DEP chief resigns at critical time for Florida environment

Gov. Rick Scott’s top environmental advisor, Herschel Vinyard Jr., resigned Wednesday, ending a four-year run steeped in controversy over protecting Florida’s fragile water and land resources.

Vinyard leaves the Department of Environmental Protection at a critical juncture: The agency will guide Scott and the Legislature through implementing Amendment 1, which had overwhelming support from voters and requires a $20 billion investment to protect water and land over the next 20 years.

As a candidate for reelection, Scott promised to protect springs and punish polluters. In his first campaign four years ago, Scott proposed scaling back environmental rules and merging DEP with other agencies. As governor he advocated privately-run golf courses in state parks, repealed a septic tank inspection program and ended state funding of the Florida Forever land acquisition program.

Vinyard, a former Jacksonville shipbuilding executive, will be replaced on Dec. 1 on an interim basis by Cliff Wilson, 35, DEP’s deputy secretary for regulatory programs.

The departure of Vinyard had been anticipated for months. The selection of Wilson, even as a caretaker, caught environmentalists by surprise because he has been there for only three years and is not well known outside the agency.

“We don’t know much about Cliff or his background,” said Eric Draper, the lobbyist for Audubon Florida. “Not much has happened there to distinguish him.”

Wilson graduated from Florida State University with a civil engineering degree in 2005, and spent six years at Preble-Rish, a consulting engineering firm in the Florida Panhandle.

DEP did not respond to the Herald/Times’s request to interview Wilson on Wednesday.

Wilson will become Scott’s third interim secretary of a large state agency, joining Mike Carroll at the Department of Children and Families and Tim Cannon at the Department of Corrections.

Carroll has run DCF since last spring and Cannon was named interim corrections secretary on Monday, hours after prisons chief Mike Crews announced his retirement. At least two more agency heads are expected to depart in the coming weeks.

“It’s certainly not uncommon when a governor begins a new term that you see new leadership at the agencies,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Vinyard earned $141,000 a year as DEP secretary, one of several agency heads who report to the governor and the three elected Cabinet members (state attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner).

Wilson currently earns $125,000 a year.

Collier County Commissioner Tom Henning praised Wilson’s work in helping to resolve a tense controversy between the county and a private drilling company using untested technology to explore for oil near Naples.

“He was the lead guy. I think he did a wonderful job,” Henning said. “He got the job done.”

Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director of the Sierra Club, said he hoped Wilson would play a positive role in the state’s adoption of rules under the EPA’s so-called clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

“He has been receptive,” Jackalone said of Wilson. “He’s probably just as favorable to the industry as to the environment, but he’s receptive, and he listens to us. We’ve been happy with our limited experience with him.”

In a resignation letter, Vinyard cited improved Everglades water quality, a nutrient reduction program for waterways and a national award for Florida’s parks system.

Under Vinyard, the DEP gave bonuses to employees who issued development permits more quickly and laid off 58 positions two years ago. That was followed by a series of top-level hires from private industries. The agency’s top wetlands expert was relieved of duty for objecting to a proposed wetlands credit project in Northeast Florida, and a judge later sided with the expert.

Audubon’s Draper said DEP staff members are demoralized over Vinyard’s policies.

“DEP needs an upgrade,” Draper said. “It’s a moment for significant leadership. You would think the governor would put one of his best people in that job.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or 850-224-7263.