November 15, 2017

Martin County agrees to pay $12 million for shielding and destroying public records

Everglades@MaryEllenKlas

Circumventing Florida's public records law, and destroying public documents, has cost Martin County commissioners more than $12 million -- and the toll keeps rising. 

The commission on Tuesday agreed to a $12 million payout to Lake Point, a rock quarry company that has plans to become a water company, sued the county for breach of contract and for violating the state's Sunshine Law.

The agreement will put an end to a four-year legal dispute but not the end of the county's woes. A grand jury is investigating allegations that at least one county commissioner destroyed records relating to the case, which could draw criminal penalties. 

The county also agreed to buy 300 acres of land from Lake Point, refund environmental surcharge and impact fees, and grant a permit for an onsite cement plan. It also agreed to issue an apology letter.

In the letter, released on Tuesday, the commissioners apologized to Lake Point, "its principals and its employees for the harsh words and inappropriate deed of certain commissioners that unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of Lake Point." It also admitted that it needed "to improve its public records practice" particularly as it related to using private emails for public purposes.  Download 17-11-13 Settlement Agreement (All pages) (1)

"We now know that the use of private e-mail accounts by certain County commissioners had become too commonplace, resulting in a lack of the transparency and accountability that the public rightly expects from its government, and that is required by law,'' the letter states. "We have addressed these public records problems through new policy and practices, by which we hope to restore the public’s trust in how Martin County transacts its public affairs."

It's a dramatic admission for a county that spent two years denying the existence of public records, until a court ordered them released, and it is the second settlement agreed to by the commission this year.

A a court-appointed arbitrator in February concluded the county “engaged in a pattern of violating the public records act” in an attempt to shield that they were using private email accounts to communicate with former Martin County Commissioner and environmental advocate Maggy Hurchalla. The court found that “certain commissioners failed to take public records requests seriously.”

The county agreed to pay more than $371,800 in attorneys’ fees at the time, and to establish a new policy for how to handle public business on private email accounts.

The Lake Point venture began as a public-private partnership that would allow Lake Point’s owners to operate a for-profit rockpit to mine and sell aggregate — a mixture of minerals —for construction projects. In exchange, Lake Point would donate the 2,200-acre property to the district, which would use it to divert water from Lake Okeechobee or the C-44 Canal to avoid discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary.

The water on the land, which former owners had used to grow sugarcane, would be treated and then sent south into Florida Bay. Lake Point argued the agreement with the district gave it the right to transport and supply water; the company wanted to sell water to Palm Beach County. Martin County countered that Lake Point was not allowed to conduct a revenue-generating public water-supply project on the property.

The county canceled the contract in late 2012, after Hurchalla urged county commissioners to reject it, claiming it could destroy as much as 60 acres of wetlands. Lake Point countered that Hurchalla’s claims were false, and sought copies of private emails between commissioners and Hurchalla.

Emails discovered in the case revealed that more than one commissioner used personal email accounts to conduct public business, and Lake Point sued. 

In March 2016, Hurchalla produced emails that the county had denied existed for two years. They showed that she had been engaged in discussions with former Commissioner Anne Scott and Commissioner Ed Fielding about canceling the contract and appeared to coach Scott to “limit the discussion” and cancel the contract. 

The court-appointed arbitrator concluded that County Commissioner Sarah Heard scrubbed information and altered public records, after she claimed her private Yahoo! account was hacked. Now, a grand jury is reviewing those developments. 

The county commission voted 4-1 to approve the settlement with only Heard voting no. 

County Commissioner Ed Ciampi called it "a dark day in Martin County."

Commission Chair Doug Smith called the need for the settlement "reckless,'' according to TC Palm. "We are borrowing money to dig our way out of a hole," he said, adding that the county could have built two fire stations with the money spent on the settlement.

Heard, however, maintained she had done nothing wrong.

"This is the most alarming proposal I've ever seen put before any board,'' she said, according to TC Palm. "We didn't do anything wrong. This is an unveiled assault on opposition, on criticism. It's meant to vanquish opposition and critics, to muzzle the public and critical public officials."

Related: Martin County slapped with big public records fine

 

 

October 19, 2017

Court gives boost to legal fight against new state rule that would allow more toxins in water

Florida water@MaryEllenKlas

After a year of legal hurdles, the city of Miami and Seminole Tribe of Florida can now move forward with a lawsuit challenging a state rule that would allow higher concentrations of toxic chemicals, including carcinogens, to be discharged into Florida’s rivers and streams.

