Commentary

If Florida Gov. DeSantis wants to oust officials, here’s a list

Start by pink-slipping the senator pushing the Northern Turnpike Extension, who says it’s only taking a break

August 11, 2022 7:00 am

Spruce Creek. Credit: Doris Leeper, Spruce Creek Preserve

You probably heard all the hoopla last week about Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis removing — excuse me, “suspending” with extreme prejudice — the outspoken Democratic prosecutor in Hillsborough County, Andrew Warren. He’s not quite fired but he’s on the verge.

Usually when officeholders in Florida get pink-slipped by the governor, it’s because they’ve been charged with a crime or involved in a big scandal. Warren didn’t fit either of those categories. In fact, he’d been elected twice and was on the verge of announcing a big break in a cold case in which his predecessor had convicted an innocent man.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a news conference in Tampa on Aug. 4, 2022. Source: Screenshot/Facebook

What did Warren do wrong? He signed a letter saying he wouldn’t prosecute any abortion-related crimes.

But, so far, no such cases have been brought to Warren, so technically he hadn’t done anything wrong at all. George Orwell would say he ran afoul of the ThinkPol.

I suspect the governor pictures himself as Tom Cruise, who plays the dashing officer who runs the Department of Pre-Crime in the movie “Minority Report.” Warren seemed likely to do something the governor didn’t approve of, so DeSantis (who more closely resembles Deputy Barney Fife) nipped it in the bud.

A lot of people expressed shock that DeSantis would take such a drastic step that disrespects local voters. To me it was no surprise. He’s previously shown his contempt for the voters.

Remember when he signed into law a bill that the cruise industry wanted, overturning an anti-cruise ship referendum vote passed by the people of Key West? It happened after he got $1 million from the cruise ship pier operator, not that those two things have anything to do with each other.

And remember how he had no objections to the Legislature blocking local “rights of nature” referendums from ever taking effect? That’s exactly what such a huge fan of developers would do.

No, Warren’s removal is in keeping with DeSantis’ character. It also jibes with his attempts to mimic his political mentor, the pumpkin-faced game show star whose famous catchphrase was, “You’re fired!” (Curiously, the Insurrectionist-in-Chief didn’t like it when voters told him the same thing.)

Instead of wringing our hands over what DeSantis did, I say we take advantage of it. Now that the governor has shown an appetite for ousters, I have a list of other Florida officials he ought to evict.

And it wouldn’t be for thinking wrong thoughts. It would be for dereliction of duty and assaulting the body politic.

Let’s start with state Sen. Gayle Harrell. A big chunk of North Florida would cheer her removal from office because the Stuart Republican was the sponsor of the 2021 bill that called for building the Northern Turnpike Extension.

We’re on a break

You may recall that the turnpike controversy started with the state’s roadbuilders giving then-Senate President Bill Galvano’s PAC a hefty campaign contribution. That led Galvano to propose the state build three expensive new toll roads that weren’t anywhere on the Department of Transportation’s plans for future construction.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs massive toll roads expansion. May 2017. Source: Florida Senate

The Legislature passed Galvano’s bill and DeSantis signed it. But the trio of study committees set up to review the plans couldn’t find a reason for building any of them.

Harrell’s wrongheaded bill killed two of the roads (yay!), but kept the Northern Turnpike Extension alive, (boo!) DeSantis signed that bill too.

The people whose rural communities in Levy and other North Florida counties would be flattened were outraged when they found out. This was especially true in the historic Black community of Royal.

Harrell, the Senate Transportation Committee chair, doesn’t live anywhere near where the road would go. Neither she nor her constituents would feel the pain of that pavement.

There’s a strong suspicion among the residents that this road would benefit no one but big-money developers like billionaire Thomas Peterffy, people who also happen to be major campaign contributors. But I’m sure that’s just a coincidence like the cruise-ship thing.

Fortunately, all the people who were upset about this bombarded the DOT with complaints. They persuaded their local governments to oppose it too. Last week, perhaps fearful that an angry mob would show up to toast marshmallows over the smoldering remains of their office, the DOT announced it would “pause” its consideration of all four proposed turnpike routes.

