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Nancy Smith

Politics, Push for Power the Biggest Threat to Everglades Restoration

February 15, 2019 - 6:00pm

The last four Scott-appointed Governing Board members had come to Thursday's South Florida Water Management District meeting with something to say. And boy, did they say it.

I came away a greater fan at noon than I was at 9 a.m. when the meeting started.

These are classy people -- Brandon Tucker, Jim Moran, Sam Accursio and Federico Fernandez -- largely unappreciated through ignorance, doing a complex and important job few understand or appreciate. They don't get a dime.  I've watched them over the months and years suffer all kinds of fools, and only on rare occasions would they respond with anything short of an appreciative "thank you for sharing your view."

Brandon Tucker

Tucker, Moran, Accursio and Fernandez were the last holdouts, the last quit-refusers, on a board new Gov. Ron DeSantis wanted brand-new and all-his. A governor they voted for, a fellow Republican who had never tried to meet with them, who took office deeply disrespecting them by not waiting until their terms expired naturally, but by calling for their resignations. 

You could see it stung.

In calling for board resignations as one of his first orders of business, DeSantis may have failed to see the quicksand ahead. He now has no SFWMD board and effective March 5 SFWMD will be without an executive director. He had appointed two new members in January, Chauncey Goss and Ron Bergeron. But both were still being vetted -- Goss by FDLE, Bergeron by the Senate Ethics Committee -- thus ineligible to take their seats Thursday. That left no quorum and it meant important contract votes were delayed at least a month and probably longer. DeSantis will need five sworn-in board members before any more SFWMD business gets done.

Jim Moran

All new members are likely to be newbies.

Even though Executive Director Ernie Marks announced his resignation, District staff can put themselves on autopilot at least for a while. But the new governing board members are going to feel like shiners in a cast net.

Outgoing board members chose their words carefully Thursday -- that is, all but one.

Moran, a Boynton Beach attorney who has served on the Governing Board for eight years, brought up Senate Bill 10 and the public pressure to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee as the best way to prevent lake discharges into the estuaries. He said he never did get it. "It seems only common sense to me that you would want to stop the polluted water before it gets to the lake rather than letting it go into the lake on the way to the EAA reservoir ... but nobody asked me," Moran said.

Sam Accursio

Accursio, a Miami-Dade farmer, said he chose to serve on the board not to protect farming interests -- because even his kids aren't interested in carrying on the family business and trying to compete against cheap imports. "I do it to make sure my grandchildren will have enough good water to drink. ... I do it for them."

Fernandez, a Miami-Dade attorney and chairman of the board, pledged his loyalty to DeSantis. He said he is genuinely excited about the governor's "bold vision" for the environment and other measures he has announced. "I stand ready to lend my help in anything the governor needs."

Tucker, on the other hand, a Martin County land developer, used his comment time to expose the character and incompetence of Congressman Brian Mast, who he claims has no business serving as DeSantis' advisor on agriculture and the environment. 

Tucker called Mast "the leader of the 'Lower Lake O' Movement" -- a movement he labeled "assinine."

"Brian Mast has lived in the Treasure Coast region for two years," said Tucker. "He has lived in South Florida for four years. He has no background or history with the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, agriculture or agencies involved with Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades. What makes him qualified to advise our governor on such important issues? ...

"In my opinion, this man has a complete disregard for the truth about Lake Okeechobee and the communities it sustains -- which is ALL of South Florida, not just Okeechobee, Indiantown, Port Mayaca, Canal Point, Pahokee, Belle Glade, South Bay, Clewiston, Moore Haven, Lake Port and Buckhead Ridge."

Why would Tucker make such a claim? "I have a story to tell you that has kept me up at night since the summer of 2018," he said. 

He then regaled his conversations with Mast, who -- at a Realtors Association meeting Aug. 7  -- was pushing  a lower, 10.6-foot lake. "That's an assinine idea," said Tucker. You don't reach a conclusion first and prove it later.  I was trying to encourage him to look at the science, listen to the experts and use their research to determine what's best for the lake. But the congressman replied, 'Why do I care about the ecology of a lake that is 90 percent covered in algal blooms?'"