The Third District Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed a lower court ruling and Miami said Thursday it will now continue to pursue its lawsuit against the Department of Environmental Protection's Human Health Toxics Criteria Rule.

The rule increases the acceptable levels of more than two dozen known carcinogens and decreases levels for 13 currently regulated chemicals. It was approved on a 3-2 vote by the Environmental Regulation Commission in July 2016, when the commission had only five of its seven members. Story here. 

Photo: Pembroke Pines was a semifinalist in a national tap water competition in 2011. Here at the Pembroke Pines water treatment facility Michael Ponce drinks some of the prized water on June 15, 2011 at one of the water treatment units. A new state rule would allow more toxins in water sources. JOE RIMKUS JR. Miami Herald File

September 06, 2017

Army Corps says Lake Okeechobee is in 'great shape' for Hurricane Irma's arrival

Everglades
Federal officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that if projected rainfall estimates remain at between eight to 10 inches over Lake Okeechobee and Irma douses the lake as a category 3 hurricane, the vulnerable Herbert Hoover dike will be at "low risk" for flooding, and the lake is in "great shape" for the storm's arrival.

The corps started discharging water into estuaries east and west of Lake Okeechobee on Tuesday and will continue through Friday, said Laureen Borochaner, chief of engineering for the U.S. Army Corps during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. Preparations also include drawing down canals to levels lower than normal pre-storm readiness and discharging as much water as possible to tide through all coastal structures.

She said the combination of wind and water could lead to some flooding in Clewiston, at the site of one of the construction projects there but the corps has pre-positioned staff to monitor conditions after the storm passes.

"The overall amount of Lake Okeechobee is a low risk condition," Borochaner said, adding that because the lake is at 13.5 feet, one foot lower than it was last year and within the 12.5 to 15.5 foot range. "We will continue to monitor storm forecasts."  

Borochaner said that if the storm arrives as a category 4 or 5, the conditions could become more threatening to the lake. 

"It depends on how much precipitation falls in and around the lake,'' said John Campbell, corps spokesperson. 

 

Florida's utilities are more prepared for Irma than Wilma. Here's why

FPL linemanThe memories of the stifled recovery from Florida’s 2004-05 spate of hurricanes still haunt: gas stations with fuel but no power to pump it, high rises with people but no working elevators and neighborhoods that scrambled to recover for weeks without electricity.

Florida’s utility companies say they have learned from the eight hurricanes more than a decade ago and if Irma makes landfall, recovery will be different.

High rises are now required to have at least one elevator operate on generator power. Gas stations and convenience stores, which fended off legislation that would have required them to buy generators, must now have access to a back-up power supply if they have fuel but no electricity.

And Florida’s utility companies, which have employed new technology and invested billions in hardening since Wilma slammed South Florida in 2005, say they are more prepared than ever for a monster storm.

“We learn from every storm and we take these lessons learned to see how we can make improvements because the key is getting the lights back on,” said Bill Orlove, FPL spokesperson. More here. 

July 31, 2017

South Florida water managers select Ernie Marks as their third director in three years

Ernie marksvia @JenStaletovich

The South Florida Water Management District chose its deputy director as the agency’s new chief, replacing a combative insider close to the governor with a career environmental regulator who has spent more than a decade working on Everglades restoration.

Ernie Marks, who joined the district in March 2016, becomes the third director in three years.

Marks served as the South Florida regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for two years and before that oversaw ecosystem projects for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a decade. He has a degree in environmental economics and natural resource management from the University of Rhode Island.

Marks was the only person nominated for the position during the board’s 31-minute meeting, largely spent praising the work of outgoing director, Pete Antonacci, the former general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott who earlier this month was named new chief of Enterprise Florida.

“Pete was the right guy at the right time,” said board chairman Dan O’Keefe. “My advice to Enterprise Florida: Brace yourselves and fasten your seat belts.”

During his two years at the helm, Antonacci repeatedly took on federal regulators and environmental groups. He accused the Everglades Foundation of cooking numbers on a study that looked at the need for a southern reservoir and threatened to end a longstanding partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, incurring the wrath of longtime Everglades advocate Nathaniel Reed. Earlier this month, he ordered district scientists not to participate in the National Academies of Sciences’ annual review of Everglades Restoration in West Palm Beach this week. More here.

Who will be the next South Florida Water Management district director?

Everglades sunrise by Jon KralWho will be the next director of the South Florida Water Management District?

