Governor asks SFWMD board to resign

OKEECHOBEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis Thursday called for the entire South Florida Water Management District Governing Board to resign.

At a press conference in Stuart on Jan. 10, Gov. DeSantis said the district needs a fresh start.

“Today I have sent correspondence to all of the board members, thanking them for their service but requesting their resignations,” Gov. DeSantis said.

The current board was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott. One seat on the nine-member board is vacant, following the recent resignation of Melanie Peterson. The terms of three board members — James Moran, Rick Barber and Sam Accursio — will expire in March. Chairman Federico Fernandez’s term expires in 2020; Vice Chairman Brandon Tucker’s in 2021; Carlos Diaz’s in 2022; Dan O’Keefe’s in 2020; and Jaime Weisinger’s in 2021.

SFWMD Governing Board members are unpaid volunteers.

“I’m not resigning,” said Mr. Weisinger, an at-large member for Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry, Highlands, Glades, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola and Polk counties.

“There are lot of important projects in the works and it is my priority to see them through,” he said.

“I was excited to hear about the governor’s executive order. His commitment about the environment in Florida and fixing our water quality issues has emboldened me. I look forward to having a conversation with him and sharing what I think is best for the future of Florida,” he continued.

Mr. Weisinger said he hopes the governor can use his relationship with President Trump to encourage the president to release federal funding for Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects, including the federal funding needed for construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir.

“I’m encouraged the governor has made it a priority to expedite the C-43 reservoir,” Mr. Weisinger said, noting the reservoir is important for the health of the Caloosahatchee estuary. The C-43 reservoir will provide dry season flows that will keep the estuary healthy when it is starving for fresh water, he said.

Mr. Accursio and Mr. Moran have also told media they will not resign.

Brandon Tucker, at-large member for an area that includes St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, said he was at the press conference in Stuart when Gov. DeSantis made the announcement.

He said he had attended the SFWMD Governing Board meeting earlier in the day, and went to the press conference expecting to hear the governor announce his choice for a replacement for Melanie Peterson, who resigned earlier this month.

“I think it’s short-sighted to ask an entire board to resign,” he said, noting that it takes time for a new board member to get up to speed on the complicated water issues, and without veteran board members to help them, that task would be even more difficult.

“You would not have the continuity and knowledge,” he said.

He said Gov. DeSantis could have his own appointees making up a majority of the board within 60 days without the requested resignations.

Mr. Tucker said Gov. DeSantis has not met with him, and did not meet with him during the campaign.

“I hope to have the opportunity to meet with him and his staff,” he said. “I think he’s getting one side of a three-sided story.”

Florida Crystals lease controversy

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast has called for the SFWMD Governing Board to resign since Nov. 8, when it voted to renew the lease with Florida Crystals on 16,000 acres of state-owned land slated for the EAA reservoir. Florida Crystals will pay the state about $1 million per year for the lease, which can be terminated by the state after 20 months with four months’ notice.

The agreement immediately terminated the lease on 560 acres of state land, so that SFWMD could start some site work before the design for the reservoir is complete. That work started the following week and is currently underway, taking advantage of the dry season.

Although SFWMD officials maintain this plan will expedite construction of the EAA reservoir while following the dictates of the 2016 Florida Senate Bill 10, the agreement drew criticism from the Everglades Foundation, Congressman Mast and Florida Audubon.

At the time, Rep. Mast asked the board to delay the decision, so that he and Gov.-elect DeSantis could have more time to review it.

SFWMD officials wanted the lease agreement approved in November, so they could start some site work during the current dry season. Waiting until March would have meant delaying that work until the next dry season, they explained.

The Florida Legislature authorized the reservoir through the passage of Senate Bill 10 as a partnership with the federal government. The Florida Legislature has committed to funding the state’s half of the estimated $1.6 billion cost. The U.S. Congress authorized the project in October, but Florida is still waiting for the federal government to appropriate its share of the project cost.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated engineering and design work will take about three years, and construction will take another four years.

The state already owns the land it plans to use for the reservoir. Most of it was purchased two decades ago. A small piece of property adjacent to state property was acquired within the past year. Most of the land has been leased for farming, in accordance with state law. Leasing the land to farmers keeps the land on the tax rolls until the state is ready to use it. The farmers also manage the land, which would quickly be overrun with invasive plants if left fallow.

At the Nov. 8 SFWMD Governing Board meeting at the University of Miami, Brian Accardo, SFWMD general counsel, explained that in regard to leases that will expire during fiscal year 2018-19, Florida law requires “the district shall execute, renegotiate, extend or amend agreements, including reasonable notice and termination provisions, so that the land does not sit fallow and provides maximum public benefit. Any such agreements shall provide that agricultural operators shall be permitted to continue to farm on a field-by-field basis until such time as the agricultural operations are incompatible with site preparation, on-site investigation or construction for an Everglades Agricultural Areas reservoir project, as reasonably determined by the lessor.

“I think what people need to understand about that vote is that it didn’t in any way delay the EAA reservoir being built,” said Mr. Weisinger. “It expedited things so that we could immediately start construction on that reservoir.”

January resignations

Melanie Peterson, then the board’s vice chairwoman, submitted a letter of resignation to Gov. Scott on Jan. 1. Ms. Peterson’s term would have expired in March 2022. Ms. Peterson was an at-large member for an area that includes St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Ms. Peterson, a Realtor, is with the Fite Group Luxury Homes.

SFWMD attorney Accardo resigned as SFWMD general counsel, effective Jan. 4. Mr. Accardo has joined Manson Bolves Donaldson Varn, a Florida law firm that focuses on water, property rights, administrative and regulatory law. The firm has offices in Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee.

Mr. Accardo joined the district in January 2016 as general counsel and took on the additional role of chief of staff in September 2017. He previously held leadership positions at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for five years, serving as a program director and as special counsel. In 2013, the American Bar Association awarded Mr. Accardo the Distinguished Environmental Advocates Award for his accomplishments and contribution to the development of law, policy and programs in the areas of energy and the environment. Prior to joining the Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Accardo practiced environmental law in Tallahassee.

About the EAA Storage Reservoir

The EAA reservoir plans call for a 10,100-acre reservoir that will store water up to 23 feet deep along with a 6,500-acre storm water treatment area. According to SFWMD, together with other authorized projects, the EAA Storage Reservoir will send an annual average of approximately 370,000 additional acre-feet of clean water south to the Everglades that will be protected by rule or reservation to benefit the natural system. According to the SFWMD web site, it reduce the number of damaging discharge events from Lake Okeechobee to the northern estuaries by 63 percent when used in conjunction with Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) authorized projects.

Search for the truth about Lake Okeechobee

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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