Tucker's voice began to break. “Why should we care about Lake Okeechobee? Are you kidding me? Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Everglades system. The health of Lake Okeechobee is critical for South Florida,” he said. "You have a healthy heart, you have a healthy body. ...  Kill the lake, you kill the estuaries. All of South Florida depends on Lake O for its water supply, its flow to prevent salt water intrusion, to sustain our STAs and more."

Mast, with the prompting of the Everglades Trust/Foundation, is cooking up a scheme to convince the public Lake Okeechobee is dead, Tucker said, and it's all a lie.

He said on Aug. 23, when he, Mast and Stephen Leighton were having lunch at a downtown Stuart restaurant, Mast cut him off three times as tried to explain some of the complicated environmental issues about the lake. “I don’t want to hear that (blank),” Mast told him, “I don’t care if Lake Okeechobee is bone dry. When Ron (DeSantis) gets elected, there won't be anyone connected to agriculture in any way on the board of the Water Management District."

Another intemperate Mast comment that day, said Tucker: "'All board members will be from Martin and Lee counties. ... Why does he feel that way?

"Because the board listened to the science presented by the experts and supported solutions that would actually accomplish Everglades restoration and provide interim relief from harmful freshwater Lake O discharges to the estuaries that DID NOT require taking any more private property off of the tax rolls and devastating communities. We simply followed the core mission of the agency -- flood control for all -- and that made us the enemy to those who believe simply more land will solve the problem," Tucker said.
 
"The asking for our resignations had nothing to do with any vote taken at the Nov 7 board meeting. If it were simply about those decisions, why was (board member) Dan O'Keefe asked to resign? He defended waiting to speak with the governor regarding the consent decree and abstained from the vote on the lease extension."

 Interviewed Thursday by TCPalm, online site of Treasure Coast Newspapers in Stuart, Mast called Tucker's allegations "almost completely fabricated."

Melanie Peterson, vice chair of the board before she resigned Jan. 1, told Sunshine State News she was appalled but grateful Tucker had "outed Mast's lies" and aggressive behavior during his closing remarks Thursday. She said she hopes the governor will intercede: "If you don't condemn Mast's bully behavior, you condone it."

For my money, besides Tucker's comments, the highlight of the Thursday meeting was the remarks of Mike Collins of the Water Resources Analysis Coalition, a former SFWMD Governing Board member, involved with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan virtually from its inception.

I hope some of the future Water Management District board members saw the meeting video and listened to what Collins had to say.  It was a lesson, a perfect recipe, in how to be a successful Governing Board member. Collins' comments begin at 1:51:28:

I've been through seven different governing board transitions ...  The law that created this district contemplated a certain kind of transition. It's in statute. It said that the governor incoming would take control of the board a year after he was elected. And the reason for that was to ensure continuity, was to ensure there was somebody left to educate the incoming board members, that they not be hit with the tremendous responsibilities that you guys bear, to balance massively important, competing interests. It's balanced on a razor's edge, always has been, probably always will be. And we're entering a brave new world where that's not the case, with consequences we really don't know.  I think it depends to a large degree if the people appointed to the board have any background knowledge. I had a whole bunch when I got here and I still knew nothing. So we don't know.
 
There's an assumption out there the inevitability of all of us getting along and Everglades restoration moving forward because that's what people have seen. For 17 years I talked to this District, there was no consensus or support for an Everglades restoration. It wasn't until we sat down at the same table, all of us, and worked out a deal during the Governor's Commission that became CERP. That's a very delicate sort of balance. There are a lot of people out there with competing interests now that I don't see getting any press coverage because they don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars getting dumped in PR campaigns for them. But I think we all need to understand, be careful what you ask for. And there are balances that could be upset. ...I hope some of the new members are watching this and can be thinking about this ... I want to thank you for all the tremendous dedication and time you put in on this, for keeping (Everglades restoration) moving forward. Because I don't think any of this is inevitable. There are consequences that could bottle this all up fast if we're not careful ...  
 
