The fun and sometimes frustration of following the Everglades Foundation's shenanigans is this: It's all such a freaking hypocrisy factory.
After 25 years watching the Foundation with a notebook in my hand, I can smell one of their hypocrisies rising across the 'glades like a bloodhound sniffing out Pup-peroni in a garbage bin. It's a gift.
If you didn't catch the live-streamed South Florida Water Management District Governing Board meeting -- and why would you, when the big news of the day was election vote counts -- you missed the board members trying to deal with implementing Sen. Joe Negron's crowning achievement, Senate Bill 10.
It was a thankless task.
Let me tell you what happened, and how it exposed probably the largest hypocrisy on the Everglades Foundation's smelly landfill of so many.
SFWMD General Counsel Brian Accardo led the board through painstaking detail about the Florida Legislature's explicit direction to the agency, including how they must move forward to ultimately construct the EAA reservoir.
For anyone who doesn’t get it, the SFWMD actually has to follow the law. Imagine that.
Not that the roomful of media and the Foundation's troupe of traveling activists were ready to hear any such thing. They looked on suspiciously, even angrily. Poor Accardo stood alone in the spotlight, armed with a deck built to hand-hold all those behind him, who were salivating at the thought it soon would be their turn at the podium.
Lining the tops of each slide Accardo showed were the EXACT statutes that required SFWMD to take each step it did. Accardo read off the numbers, like §373.4598(3)‐(4). Meaningless to me, I admit, but they weren't to folks like Lisa Interlandi, top attorney with the litigious Everglades Law Center; or Shannon Estenoz, chief operating officer of the Everglades Foundation.
Estenoz, by the way, is an alumna of the Everglades Law Center herself, along with her husband, Richard Grosso. In Martin County where I came from, Grosso and other attorneys at the ELC had a reputation of almost routinely using the courts as a tactical weapon to settle a political score or carry out a political vendetta.
I truly believe they attended the meeting just to put the fear of God in board members. They knew by the presentation, the District was following the letter of the law to move ahead with Senate Bill 10. But what could they do? The Everglades Law Center receives chunks of its operating cash each year from the well-oiled Everglades Foundation.
Unfortunately, there was nothing the District could do to curb the outrage that would follow at this meeting.
SFWMD had committed the mortal sin: They were allowing farming to continue in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
It didn’t matter that the Florida Legislature had codified in LAW the continuation of farming.
Didn't matter either that a slide was dedicated to the EXACT wording from lawmakers to keep farming going: “The district shall execute, renegotiate, extend, or amend agreements, including reasonable notice and termination provisions, so that land does not sit fallow and provides the 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 Area reservoir project, as reasonably determined.”
It didn’t matter that they played a video of the bill's own sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, announcing on the Senate floor that the District had to allow farming. Had to.
When the time came for public comment, there they were like an army of lemmings, the Foundation's faithful, the Faux Outragers, marching their way to the podium. Each carrying the same written script.
But, then ...
Shannon Estenoz walked up to the microphone, and back it came -- that old familiar whiff of Everglades Foundation hypocrisy, swirling around me like a prairie fog.
The outrage. Oh, the indignation of it all. Every precursor of EF hypocrisy under the sun, Estenoz had the whole tool kit.
She was railing at SFWMD Governing Board members, and her vitriol was wrapped around a claim that the agency had worked in secret, outside of public view or public notice, to strike a deal that would possibly delay the EAA reservoir.
It wasn't just that Estenoz hadn't been listening to Accardo's presentation, it was that she actually didn't think anybody at the meeting would remember her special day in June 2008.
I remember it, I can quote for you chapter and verse how that day went:
Estenoz, a SFWMD Governing Board member, stood next to our beautifully bronzed former governor as he made a shocking announcement: A deal had been brokered for the Water Management District to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. for nearly 2 billion taxpayer dollars.
I say “shocking” because we all were exactly that -- shocked.
It was the first the public was hearing about about a land deal. It was the first many inside the Water Management Disgtrict were hearing about it.
We're talking about the Super Bowl of secret, back-room deals brokered out of the public’s eye, with ZERO input from taxpayers.
Funnily enough, not a single one of the Everglades Foundation’s web of owned-and-operated activist groups complained then.
In fact, if not for all of the public records requests generated for a blistering investigative piece by The New York Times, taxpayers to this day would not know details of one of Florida’s darkest and most secretive deals.
Was it because the same Estenoz who stood Thursday railing against secret deals, back then sat alongside her political-powerhouse current boss, the Everglades Foundation? I'm going to say yes.
