Politics Over Policy At Water Management District

Sep 20, 2015 by

One of the perks of being governor is appointing thousands of individuals to various boards, commissions, authorities and committees. While most of these are unpaid positions, they do carry prestige and the ability to shape policy.

Some of these boards are extremely influential in the running of an agency –belying the volunteer nature of the appointment. For example, the appointees to the five water management district boards actually select their executive directors. This is done to ensure the executive director’s loyalty is to the board and the taxpayers of the district and not to the governor and other elected officials in Tallahassee.

One caveat: The governor can indirectly choose the executive director if his board appointees decide to be little more than rubber stamps. That was unfortunately the case recently with the Board of Governors of the South Florida Water Management District.

Serving on the board of one of the water management districts comes with important responsibilities. Board members deal with complex water policy and restoration efforts. They determine water usage. They are entrusted with land management and resource protection.

So it’s disturbing that the governor has slashed their funding, downsized their staffs and all but eradicated Florida Forever spending and forced out many of the most knowledgeable and scientific-based employees.

Many who once trusted the water management districts to carry out major restoration projects now fear that their professionalism, science-based decision-making and political independence has been compromised. Under this governor, their resources and staff have been decimated while they are expected to speed up permitting for developers — particularly agricultural landowners who are converting their lands to development.

The state is split into five water management districts — Northwest Florida, Suwanee, St Johns River, Southwest Florida and the granddaddy of them all –the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).

It’s this last and largest of the water management districts that has been in the news.

Covering 16 counties from Orlando to the Florida Keys and serving a population of 8.1 million residents, the district is responsible for a safe and adequate drinking water supply, permitting for agricultural uses, flood control, land acquisition and management, and Everglades restoration. SFWMD has a budget of some $750 million. Board members need to be good watchdogs over public funds — spending not only tax revenue levied through their ad valorem taxing authority, but also spending tens of millions of dollars through other state revenue sources and programs such as Florida Forever.

The majority of the nine current appointments to the SFWMD are attorneys, Realtors/developers and agriculture interests. Most are well connected politically. One member is affiliated with the King Ranch, a private hunting operation that entertains Florida’s elected officials. Until recently, U.S. Sugar, a politically powerful corporation that has been the beneficiary of millions of Florida tax dollars, was represented on the board.

These Board of Governor appointees recently pushed out Executive Director Blake Guillory, an engineer with a 24-year career in water management and replaced him with Peter Antonacci, an attorney turned lobbyist who served a stint in the Scott administration.

Does that name sound familiar? It should.

As Scott’s general counsel, Antonacci secretly visited Gerald Bailey, the well-respected commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and suggested he resign, intimating that the governor and other Cabinet officials supported his recommendation. This set off a scandal for a variety of reasons. First, the FDLE commissioner is a Cabinet appointee, not a governor appointee. It would take a public meeting and public vote to replace him before the full Cabinet. Second, all three of the Cabinet officials, other than the governor, denied any knowledge of Bailey’s ouster. Third, it was a blatant violation of our Government in the Sunshine Laws.

And now in a similar situation, Guillory was forced out and Antonacci was installed. The position was never advertised and qualified candidates were never sought.

Antonacci, general counsel to the governor, left the Governor’s Office to parlay his political relationships into lucrative lobbying opportunities.

But duty calls.

Scott, displeased that the Board and Guillory did not follow his directive to further lower ad valorem taxes to the detriment of the district’s needs, wanted a change. So, Antonacci, who proved his loyalty to the governor and his willingness to do the governor’s dirty work –forcing people out and providing plausible deniability — is being placed in another, rewarding position.

It seems loyalty to the governor trumps having any real job qualifications. Antonacci’s appointment requires Senate confirmation. The Senate should vote down his appointment and send a strong message that taking care of the state’s water needs comes before political patronage.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.



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