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Nancy Smith

Politics, Push for Power the Biggest Threat to Everglades Restoration

February 15, 2019 - 6:00pm

The last four Scott-appointed Governing Board members had come to Thursday's South Florida Water Management District meeting with something to say. And boy, did they say it.

I came away a greater fan at noon than I was at 9 a.m. when the meeting started.

These are classy people -- Brandon Tucker, Jim Moran, Sam Accursio and Federico Fernandez -- largely unappreciated through ignorance, doing a complex and important job few understand or appreciate. They don't get a dime.  I've watched them over the months and years suffer all kinds of fools, and only on rare occasions would they respond with anything short of an appreciative "thank you for sharing your view."

Brandon Tucker

Tucker, Moran, Accursio and Fernandez were the last holdouts, the last quit-refusers, on a board new Gov. Ron DeSantis wanted brand-new and all-his. A governor they voted for, a fellow Republican who had never tried to meet with them, who took office deeply disrespecting them by not waiting until their terms expired naturally, but by calling for their resignations. 

You could see it stung.

In calling for board resignations as one of his first orders of business, DeSantis may have failed to see the quicksand ahead. He now has no SFWMD board and effective March 5 SFWMD will be without an executive director. He had appointed two new members in January, Chauncey Goss and Ron Bergeron. But both were still being vetted -- Goss by FDLE, Bergeron by the Senate Ethics Committee -- thus ineligible to take their seats Thursday. That left no quorum and it meant important contract votes were delayed at least a month and probably longer. DeSantis will need five sworn-in board members before any more SFWMD business gets done.

Jim Moran

All new members are likely to be newbies.

Even though Executive Director Ernie Marks announced his resignation, District staff can put themselves on autopilot at least for a while. But the new governing board members are going to feel like shiners in a cast net.

Outgoing board members chose their words carefully Thursday -- that is, all but one.

Moran, a Boynton Beach attorney who has served on the Governing Board for eight years, brought up Senate Bill 10 and the public pressure to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee as the best way to prevent lake discharges into the estuaries. He said he never did get it. "It seems only common sense to me that you would want to stop the polluted water before it gets to the lake rather than letting it go into the lake on the way to the EAA reservoir ... but nobody asked me," Moran said.

Sam Accursio

Accursio, a Miami-Dade farmer, said he chose to serve on the board not to protect farming interests -- because even his kids aren't interested in carrying on the family business and trying to compete against cheap imports. "I do it to make sure my grandchildren will have enough good water to drink. ... I do it for them."

Fernandez, a Miami-Dade attorney and chairman of the board, pledged his loyalty to DeSantis. He said he is genuinely excited about the governor's "bold vision" for the environment and other measures he has announced. "I stand ready to lend my help in anything the governor needs."

Tucker, on the other hand, a Martin County land developer, used his comment time to expose the character and incompetence of Congressman Brian Mast, who he claims has no business serving as DeSantis' advisor on agriculture and the environment. 

Tucker called Mast "the leader of the 'Lower Lake O' Movement" -- a movement he labeled "assinine."

"Brian Mast has lived in the Treasure Coast region for two years," said Tucker. "He has lived in South Florida for four years. He has no background or history with the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, agriculture or agencies involved with Lake Okeechobee or the Everglades. What makes him qualified to advise our governor on such important issues? ...

"In my opinion, this man has a complete disregard for the truth about Lake Okeechobee and the communities it sustains -- which is ALL of South Florida, not just Okeechobee, Indiantown, Port Mayaca, Canal Point, Pahokee, Belle Glade, South Bay, Clewiston, Moore Haven, Lake Port and Buckhead Ridge."

Why would Tucker make such a claim? "I have a story to tell you that has kept me up at night since the summer of 2018," he said. 

He then regaled his conversations with Mast, who -- at a Realtors Association meeting Aug. 7  -- was pushing  a lower, 10.6-foot lake. "That's an assinine idea," said Tucker. You don't reach a conclusion first and prove it later.  I was trying to encourage him to look at the science, listen to the experts and use their research to determine what's best for the lake. But the congressman replied, 'Why do I care about the ecology of a lake that is 90 percent covered in algal blooms?'"