Balance competing interests. That's what Collins is pleading the next board to do. That's the secret. 
 
 
Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

Comments

I like the way you defend Brandon a relator and land developer in the Okeechobee area. Again it looks like Nancy is in the pockets of these developers. She says she has family in Martin County then yes you should care less about these communities that do nothing for us on the coast. Hell for all the money being wasted on the lake you could make all the western community people rich and flood there nasty towns. They have no use for the state really. Besides Okeechobee the rest of these area's are just a drain of resources.

Screw 'em! They ALL have a special interest agenda and their agendas do not comport with the needs and preferences of rank-and-file Floridians. Pure WATER has become a significant singular issue in Florida and these people have no scientific nor professional background even remotely related to the issue. SWFWMD has been a problem for for south Florida for years!

Just for the record. Colleena11 is not me.

All this convinces me that a clean sweep and fresh look is highly appropriate.

There has not been a smooth translation from one governor to the next at SFWMD and this is no different. Water is for fighting about and there’s plenty of fighting. Water has gotten worse, not better. That needs to change. Maybe now it will.

I live in a coastal community where dogs died last summer from eating a dead fish from the toxic water. There has to be a way for the coastal communities and the farming communities to work together. No one wants to see either suffer but we have to prioritize human health. The lake along with the coastal towns both have health risks. None of us want to see the other get sick.

I have supported Mast up to this point. He has become another village idiot in politics. Says one thing to get elected and then decides to side on the high population areas. Mr. Mast does need to learn the history of the lake area and the glades to form a better opinion. For him and other stupid people to think that they do not also add to the pollution of the water on both coast is asinine. I have said this in past post that they need to understand where all the storm water goes from their streets and also all their treated sewer water discharges that come from the sewage treatment plants. If its so clean then all the populated coastal areas need to use it for your drinking water source. Wake up Brian and use your head, the pollution starts in Orlando and continues through the Kissimmee River Basin and is also added to and compounded from the high population coastal communities. To think that you yourself does not contribute to the problem reminds me of all liberals who blame others but not themselves. I share the blame and do what I can because I care for all the water. How about you doing the same.

This is gold. No board and everyone is pointing fingers and calling names. It’s a wonder there is a lake o these days-for now. Hell beaches being shut down in Feb! Perfect let’s make sure we really f/up the tourists. You all sit here and bitch. I’m glad everyone was removed - No one could tell had the job not made it public coz none of u did anything to help this Lake or anything else. Ever heard of the board getting ANY POSITIVE FEEDBACK from anyone ever? Nope-Never

Job = Gov. (spell check makes me crazy)

Yep. Been trying to get folks to understand this for more than 30 years, but special interests in the housing and construction and tourism industries are successful in keeping a cap on letting it go further. The troubles are entirely people related and mostly urban and far less involves farming. The start of it is north towards Orange, Seminole and Osceola Counties. The refuge from those areas has collected for decades in Lake Okeechobee. The problem to fix is north, not south.

Towns around the Lake (e.g. Okeechobee, Clewiston, Pahokee, Up the Grove etc. need to demonstrate their opposition at State and National attention getting levels - maybe something like declaring their area a The Farming Republic of America and put checkpoints on all major hiways (US 27, US 441 etc. to deny their enemies ingress or egress to their Farmers Republic as per the Conch Republic action in the Keys. It's time for real ACTION not pussyfootin' around in a collegial manner.

Dude your high AF......

Lake O discharges and spewing blue green algae have long been on the minds of Martin county residents! Year after year after year NOTHING has been done to help stop this toxicity! There is do much political infighting, payoffs and special interest groups vying to get their way! There has been and continues to be fiver pointing and placating the public! There needed to be change and some damn accountability from the board! Clean house and let’s get something done - FINALLY!

Comments are now closed.

nancy smith
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