Mast claims Nikki Fried favoring farmers, Fried response: ‘Mast letter incorrect and purposefully misleading’

JACKSONVILLE — Yet another missive from Congressman Brian Mast was stirring up controversy last week, leading to heated debates on social media.

In a Jan. 9 letter to Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Rep. Mast, a Republican representing the Treasure Coast, accused the corps of allowing a “grave conflict of interest” on the Project Delivery Team (PDT) for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). The congressman claimed Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried was trying brazenly to “skew the results of LOSOM” by appointing Tom MacVicar and Bill Baker, who have connections to the Florida Sugar Cane League, as members of the PDT.

“Members of the public are not allowed to be on the PDT,” Congressman Mast claimed.

Commissioner Fried’s office quickly responded.

“The congressman is incorrect and purposefully misleading,” her office’s statement, issued Jan. 11, explained. “They are not Commissioner Fried’s appointments to the PDT. They are technical and hydrological consultants to the department, under contract through multiple administrations. Commissioner Fried’s PDT appointments are three employees of our Office of Agricultural Water Policy, and her top concern regarding Lake Okeechobee is the public health and well-being of Floridians.”

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, the Project Delivery Team (PDT) members include the federal officials and elected officers of state, local or tribal governments or their designated employees with authority to act on their behalf acting in their official capacities. But the PDT rules do allow for those not employed by government to participate.

The congressman’s statement that members of the public are “not allowed to be added to the PDT” was incorrect, according to USACOE. Technical advisers who are not government employees can be added to the PDT list, explained Erica Skolte, USACOE public affairs specialist.

“Typically, the PDT members are identified by the agency or governmental entity they represent. In some cases, the agency/governmental entity has additional technical staff who can provide significant technical expertise or data sets, and they are usually then included as formal PDT members; for example, if a county has staff who have experience and expertise in complex analyses, such as modeling, they may also be added as part of the PDT, so they can share/discuss their models, data and expertise directly with the team during the PDT meetings (which are working meetings, not just informational) where they are looking at identifying performance measures, modeling, etc.,” Ms. Skolte explained.

A list of the PDT members provided by the corps (provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request) shows six representatives for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), including Mr. McVicar and Mr. Baker.

An Aug.16 letter to Tim Gysan of the USCOE Jacksonville District from Rebecca Elliott of the FDACS Office of Agricultural Water Policy, indicates she is the FDACS primary PDT member. “In addition, we have the firm of MacVicar Consulting under contract to provide technological consulting and hydrological expertise. Tom MacVicar and Bill Baker will participate to provide detailed technical support for FDACS project review,” she wrote.

The PDT list is 176 names long. Other other agencies have more representatives than FDACS. For example, Martin County has seven representatives; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has eight; South Florida Water Management District has 24; Seminole Tribe of Florida has 10; USACOE has 28.

Many agencies added extra names to the PDT list in addition to their primary representative. The City of Wellington has four representatives on the PDT, and additional PDT member represents the Village of Wellington. Broward County has four on the PDT list; Collier County has four; the Environmental Protection Agency has five.

PDT members from the Big Lake Area include: Dowling Watford and Marcos Montes de Oca, City of Okeechobee; Mali Gardner, City of Clewiston; Keith Babb, City of Pahokee; Edgar Kerr, City of South Bay; Tim Stanley, Glades County; Emily Hunter, Hendry County; David Hazellief and Terry Burroughs, Okeechobee County; and, Jeremy McBryan, Palm Beach County. Members of the public are welcome to attend the government agency PDT meeting and provide comment during designated periods.

It’s not the first letter from the Congressman to create controversy.

Last year, he accused the corps of delaying a permit which the corps was actually expediting.

In an Oct. 23, 2019, letter to Col. Andrew Kelly, Rep. Mast, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, accused the Army Corps of Engineers of “bureaucratic delays” stalling progress on the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir and storm water treatment area (STA). His complaint had to do with the timeline for completing the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Ironically, rather than trying to delay the NEPA permit, the corps had already been expediting it. The NEPA process which involves other federal agencies and requires legally-specified time lines for hearings and public comment periods, usually takes an average of three and a half years for a corps project. Starting in 2018, the corps had been pushing the permits through in an expedited process with the goal of completing all of the requirements in just 19 months.

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