Erik Eikenberg, now CEO of the Everglades Foundation, was Gov. Charlie Crist’s deputy chief of staff back then. According to the in-depth Times piece, Eikenberg was literally at the table when the deal was hatched.
If that wasn’t enough, what made Thursday’s display even more audacious was that these activists were ostensibly speaking out at the meeting in a plea to make sure the EAA reservoir was not delayed.
This is the Foundation hypocrisy that drives me up a wall.
And it's where I remind everyone what said Super Bowl of Secret Deals -- which Estenoz blessed with her vote as a SFWMD board member -- did to Everglades restoration:
More than two handfuls of Everglades projects were ditched to sweep their funding into the new deal. The most high-profile project to be kicked to the curb was the EAA reservoir.
Fast-tracked in 2004 by Gov. Jeb Bush, shovels hit the dirt on the EAA reservoir in 2006. But, in May 2008, a month before the blockbuster deal was announced, the SFWMD Governing Board, including Estenoz, voted to stop construction of the reservoir, blaming it on litigation from environmental groups.
It was a head-scratcher for no one more than the litigating groups. They said they didn’t want construction stopped. Nearly $300 million had already been spent on the gigantic water project and all of a sudden it was ordered dismantled.
Back to the Times expose for answers: “Likely supporters of the deal had been told months earlier, including Paul Tudor Jones II, a billionaire hedge-fund manager and philanthropist who co-founded the Everglades Foundation. As the negotiations proceeded, it became clear that financing was problematic. The cost of the land deal had initially been estimated at nearly $2 billion. But the water district was already committed to spending about $800 million for the giant reservoir outside Palm Beach. It could not afford both. Responding to an e-mail message from a fellow environmentalist saying that the governor needed to understand the threat the reservoir posed to the United States Sugar land purchase, Mr. Jones replied, ‘He knows that and is doing the best he can.’”
Yes, the founder and biggest funder of the Everglades Foundation was in the thick of not just delaying, but canceling work on the original EAA reservoir. An unelected, out-of-state billionaire, working a deal behind closed doors, manipulates a governor, waves his hand and Florida taxpayers throw away $300 million. And, poof! -- their reservoir is gone.
Now we're supposed to join the lemmings and let Erik Eikenberg and Paul Tudor Jones "guide" us again?
Think about it for a moment. This is a hypocrisy that frankly should make the people of the Treasure Coast as sick as if they'd stuck their heads in a bouquet of St. Lucie River algal blooms.
Tying a bow on the whole dirty mess, the Times finished its reporting on the ugly, secret underbelly of these activists. Reporters cast a net with their public records requests and pulled up a gold mine, including this final nugget: “In an e-mail message on May 21, Ms. Estenoz urged Mr. Jones to send a message to the governor: ‘For your information only, our decision to pause construction [of the EAA reservoir] is entirely justifiable on its own even without the US Sugar deal hanging out there, but once the litigation is finished our legitimate reason for delay goes away,’ she said. ‘The message to the Governor is that we have until the end of the June at most.’”
The hypocrisy of the Everglades Foundation knows no bounds.
The difference between Thursday’s board actions and those of Estonez’s board is like night and day. The current agency is following the letter of the law. These board members are following the rules that Negron and Bradley set for them. Negron and Bradley. Remember them? The Foundation sure did when they were hailing them for the passage of this very same law.
One last sour note: Eikenberg's faux-outrageous letter to Gov. Scott on Thursday.
He has the nerve to bring up "the cover of night."
"Under the cover of night, SFWMD amended its agenda to change the item from a general discussion to call for a vote on a lease that was not published until after 9 p.m. last night," Eikenberg told Scott. "The deception and lack of transparency by a government agency is alarming ..."
He went on, "Your appointees ignored the urgent request of Governor-elect Ron DeSantis and U.S. Representative Brian Mast (R-Stuart) to delay any action until the Governor-elect could be briefed on the matter. Your office was aware of our concerns about this matter but did nothing to intervene. Considering this, I must conclude that your administration is complicit in this illegal maneuver ..."
Except, there was nothing illegal or secretive about it. The Governing Board, as Accardo had patiently explained earlier, was following the wishes of Legislature and the cosponsor of Senate Bill 10.
If the governor blew the hypocritical Everglades Foundation CEO off, who can blame him?
Please don't anyone ever ask me again what I've got against the Everglades Foundation. Thursday, amid a flurry of head-exploding images of the Foundation's hypocrisy, it all came rushing back.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith