A political insider who served as general counsel to Gov. Rick Scott will take over the state’s largest water management district.
On Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board named Pete Antonacci to run the sprawling agency after announcing that executive director Blake Guillory, an engineer, would resign at the end of the month. Antonacci becomes the only director overseeing one of the state’s major districts without a background in science.
“It appears that Antonacci’s primary qualification is his close relationship with Gov. Scott,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that the water management district is facing a budget crisis that will undermine Everglades restoration, water supply and flood protection.”
Guillory’s resignation follows a contentious summer in which the board flip-flopped on a tax cut. In July, board members agreed to maintain the tax rate, ending four years of cuts and keeping the district from dipping into reserves to balance its $754 million budget. The agency, which employs 1,550 people, handles flood protection for a third of the state along with overseeing decades-long efforts to restore the ailing Everglades.
But the decision defied Scott’s longstanding order to cut taxes. Two weeks later, the board called a second meeting and reversed the vote. Last week, Guillory’s chief of staff resigned.
On Thursday, after hastily adding the item to their regular meeting agenda the evening before, the board authorized chairman Dan O’Keefe to negotiate a severance package for Guillory and praised his work.
“It’s absolutely no secret the executive director position at this agency is one of the most challenging in the state,” board member Kevin Powers said. “You get pulled in every direction … and pushed to the front line of some very contentious issues.”
Guillory, an engineering executive who focused on water projects, took over the 16-county district in 2013 after running the Southwest Florida Water Management District for two years, where he oversaw Scott-ordered cuts. He arrived at the West Palm Beach-based district to find an agency struggling after its budget had been cut in half and its staff slashed by more than 300 positions.
In nominating Antonacci, 67, board member Jim Moran said the attorney’s “expertise and experience, particularly in Tallahassee, would be a tremendous asset.”
Antonacci, a Democrat-turned-Republican, spent much of his political career as a top assistant to former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat who left office in 2002.
In 2012, Scott made Antonacci his general counsel, a position that put him in a small circle of advisers and, last year, in the middle of the controversial ouster of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
After he resigned, Bailey said Antonacci forced him out under Scott’s orders, allowing the governor to sidestep the state Cabinet to appoint a handpicked successor. The move led to a public records lawsuit that eventually cost the state $300,000 in settlement costs and legal fees. The settlement is just a fraction of more costly legal bills that stem from Antonacci’s stance on public records.
During the governor’s 2014 reelection campaign, Antonacci refused to produce records from former staffers, prompting Tallahassee lawyer Steven R. Andrews to expand a public records lawsuit against the governor to include the staffers, which bumped up costs. Andrews' legal disputes led to a settlement and legal fees that cost the state $1.2 million.
Antonacci has repeatedly declined to discuss his role in Bailey’s departure, which forced Scott and the Cabinet to institute changes that require more detailed public job reviews of the leaders of nearly a dozen state agencies.
For much of Scott's tenure, Antonacci also played an important behind-the-scenes role in the selection of judges to Florida's trial courts and the appointees to the state's 26 judicial nominating commissions. He advised Scott on a wide range of legal issues, from executions of Death Row inmates to lawsuits involving the state on issues such as regional water use, voting and drug testing of public employees.
Antonacci also was among the governor’s chief negotiators with the Seminole Tribe in 2014 when it sought to expand gaming options, which legislators rejected.
Shortly after returning to GrayRobinson, one of the state’s most politically engaged law firms, Antonacci signed up as a lobbyist working with the private prison healthcare company, Corizon. The company has been under fire by legislators for providing inadequate healthcare to inmates and overcharging the state for those services for inmates.
Antonacci also served, at Scott’s request, on the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, which will recommend a replacement for Justice James E.C. Perry, who must retire in 2017. In May, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio appointed Antonacci to Florida's Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, which recommends candidates to be federal judges.
Between 1996 and 2011, Antonacci personally made nearly $16,000 in campaign contributions to politicians in both parties, from liberal Democrats such as Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood to conservative Republicans including Scott, records show. He also gave thousands of dollars to judges’ nonpartisan political campaigns.
“He’s not an ideologue. He’s just a really smart guy,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who has battled the state over environmental issues for decades.
Antonacci represents a break from the past when scientists and engineers rose through the ranks to run agencies filled with fellow scientists. While critics say his appointment weakens the agency’s independence, Guest said the practice sometimes led to the concentration of too much power.
“Back in the ’80s, [former director] Woody Wodraska bragged that they had an airport bigger than seven countries. They had their own flag,” he said. “They had a larger presence in Washington than the governor did.”
Antonacci, who referred questions to board chairman Dan O’Keefe, also sat on the governing board of the Northwest Florida Water Management District from 2006 to 2012.
“The challenge Pete’s going to have is handling the staff he’s got,” Guest said. “Trying to control the staff at the South Florida Water Management District is like trying to control a waterbed rolling downhill. You don’t have to be that much of an expert on waterbeds.”
Scott praised the appointment after a luncheon in Leon County, telling reporters, “He did a great job as my general counsel. I’m sure he’ll do a great job there, but that was a decision by the board.”