Water board’s final meeting eclipsed by emotional resignation, verbal jabs and no votes

In September, Gov. Ron DeSantis, back left, toured Everglades marshes with Ron Bergeron, who he appointed to the South Florida Water Management Board this month.
In September, Gov. Ron DeSantis, back left, toured Everglades marshes with Ron Bergeron, who he appointed to the South Florida Water Management Board this month. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

A simmering feud between outgoing South Florida water managers and Gov. Ron DeSantis ended Thursday with the resignation of the district’s executive director following an abbreviated meeting crippled by the lack of a quorum.

As he announced his plans to resign, Ernie Marks choked up, said his last day would be March 5 and briefly left the meeting before returning to a standing ovation.

“I’m speechless at the changes that are being made at this district,” said board member Jim Moran, who bitterly criticized DeSantis for the shake-up.

The resignation capped the continued sparring between board members, all appointed by the former governor, Sen. Rick Scott, and DeSantis, who vowed to take on Big Sugar during his campaign and tackle the state’s water problems.

DeSantis called for the entire nine-member board to resign two days after he was elected after board members defied his request to delay voting on a lease extension for sugar farmers on land slated for an Everglades reservoir. The reservoir is supposed to help reduce the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee that fueled devastating algae blooms around the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries last year, which became a central issue in the election.

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Over the summer, algae blooms coated stretches of the Caloosahatchee River, including this area near LaBelle, west of Lake Okeechobee. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Thursday’s meeting was expected to be a final swan song for the board’s remaining four members with a vote to approve a $524 million construction contract to complete a Hendry County reservoir. Five members had already resigned and one of DeSantis’ appointments was expected to attend his first meeting, establishing a quorum.

But as he opened the meeting, chairman Federico Fernandez announced the board was short a member. DeSantis’ new appointment, Chauncey Goss, a Sarasota city councilman and former senior staffer for the White House Office of Management and Budget, had notified the district he would not be attending because the governor’s office failed to complete paperwork, including a background check.

DeSantis’s other appointee, Broward developer Ron Bergeron, is still in talks with state ethics officials over potential conflicts. Bergeron has done work for the district, including a $79 million contract to expand a stormwater treatment area.

“I knew that everything was contingent on the governor’s office moving that forward,” said Goss, who attended a staff briefing before being told the district hadn’t received the necessary paperwork. “They’ve got a lot going on up there.”

Instead, without enough board members to vote on anything, the meeting ping-ponged, not surprisingly, between goodbyes and attacks on DeSantis and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Treasure Coast Republican who has been the governor’s point man on district matters. Mast also headed DeSantis’ environmental and agricultural transition team.

“I asked myself what makes him qualified to advise our governor,” said board member Brandon Tucker, who singled out Mast, saying he’d met with him to offer guidance. “In my opinion, this man has a complete disregard for the truth.”

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U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Treasure Coast republican, led Gov. Ron DeSantis’ transition team on environmental and agricultural matters. YouTube

Among other things, Tucker said Mast said he didn’t care if Lake Okeechboee was kept “bone dry” to save the coasts from polluted discharges and ignored science. He also accused the second-term congressman of being a Florida newcomer ill-informed about the state’s competing interests in water management.

“I believe we’re escalating a decade of water wars between coastal residents and residents of the heartland,” Tucker said. “Leading people to believe Lake O is dead is reckless ignorance.”

Mast said much of what Tucker claimed was untrue.

“It’s difficult for me to respond because it’s just so filled with lies and things that are not true, that he literally made up, mixed in with things that are true,” he said.

Mast denied ever saying the lake should be kept bone dry or that he disregarded science. Rather, Mast said Tucker refused to consider coastal health and focused too narrowly on the lake.

“That’s my chief complaint and where he was a failure on the water management board,” he said. “All he cared about was the science of the lake and not the other places where the water was supposed to go.”

Moran, who has served on the board for eight years, also took aim at the governor, saying legislation creating the district was supposed to shield the board from politics. By staggering terms, the district was guaranteed a smoother transition that would allow a new governor to appoint members without wiping out institutional knowledge.

“This whole situation, with asking for the unanimous, complete resignation of our board members, is beyond the pale,” he said.

Martha Musgrove, a former reporter and Florida Wildlife Federation board member who has covered the district for decades, could not remember a governor ever asking for the entire board to resign.

The division falls along predictable lines on Everglades restoration — the nation’s biggest and most expensive environmental restoration project — pitting agricultural interests against the coast. Tucker said it was unfair to blame only farmers, when residential septic tanks also play a role in the water pollution crises.

Moran predicted that the new board would try again to buy out farmland to restore marshes, a deal first considered under former Gov. Charlie Chist and his chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg, who now runs the Everglades Foundation.

Terrie Bates, who started at the district in 1985 and oversees water resources, will become acting director when Marks departs next month.

While Marks was praised when he was first named director in 2017 — he’d worked on Everglades issues for more than a decade at the Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — Mast said he had not managed lake issues well.

“He probably should have resigned sooner,” he said.

But board members praised him for weathering some of the district’s most difficult years, including handling flood control during Hurricane Irma.

“You are a tremendous asset to all of the people of South Florida,” Tucker said.

DeSantis now needs to make seven more appointments to the board. Mast said the governor hinted that he planned to name a Treasure Coast appointment next week. He said he also expects DeSantis to round out the board with more appointments from Miami-Dade and Hendry or Okeechobee counties, “what they call the heartland.”

“You’re going to see all sides represented,” Mast said.

Jenny Staletovich is a Florida native who covers the environment and hurricanes for the Miami Herald. She previously worked for the Palm Beach Post and graduated from Smith College.