Asks SFWMD Board to Quit
In a surprising move in his first week in office, new Florida Governor Ron DeSantis came to Southwest Florida last Thursday, January 10, to announce his new water policy, beginning with an Executive Order signed at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station in Bonita Springs.
“Our water and natural resources are the foundation of our economy and our way of life in Florida,” said Governor DeSantis. “The protection of water resources is one of the most pressing issues facing our state…I’m taking immediate action to combat the threats which have devastated our local economies and threatened the health of our communities.”
The Executive Order calls for:
– $2.5 Billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and protection of water resources (a $1 Billion increase in spending over the previous four years and the highest level of funding for restoration ever).
– The Establishment of a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, charged with focusing on expediting progress toward reducing the adverse impacts of blue-green algae blooms now and over the next five years.
– Instruction to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to immediately start the next phase of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir Project design and ensure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves the project according to schedule.
– The Creation of the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency charged with organizing and directing integrated scientific research and analysis to ensure that all agency actions are aligned with key environmental priorities.
– The Appointment of a Chief Science Officer to coordinate and prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring and analysis needs to ensure alignment with current and emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians.
– The addition of a water treatment component to the C-43 reservoir that will send water into the Caloosahatchee River.
– Opposition to off shore drilling and hydraulic fracturing in Florida.
– Direction to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to establish a septic conversion program with a local government match requirement.
– Movement of environmental crime enforcement from Florida Fish & Wildlife to the DEP.
The order was well-received among environmental advocates.
“We are very encouraged by the Governor’s action in calling for effective, consensus-driven, solutions-oriented leadership at the SFWMD,” said Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation CEO Ryan Orgera. “Organizations like the SCCF, fighting day in and day out for effective water management and natural resource policy in the State of Florida, need strong partners in Tallahassee.”
“By his actions today, our new governor has taken clear and decisive leadership on behalf of Florida’s citizens,” said SCCF’s Natural Resource Policy Director Rae Ann Wessel.
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg praised the governor’s actions. “After decades of delay, Governor DeSantis has today placed Florida on a trajectory to complete the EAA Reservoir, not in 10 years, but in four. He has clearly heard the cries of Floridians who have had enough of perennial algae outbreaks.”
Following his stop in Bonita Springs last Thursday, DeSantis made additional stops in Sarasota and Stuart where he called upon the entire governing board of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to resign. His letter to board members stated, “it is time for a clean reset of the leadership of the Board.”
All nine positions on the board were appointed by former Governor Rick Scott who changed the makeup of the board from a broad representation of stakeholders to a more narrow one with most board members involved in agriculture or real estate development.
In what was widely seen as an act of defiance, just two days after the November election, the board approved a lease extension for land in the EAA Reservoir area for New Hope Sugar, a Florida Crystals subsidiary, after adding it as an agenda item late the day before the meeting. SFWMD board members were aware of the governor-elect’s preferences because Congressman Brian Mast, head of DeSantis’ environmental advisory committee, attended the meeting at the request of the Governor-elect, and asked that the board postpone a decision until the new governor had time to review it. They voted 8-0 to approve it with Dan O’Keefe abstaining. Following the meeting, Mast blasted the board as “arrogant” and called on all of them to resign.
One SFWMD board member, Melanie Peterson, resigned effective January 1. Carlos Diaz and Dan O’Keefe resigned Friday, January 11. Of the remaining six board members, four have said they will not resign – Jim Moran, Jaime Wesinger, Sam Acursio and Brandon Tucker. Chair Federico Fernandez and Rick Barber have not resigned or commented on the governor’s request. Moran is an attorney from Palm Beach County. Wesinger is an agriculture executive from Collier County. Acursio is a farmer from Miami-Dade County and Tucker is a real estate broker from Martin County. Fernandez is an attorney from Miami-Dade County and Barber is the CEO of an engineering firm in Lee County. Moran, Barber and Acursio’s terms expire in March 2019. In submitting his resignation, O’Keefe inadvertently highlighted a common objection to the board’s makeup. O’Keefe stated that he did not vote for the New Hope Sugar land lease in November because his law firm represents New Hope Sugar.
With six of the nine board members still on the board a week after the governor’s request, the question becomes, can he remove them? Florida law states that the Governor appoints SFWMD board members, but the Senate must confirm them. The Senate also has the power to remove them, though it’s a lengthy process. DeSantis would have to suspend the board members and could only do so for wrongdoing, neglect of duty, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, commission of a felony or drunkenness. Then those board members could resign or request a hearing by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources committee that oversees the district. The Senate President could reject their request or order a hearing. If conflicts of interest exist, the Senate could hire a special master or nonpartisan mediator to preside over the hearing. Then the committee or special master would recommend keeping the board member or removing them to the full Senate, which would then vote.
With three of the remaining six members’ terms up on March 1, 2019, (another in 2020 and the remaining two in 2021) the Governor may just begin appointing the six seats that are or will be vacant come March 1.
While DeSantis has not had much to say about SFWMD in the past week, Congressman Brian Mast issued a press release in response to SFWMD board members refusal to resign, saying, “The Governor made clear that he does what he says: 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.”
By Missy Layfield