 percent of Florida’s population. That’s more than 3 million people with tax-imposing water boards that fail to represent them. Here’s some more math: 17 percent of 49 is about 8 — not zero.

Former governor and current Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. Official Senate portrait; U.S. Senate website.

Bear in mind that studies have found that flooding tends to affect poor and minority neighborhoods more often than any others. When it comes to water management, Florida’s Black neighborhoods definitely — in the words of Sen. Rick Scott — have “skin in the game.” Yet they have no voice in the matter.

Critical Race Theory would say that this shows racism is embedded in the water district system.

While there are no Black governing members, I did find one Hispanic member. There are about 5.6 million Hispanic citizens in the state, which works out to about a quarter of Florida’s total population. That means Hispanics seem to be missing out on water district representation, too.

I also located one Iranian-American, but that’s it for minority representation on those important water boards.

The identity of those two is a clue to what’s really going on here.

Attacked for asking

A couple of years ago, Gov. DeSantis had a strong interest in water board membership — on one water board, anyway. He ousted everyone on the South Florida Water Management District board because he said they were too closely aligned to Big Sugar.

But then he apparently lost interest. He let seats on several boards sit vacant for so long that it threatened their ability to do their jobs. After several publications wrote about his failure to do his job, he finally plugged in some appointees.

So, I wondered, how did he wind up not appointing any Black people? I asked the governor’s press office.

The job of governor’s press secretary used to be handled by a communications professional dedicated to making his or her boss look good. They would do that by telling reporters positive stories and subtly deflecting or ignoring tough questions. Seldom would he or she make news.

Further evidence of our governor’s hilarious sense of humor is the fact that he’s hired someone who’s stuck in attack dog-mode as his $120,000-a-year press secretary (or should I say “anti-press secretary”?). I’ve been told that a lot of reporters do their best to avoid dealing with her. You could say she’s been de-pressed.

So, when I asked the governor’s press office about him appointing no Black people to the water boards, Press Secretary Christina Pushaw slammed me on her Twitter account for daring to ask such an impertinent question.

She labeled me a “Critical Race Journalist” as if that were something nasty, like “Skunk Ape Fondler.” (I am now updating my resume, of course.)

Like Latka tweeting

That led various robot accounts to launch poorly worded or spelled attacks on me. Folks, you haven’t seen funny until you’ve seen a Twitter account with a bunch of numbers for a name hurling insults while mangling the English language. It reads as if “Taxi” mechanic Latka just discovered his phone has a keypad.

Meanwhile, in an email exchange, Pushaw at first tried to dodge the question by pointing out that the Phoenix is edited by white people. I said that my editors don’t levy taxes or issue permits and asked why she seemed scared to answer the question.

That’s when she emailed me this statement, which was lacking only a “sneer” emoji: “I have the utmost confidence that you will interpret any and all demographic analysis of the governor’s appointments in a way that furthers your disingenuous narrative, regardless of my input. Governor DeSantis does not view appointments or anything else through the prism of race.”

I read that and sighed. Pushaw was serving her boss poorly with such a badly thought-out response.

She had missed a great opportunity to blame this outcome on the water management appointments system — a system that was set up, not by the Grand Old Party, but by members of That Other Party back when they controlled state government.

When the water districts were created in 1972 as a result of a record-breaking drought, the law set up their governing boards as appointees for one simple reason: politics.

Appointing foxes

“The concept for appointed rather than elected governing board members was to depoliticize water management decision-making as much as possible,” explained 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). “It’s a good concept, but it certainly hasn’t removed politics from Florida water management.”

The only limits the law placed on the governor’s power to appoint people was that the members had to represent particular regions or counties in the district. Each nominee had to be approved by the Florida Senate, although seldom would any senator disagree with an appointee.

Florida’s Water Management Districts. Source: FL DEP

I wish I could tell you that all of Florida’s governors have appointed nothing but Einsteins and Edisons to the boards, so all their decisions have been science-based. That would be as true as claiming that the Florida Legislature has only the taxpayers’ best interests at heart in convening for multiple expensive special sessions.

Instead, these governing board seats have been turned into positions for foxes looking to control access to the hen house. With a very few notable exceptions, most of the appointees are in either the development or agricultural industries. As you might suspect, their plans for the public’s water supply don’t necessarily benefit the public as a whole.

“Over the last 10 or 12 years … the trend has been more toward economic development,” said Estus Whitfield, who for 20 years served as environmental adviser to four governors from both parties. “That’s been the No. 1 priority. With that kind of attitude, the governor is instinctively carrying out that philosophy.”

The water district’s employees try to protect the state’s water resources, Whitfield said, “but they’re under tremendous political pressure to allow the continued development of the state.”

As I scrolled through the biographies of the appointees, wearing sunglasses to deflect the blinding whiteness of all the photos, I saw lots of telling details such as “vice president in charge of feed operations” and “serves on the board of directors for the Florida Transportation Builders Association.”

Charlie Martinez. Credit: SFWMD

How did that lone Hispanic member get in? Charlie Martinez of the South Florida Water Management District co-founded one of the biggest homebuilding companies in Miami-Dade County.

The Iranian immigrant is engineer Maryam H. Ghyabi-White, who sits on the St. Johns River Water Management District. Her brother is developer Mori Hosseini, who happens to be the governor’s bosom buddy and a big-time campaign contributor.

It’s not that the governor is ignoring Black people because he’s some kind of kooky Klan fan who’s still brooding about nearly losing his last election to a Black candidate. He’s ignoring them because they’re not campaign donors vying for control of the water supply.

In other words, Black people were shut out by the system not for racial reasons, but because of money and politics. But the end result is the same as if David Duke were making the appointments, not DeSantis.

The only color that counts

To further explore this issue — to check my math, so to speak — I did something the governor’s appointments office apparently did not: I talked to a couple of Black people. Both of them have had experience dealing with Florida’s water management districts.

One of them was longtime Everglades advocate Audrey Peterman, co-founder of Earthwise Productions and author or co-author of such books as “Legacy on the Land” and “Our True Nature.”

There is no respect for the non-white population. The people are treated as disposable.

– Audrey Peterman

She said the South Florida Water Management District had a Black member in the 1990s. But once his term ended, the board paid little attention to poor, mostly Black communities such as Belle Glade. Those towns might as well have been located on another planet.

“There is no respect for the non-white population,” Peterman told me. “The people are treated as disposable.”

The other one, Jim Martin, holds a rare distinction. He was the first and so far only Black member of a Florida water management district board to serve as chairman. When I asked how long he chaired the Southwest Florida Water Management District Board, he laughed.

“A brief while,’ the 77-year-old said.

Martin was a Pinellas County educator who ran an organization to take at-risk youths on outdoor excursions. Because of that outdoor experience, he told me, he somehow wound up tagged as an environmental activist and appointed to the board by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles. When Chiles’ two terms ended, so did Martin’s.

All-white water boards are a terrible idea, Martin said, and not just for Black residents.

“Diversity is like a chianti — it’s a blend that gives you a better flavor,” he said. People who all look the same and think the same do a poor job of representing Florida’s multi-cultural communities and their needs, he explained.

I’ll let this conclude our math lesson for today, except to offer this observation: You don’t need a textbook to tell you that Florida’s government is currently being run for the benefit of wealthy developers and ag industry execs. For proof, consider that the Florida Communities Trust — another board of gubernatorial appointees — voted Wednesday to approve a developer-friendly toll road splitting Central Florida’s Split Oak Forest, despite a promise to preserve that land forever.

Clearly, the color that counts is not Black or white.  It’s green.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.