After a whirlwind day visiting both coasts to announce sweeping measures to address the state’s environmental woes, Florida’s new governor demanded water managers overseeing efforts to fix the Everglades step down on Thursday.
At an afternoon meeting in Stuart, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wanted the nine-member board at the South Florida Water Management District to resign because he believed they failed to understand the toll endured by communities by repeated algae blooms triggered by dirty lake water released into coastal rivers.
“I just want good people who are willing to do the right thing,” he said.
Board members infuriated the new governor in November when they voted to extend a lease to sugar farmers two days after the election. News of the pending vote was posted the night before a district field meeting in Miami, with less than 12 hours notice. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, who headed up DeSantis’ environmental transition team, raced down to the meeting and urged board members to put off the vote to give the new governor time to review the matter. But they refused.
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“Brian calls me at 8:30 at night and said there’s this meeting in the morning about this lease that might impact the reservoir,” DeSantis recalled Thursday. “I don’t know why it was handled that way. I think it really upset a lot of people.”
At the time, chairman Federico Fernandez, a Miami attorney, said the board was obliged to extend the lease by the state law authorizing the reservoir. The law, passed under former Gov. Rick Scott, which also dramatically reduced the reservoir from 60,000 acres to 17,000 acres, said sugar farmer should be allowed to continue farming until it interfered with construction. The lease, which could be canceled after 20 months when the district expected design plans to be completed, allowed district crews on the site to begin prep work.
On Jan. 7, the district began relocating about 800,000 cubic yards of rock to be used to construct the reservoir.
The district is also awaiting news from its partner on the project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, about design plans. In June, the Corps issued an 86-page review raising questions and saying it needed more information before agreeing to split the $1.8 billion cost.
Fernandez had said he did not believe the governor could remove board members before their terms expired. He declined to comment Thursday. He was scheduled to be part of a panel on restoration efforts at the annual Everglades Coalition conference this weekend in the Keys but will be replaced by a district staff member.
Board member Melanie Peterson along with district general counsel and chief of staff Brian Accardo sent letters to Scott earlier this month saying they were resigning. The nine-member board has staggered appointments. Terms for three, including Miami-Dade tomato farmer Sam Accursio, end in March.
On Thursday, DeSantis sent letters asking for the board members’ resignations after Mast recommended it.
“We want to make sure we have everybody in the boat rowing the same way,” he said.
In his letter, DeSantis thanked board members but said “voters spoke clearly in support of our bold vision for action.”
DeSantis said he also plans on holding back many last-minute appointments to state positions made by Scott, a move viewed as an insult to the incoming governor.
“For all the midnight appointments that require Senate confirmation, I’m going to be pulling them back,” he said. “Some of the people in that batch are people I know and respect and you may see me reappoint them … but we’re going to be pulling them all back.”
Scott said Thursday in Washington that he did not take the move personally.
“Every governor has the opportunity to make their own decisions. I’m proud of what we got accomplished. I’m glad that Gov. DeSantis cares about water issues. He’s walking into a totally different situation than I was” when Florida was in the midst of recession.
“Governors have the right to make appointments. That’s what they ought to do,” he said. “They ought to find who they believe are the best people.”
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report.