Instead, DOT Secretary Jared W. “Pavement Is Paramount” Perdue said his agency would work on improving Interstate 75. That’s exactly what a local advisory committee had recommended waaaaaay back in 2016, before all this toll road nonsense started.

State Sen. Gayle Harrell. Credit: FL Senate

I called Sen. Harrell to see if she felt any shame for pushing such an unpopular road that now appeared to be dead. Would she send everybody she angered individual apology notes?

She told me that she’s talked to the DOT secretary and the Northern Turnpike Extension is not, in fact, dead. It’s not even sick. The planning for it is, to borrow a term from the TV show “Friends,” merely on a break.

“They’re taking a step back,” she said of the DOT. “They will find out another way of doing this. They are not giving up on this.”

When I told her I was going to call for the governor to remove her from office, she laughed (a little nervously, I think) and said, “In my defense, the process is working.”

There you have it. The governor needs to show Harrell the door before she successfully “processes” the DOT into building this destructive asphalt monster.

That brings me to the next candidate for the firing line: Perdue, the DOT secretary.

A DeSantis Downsizing

I don’t blame Perdue for the Northern Turnpike Extension fiasco. The DOT was just dancing to the tune played by the Legislature. (That tune, by the way, is “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round” from “Cabaret.”)

Jared Perdue. Credit: FDOT

Besides, he just got the top job in April after nearly 18 years with the agency. But Perdue deserves a DeSantis Downsizing because the DOT district he recently ran is blatantly kowtowing to developers for one I-95 interchange.

It’s so eager to please them that it’s willing to break a federal rule and trample on one of the state’s most popular conservation programs.

The 75-acre, $50 million interchange would be built smack amid wetlands along an Outstanding Florida Waterway named Spruce Creek. According to Volusia County Council Chairman Jeff Brower, it’s even worse than that.

“Nearly all constituents I speak with oppose the construction of this interchange, which will facilitate the intense development into an area of Volusia County now recognized as part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor,” Brower wrote in a July 27 letter to the governor.

The Florida Wildlife Corridor! Holy cow! That’s the preservation plan that’s so popular that it passed both houses of the Legislature by a unanimous vote!

That means building this interchange would go against the express will of the entire Legislature to preserve land like this. Shouldn’t that be ground for firing the DOT secretary? Look at who benefits, because it ain’t the public.

“A stated purpose for building the … interchange is to provide access for the development of those very lands designated by the Florida Wildlife Corridor … as needing permanent protection,” Brower wrote. If the DOT builds it, “development will rush in, like the tide.”

But wait (as the FBI agents searching Mar-a-Lago probably said as they opened the safe) there’s more!

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition participants hike through woods. Credit: Mallory Dimmitt

The DOT is using federal highway funds to pay for this ruinous road project, Brower noted. That means it is subject to federal law, including the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact study of something so clearly destructive.

Except, believe it or not, the DOT claimed this infuriating interchange qualifies for an exemption from NEPA. Thus, it never bothered writing an environmental impact statement, according to Brower.

Brower’s letter to DeSantis demanded an investigation of the DOT for flouting federal law.

“It’s illegal,” Brower told me when I called him this week. So far, he said, he’s gotten no response to his letter, either from Perdue or DeSantis.

Perhaps Perdue is embarrassed because his agency did this to help developers such as ICI Homes, which is run by one Morteza “Mori” Hosseini who is — uh-oh, he’s BFFs with the governor.

Well, DeSantis should fire him anyway. Then Hosseini can get him a better-paying job as a “consultant.”

Moving along, we next come to the head of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Shawn Hamilton.

A little help from their friends

Hamilton has only held the top DEP job for a year, but he was with the agency for 13 years before that.

How’s he doing? Absolutely outstanding, according to the polluters. But if you’re interested in clean waterways, the answer is: Not so good.

Every year, Jerrel “Jerry” Phillips of the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility runs the DEP’s enforcement numbers and issues a report. The report for Hamilton’s first year, issued last month, found some major problems.

