State Politics

Scott appoints new chief for environmental agency

A year ago, when Gov. Rick Scott announced he was suing the state of Georgia for taking too much water and leaving Apalachicola and its oysters high and dry, one of the people standing by him was Jon Steverson, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

On Thursday, Scott had another job for Steverson, 39, of Tallahassee. The governor appointed the fourth-generation Florida native as the new secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

“Jon has dedicated his career to serving Floridians through the protection of our state’s water and natural resources and he is committed to our goal of protecting Florida’s natural treasures,” Scott said in a news release.

Steverson’s background stands in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Jacksonville shipyard executive Herschel Vinyard Jr. In 2011, Scott tapped Vinyard, a onetime law partner of powerful ex-Sen. John Thrasher, to lead the DEP in spite of a lack of experience with an environmental regulatory agency.

Under Vinyard the DEP was repeatedly embroiled in controversies, from the suspension of its top wetlands expert after she refused to approve a permit to a failed effort to sell off surplus park land. Longtime employees, including Everglades scientists, were laid off or fired, while top jobs went to people who had been consultants for developers and polluters. Meanwhile the emphasis in regulation shifted from prosecuting violations to helping industry avoid fines.

Steverson has prior experience with environmental regulation, and more. He has been a Tallahassee lobbyist, representing the Florida League of Cities, which means he is familiar with the give-and-take of the legislative process.

He was hired as environmental policy coordinator for the governor’s office , and then went into private practice, where he represented clients “in the areas of water policy, growth and environmental planning, as well as agriculture, transportation and economic development,” according to his official biography.

Then Vinyard hired him to be a DEP special counsel, where among other duties he spelled out for the state’s five water management districts just how to slash their budgets to the bone. His job at DEP was to oversee “a restructuring of the agency and its budget.”

Two years ago, he became the new executive director of the Panhandle’s water district, where he made $165,000. His new job may bring a pay cut — Vinyard earned $140,000.

Environmental groups had a mixed reaction to his selection.

“I think his deep experience will provide him with a much better handle on how to approach policy and how to work with people,” said Eric Draper of Audubon Florida. “He’s real conservative, but you can work with him. You can work through your problems with him.”

However, that depth of experience “can work both ways,” pointed out Jerry Phillips, a former DEP lawyer who now heads up the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “It can also show you where to cut to accommodate what the governor wants.”

Steverson could not be reached for comment.

His appointment comes at a critical time for the agency. Last month, voters approved Amendment 1 by an overwhelming margin. The measure requires the state to make a $20 billion investment to protect water and land over the next 20 years, but how it’s implemented is up to the Legislature.

Steverson is Scott’s second new agency hire in two days, following Wednesday’s appointment of Julie Jones to head the state prison system.

The water district board has already replaced Steverson with his assistant executive director, Brett Cyphers.

Herald/Times Staff writer Steve Bousquet and Tampa Bay Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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