Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to speed up the reappointment of Florida’s top environmental regulator is drawing suspicion from grass-roots activists across the state.
They question why Scott wants Cabinet approval Wednesday to reappoint Jon Steverson as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection after first saying his fate would be delayed until September. They suspect the goal is to silence criticism of DEP’s plans to open state parks to commercial activities such as hunting, cattle grazing and timber harvesting.
“People all over Florida are concerned about this,” said Albert Gregory, a retired park planner who worked at DEP for 35 years. “This latest change kind of caught folks by surprise. I’m not a natural born conspiracy theorist, but the way this has evolved makes it hard not to be sometimes.”
Ironically, the speedup of Steverson’s appointment is one of the first tests resulting from the secretive firing last December of Gerald Bailey, the former commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. One reform was supposed to be greater transparency in job reviews for Cabinet-level agency heads.
Jono Miller of Sarasota, a leader of a group seeking to stop commercialization of Myakka River State Park, rejected the idea that state parks should be used to generate revenue.
As he drove to Tallahassee to testify Wednesday, Miller asked why Scott is in such a hurry.
“I hope the governor and Cabinet will take a little more time to make this decision,” Miller said. “It could have a long-term effect on the state of Florida.”
Patricia Harden of Gainesville is trying to stop commercialization of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in her hometown.
“As a second-generation Floridian, I think it’s rather sad,” Harden said. “They seem to be trying to prevent true public participation.”
Scott quietly moved up the timing of Steverson’s reappointment without explanation, adding the item to the agenda as the law requires. But Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater questioned Scott’s decision.
“How is he [Steverson] on the agenda if the Cabinet did not vote for that?” Atwater’s Cabinet aide, Robert Tornillo, asked at a meeting of Cabinet aides last week.
Scott’s Cabinet aide, Kristin Olsen, said Attorney General Pam Bondi dropped her request to interview other candidates to head DEP, signaling her support for Steverson, “so we just figured we’d move forward and do it.”
“The interview can happen at any time if it’s publicly noticed and given proper noticing,” said Bondi aide Rob Johnson.
Scott’s office reiterated Tuesday that his decision to call for a vote on Steverson was prompted by Bondi’s “statement that she is ready to move forward with Steverson.”
But Scott had a slower timetable in mind at the last Cabinet meeting on June 23. He indicated that the job status of FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen would be finalized at this week’s meeting, but that Steverson’s status would be postponed until September.
“So we’ll do FDLE at the next meeting,” Scott said on June 23, according to the transcript. “And then at the next meeting, anybody will bring any applicants for DEP… and we’ll discuss them then, and we don’t do the interviews for DEP at that meeting.”
Environmentalists also are troubled by what they say is a DEP culture that discourages public input.
Four years ago, when Scott’s administration proposed adding privately-run RV camping spots to several state parks, including Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, a public hearing on the proposal drew nearly 1,000 angry Pinellas County residents who repeatedly blasted the idea.
That backlash persuaded Scott to drop the plan, and DEP no longer holds public hearings. Instead, the agency invites the public to submit written comments at an open house, as it did in Inverness on July 22 for plans for Fort Cooper State Park and Withlacoochee State Trail.
DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel said the new approach is similar to what other state agencies and the federal EPA already do.
“Any input received, in any format, is taken into consideration,” Engel said.
Steverson’s reappointment is required because the Senate refused to confirm him in the 2015 session amid its impasse with the House over the state budget. But his status appears secure.
The leaders of FDLE and DEP are appointed by Scott with approval of the three elected Cabinet members.
Scott’s failure to seek a public vote before ousting Bailey, the previous FDLE head, set off a furor that forced him and the Cabinet to implement a more formal structure for assessing the job performance of the 10 agency heads who report to Scott and at least one Cabinet member.
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.