Big sewage leaks happened nearly every day around the state in 2021, noted Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. Yet, he wrote, “despite a growing water quality crisis, meaningful enforcement designed to curb this major source of pollution is virtually nonexistent.”

Then came the good news/bad news part.

Sean Hamilton. Credit: FL DEP

The good news: Under Hamilton, the DEP conducted three times as many inspections of potential polluters over the previous year (which, as it turns out, isn’t saying much because in 2020 the agency did hardly any).

The bad news: the DEP filed “substantially fewer enforcement cases than the year before, taking formal enforcement against just 10 percent of the noncompliant facilities, a recent record low rate.”

I asked the DEP about this. The response from spokeswoman Alexandra Kuchta was to dismiss PEER’s criticism as if waving off an annoying mosquito.

“PEER is once again perpetuating an inaccurate characterization of the department’s enforcement, based on information that has either been misinterpreted or misrepresented,” she said via email.

“DEP’s statewide compliance rate for 2021 was a very high 93 percent, with compliance rates of 93.6 percent for drinking water facilities and 91.8 percent for wastewater facilities,” she said.

Well then, everything’s fine and — what? Oh, I see. I skipped over the part of the PEER report that explains that.

When Rick “Jobs Are More Important Than Clean Water” Scott was governor, the DEP adopted something called “compliance assistance offers.”

Every time companies dumped Really Bad Stuff into the state’s rivers, streams, and estuaries, DEP employees were not supposed to hammer them as evil polluters anymore. Instead, they were supposed to lend them a helping hand, just like a friend would.

The one-time regulators were supposed to treat them like customers, not rulebreakers. They were supposed to figure out some way to make them “compliant” with the rules.

“It’s not about compliance. It’s about making things look like they’re compliant,” one of the scores of longtime DEP employees whom Scott laid off told me at the time.

Turns out that’s still going on. By using those “compliance assistance offers,” the PEER report says, “DEP allowed most polluters the opportunity to have their violations ‘forgiven.’ Since DEP has no limit on how many free passes are issued, repeat violators can easily skate.”

If the DEP had really succeeded in making nine out of every 10 polluters follow anti-pollution rules, our waterways would look a lot different than they do now. They wouldn’t be so stinky that they regularly sprout toxic algae blooms.

When DeSantis took office, he appointed a panel of scientists to recommend ways to prevent those nasty algae blooms. The panel turned in its recommendations, most of which were completely ignored.

“Ecological conditions in Florida have not improved and, in many cases, they have worsened,” a coalition of 12 environmental groups noted in a recent report on the algae bloom task force’s recommendations. “Lack of meaningful water quality protections have resulted in persistent harmful algal blooms, a record number of manatee deaths, and an overall decline in water quality statewide.”

Even members of the algae task force, meeting recently for the first time in half a year, bemoaned the lack of progress.

And whose fault is that? If the Florida Department of Environmental Protection isn’t protecting anyone but polluters, I think we know who should take the fall. It’s Hamilton, the guy that our guv put in charge.

Although come to think of it, maybe there’s someone else.

Topping the termination list

There are lots of other folks I could mention who need to be replaced. Press Secretary Christine “Da, I Am Foreign Agent” Pushaw, for instance, because she does such a bad job of making her boss look good that she somehow makes herself the focus of the story instead.

But looking back over this termination list I’ve compiled, I realize I am skipping the one person DeSantis really needs to fire.

The politician who approved the legislative bills creating those hated toll roads.

The person whose developer buddy the DOT is giving special treatment.

The guy who’s failed — repeatedly — to carry out his promise to clean up those algae blooms.

The one who’s spent more time and tax money attacking drag shows and defending his Stop Making White People Feel Guilty Act than dealing with the state’s real problems.

And if the governor refuses to look in the mirror and fire himself? Then we voters should do it for him. Then he can take most of these folks out the door with him as he heads for the job he so clearly loves more than serving as governor: Being a commentator on Fox News.

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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, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. 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.

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