Tucker's voice began to break. “Why should we care about Lake Okeechobee? Are you kidding me? Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Everglades system. The health of Lake Okeechobee is critical for South Florida,” he said. "You have a healthy heart, you have a healthy body. ...  Kill the lake, you kill the estuaries. All of South Florida depends on Lake O for its water supply, its flow to prevent salt water intrusion, to sustain our STAs and more."

Mast, with the prompting of the Everglades Trust/Foundation, is cooking up a scheme to convince the public Lake Okeechobee is dead, Tucker said, and it's all a lie.

He said on Aug. 23, when he, Mast and Stephen Leighton were having lunch at a downtown Stuart restaurant, Mast cut him off three times as tried to explain some of the complicated environmental issues about the lake. “I don’t want to hear that (blank),” Mast told him, “I don’t care if Lake Okeechobee is bone dry. When Ron (DeSantis) gets elected, there won't be anyone connected to agriculture in any way on the board of the Water Management District."

Another intemperate Mast comment that day, said Tucker: "'All board members will be from Martin and Lee counties. ... Why does he feel that way?

"Because the board listened to the science presented by the experts and supported solutions that would actually accomplish Everglades restoration and provide interim relief from harmful freshwater Lake O discharges to the estuaries that DID NOT require taking any more private property off of the tax rolls and devastating communities. We simply followed the core mission of the agency -- flood control for all -- and that made us the enemy to those who believe simply more land will solve the problem," Tucker said.
"The asking for our resignations had nothing to do with any vote taken at the Nov 7 board meeting. If it were simply about those decisions, why was (board member) Dan O'Keefe asked to resign? He defended waiting to speak with the governor regarding the consent decree and abstained from the vote on the lease extension."

 Interviewed Thursday by TCPalm, online site of Treasure Coast Newspapers in Stuart, Mast called Tucker's allegations "almost completely fabricated."

Melanie Peterson, vice chair of the board before she resigned Jan. 1, told Sunshine State News she was appalled but grateful Tucker had "outed Mast's lies" and aggressive behavior during his closing remarks Thursday. She said she hopes the governor will intercede: "If you don't condemn Mast's bully behavior, you condone it."

For my money, besides Tucker's comments, the highlight of the Thursday meeting was the remarks of Mike Collins of the Water Resources Analysis Coalition, a former SFWMD Governing Board member, involved with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan virtually from its inception.

I hope some of the future Water Management District board members saw the meeting video and listened to what Collins had to say.  It was a lesson, a perfect recipe, in how to be a successful Governing Board member. Collins' comments begin at 1:51:28:

I've been through seven different governing board transitions ...  The law that created this district contemplated a certain kind of transition. It's in statute. It said that the governor incoming would take control of the board a year after he was elected. And the reason for that was to ensure continuity, was to ensure there was somebody left to educate the incoming board members, that they not be hit with the tremendous responsibilities that you guys bear, to balance massively important, competing interests. It's balanced on a razor's edge, always has been, probably always will be. And we're entering a brave new world where that's not the case, with consequences we really don't know.  I think it depends to a large degree if the people appointed to the board have any background knowledge. I had a whole bunch when I got here and I still knew nothing. So we don't know.
There's an assumption out there the inevitability of all of us getting along and Everglades restoration moving forward because that's what people have seen. For 17 years I talked to this District, there was no consensus or support for an Everglades restoration. It wasn't until we sat down at the same table, all of us, and worked out a deal during the Governor's Commission that became CERP. That's a very delicate sort of balance. There are a lot of people out there with competing interests now that I don't see getting any press coverage because they don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars getting dumped in PR campaigns for them. But I think we all need to understand, be careful what you ask for. And there are balances that could be upset. ...I hope some of the new members are watching this and can be thinking about this ... I want to thank you for all the tremendous dedication and time you put in on this, for keeping (Everglades restoration) moving forward. Because I don't think any of this is inevitable. There are consequences that could bottle this all up fast if we're not careful ...  
Balance competing interests. That's what Collins is pleading the next board to do. That's the secret. 
Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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