The Stuart News (TCPalm/Treasure Coast Newspapers) doesn't regularly cover South Florida Water Management District Governing Board meetings, but heaven forbid its editors would let a little thing like ignorance of Board policy stand in the way of furthering a slanted agenda.
Read the newspaper's Dec. 12 editorial, "Mr. DeSantis, please fix the SFWMD board." The drama-queenly piece advocates for immediate replacement of the SFWMD Board because of the "late-night lease" of some 16,000 acres of state land to a subsidiary of Florida Crystals.
As if the SFWMD Board and the sugar company cooked up some foul, secret deal: "At 9 p.m. the night before its Nov. 7 meeting, the board added a curious item to the agenda ..." the editorial reads.
Curious? Really? Curious to whom? The District and the Florida Legislature have only been talking about the lease renewal since 2017. Where has The Stuart News been?
The newspaper has a close relationship with former Senate president Joe Negron, the man probably more familiar than anybody else in Martin County with the terms of Senate Bill 10, lease included. Joe gets it. Why no quotes from Joe?
The lease agreement wasn’t settled until late in the day prior to the meeting. But frankly, who didn't figure it was coming sooner rather than later? Only people who aren't following along with Board business. Board members were fixed on saving a month during the dry season so work could begin and rock moved on 560 acres. "The optics may not have looked good," one board member told me. "But it was the right thing to do to get the project moving. Delay the lease and you give Florida Crystals until April to farm, which runs into the wet season. Nothing gets done in the wet season."
The District's attorney, Brian Accardo, said he advised the Governing Board that because the lease extension was mandated by state statute, it did not need a series of public hearings. For a comprehensive background on the lease, read two pieces in the latest edition of Martin County Currents -- "SFWMD in cross-hairs of environmental activists" by Editor Barbara Clowdus; and "We're just throwing obstacles in path of EAA reservoir" by Nyla Pipes, founder of One Florida Foundation, an organization that addresses water issues throughout the state.
An irate Melanie Peterson called The Stuart News' editorial "fake news -- fake top to bottom."
Peterson is the at-large Board member for St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. "We deal with dozens of contracts every year, we have laws and procedures to follow," she snapped. "Leases are all normal business as usual. ... We are an autonomous governing body trying to keep politics out of water, that's all we are."
Her words reminded me of the late former Senate president Phil Lewis from West Palm Beach. He used to give all Water Management District Board members the same advice: "Remember," he would tell them, "Your only true constituent is the water."
For the Stuart newspaper, a little investigation -- a few phone calls, maybe even a sit-down with Board members and past meeting minutes -- might have produced a deeper editorial worthy of the community that relies on them for thoughtful commentary.
The bottom line here is, signing the lease was never a reservoir delay tactic, as the Florida Wildlife Federation and Indian RiverKeeper Marty Baum charge in the lawsuit they filed against the Water Management District. And it isn't sneaky because Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, Congressman Brian Mast and The Stuart News say it is.
For these three, the more important agenda is punishing sugar. It certainly isn't the reservoir, because if it were, the newspaper would be editorializing like crazy against a lawsuit. Nothing brings federal capital projects to a grinding halt faster than the promise of long litigation.
Members of Congress will put off funding the EAA Reservoir because farmers are still farming on the site, argues Mast. The editors don't question this? It's the reason he gives for wanting the land to sit fallow for years. Hard to believe that's really the excuse he's going to make for the next congressional failure to fund. Remember, this is the same congressman who thinks he can ignore the Savings Clause in the law and re-allocate water in the Water Management District to cut out agriculture. (See the Savings Clause in the attached download below this commentary.)
The Stuart News buys into this political theater -- advocates for chasing away the most transparent SFWMD Governing Board most of us have seen in more than three decades -- actually accusing members of "acting in their own interests" -- members who aren't paid a dime and have moved the reservoir forward faster and farther than most thought possible two years ago.
And the paper suggests DeSantis add Executive Director of the Florida Oceanographic Society Mark Perry to the Board because "who knows more about the challenges facing our waters than him?" I'm thinking probably real scientists with degrees in their specialty. But it doesn't matter what I think. Perry is probably a shoo-in. Wholesale changes at the District are inevitable, as Eikenberg confidently stated in a Sept. 27 Miami Herald story: "Forty days from now we’ll have a new administration in Tallahassee, a new governing board at the water management district, new leadership at the Corps." Eikenberg, of course, was the first to call for removal of SFWMD Board members.
Maybe a new Board of Governors at the District more to the editors' liking will inspire The Stuart News to watch more closely how sausage is made on Gun Club Road. It's not that hard. Board meetings are televised.
Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith. In full transparency, until 2005, Smith worked in various editorial capacities at The Stuart News for 28 years.