The board convenes today in a conference call to announce a replacement to outgoing director Pete Antonacci, who was named by Gov. Rick Scott last week to head the embattled Enterprise Florida economic development agency, a lateral move for the governor's former general counsel and loyal supporter.

The replacement director may be an interim appointment or permanent -- potentially, only an 18-month job -- and the candidates include:

  • Ernie Marks, director of Everglades Policy and Coordination. He is considered the favorite of Antonacci, having moved to the district as recently as March 2016 from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission where he was South Florida regional director. He previously worked for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as Director of the Office of Ecosystem Projects and as a regulatory manager.
  • Terrie Bates, water resources director for the district, is a three-decade veteran of the agency. She manages the WMD's scientific focus on ecosystem and technology research.
  • Jeff Kivett, former director of the districts's operations, engineering and construction, who left in 2016 and is now vice president of the Northern California area at Brown & Caldwell, a California engineering firm. 
  •  Drew Bartlett, deputy secretary at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, has been with the state since 2007 and before that spent 16 years with the EPA. 

Once the new, or interim ED is in place, one question ahead is whether the  new director will pivot the agency to reversing the decision by Antonacci to sever ties with the National Academies of Science. Antonacci apparently took the governor's office, and his political staff, by surprise when he announced to the governing board that he no longer wanted his staff to continue the relationship with the top scientists charged with reviewing the Everglades project. 

The organization has a $358,000 annual contract with the SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review Everglades restoration progress and to produce a report every other year.

In a July 5 letter to Stephanie Johnson of the NAS, Antonacci referred to an agenda for the August 2017 Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress (CISRERP), criticizing it.  "It is plain on the face of the proposed agenda that your panel of distinguished scientists are being lead (sic) down a path of unscientific meddling into the art of budgeting, management and operation by entities designated for such purpose," he wrote.

He complained that "top down Washington nitpicking" was adding "little to the goals of Everglades Restoration" and suggested, for example, that the "development of a Combined Operation Plan" in South Miami-Dade was not helpful to Everglades restoration.

He added that if the group continued to "put science on the back burner," the SFWMD "will have no choice but to legally withdraw from any financial commitments" and he suggested the agency could instead rely on the University of Florida Water Institute, which was hired by the Florida Senate to author a 2015 a report on Everglades restoration.

Among the issues on the draft agenda was an update on Senate Bill 10 which asked the question:

"Does the Senate Bill in essence direct the Corps and District to choose the more expensive but slightly more effective '2nd best option' presented in the CEPP...i.e. the 12' deep 21,000 ac reservoir with 7000 ac STA on the A1-A2 footpront (sic) (estimated to cost $2B more but provide 2-% greater benefits?)

Antonacci was harshly critical of the Senate proposal to build a water-storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to offset the need for damaging water releases into nearby estuaries, arguing that buying land would postpone other needed improvements.

"It is well-recognized that more storage is needed system-wide, however, the myopic focus on land acquisition south of Lake Okeechobee does little to contribute to restoration success,'' he wrote in a letter to Miami-Dade commissioners.

In its latest report, the NAS noted that less than 18 percent of the $16 billion effort needed to complete the restoration project has been funded.

In his July letter, Antonacci suggested replacing the National Academies group with scientists from the University of Florida's Water Institute.

When Johnson responded in a letter, saying that "some information on budget and management is necessary for the Committee to understand the broader context for restoration progress and the relative impact of scientific issues," Antonacci was blunt.

He accused the group of "highly objectionable mission-creep" and suggested that the WMD staff "will not participate in your August meeting."

More from Craig Pittman here: Everglades restoration project leader tells top scientists: Stay in your lane

July 14, 2017

Critical audit of Suwannee River water district exposes downside of deep cuts

Suwanee RiverOfficials in charge of the smallest water management district in Florida were making a big mistake: they appeared to be keeping millions of dollars acquired from land sales instead of returning it to the state’s general fund — and they had no paper trail.

The Suwannee River Water Management District, which oversees land and water resources in a 15-county rural swath of north-central Florida, failed to properly account for more than $26 million, according to a critical audit recently released by the Florida Auditor General.

Weak budgetary controls led to $22.5 million in “questionable costs,” auditors found. Officials had transferred $13.3 million of it into the district’s operating account without proper authority. They may have overspent some areas of the budget and directed money to other areas to make up for shortfalls. They set aside $3.8 million “in the event of an economic crisis” without authorization, and they steered $1.7 million “to cover routinely anticipated budget shortfalls” without explanation.

Auditors concluded that accounts were “misclassified because district personnel misunderstood” standard accounting requirements and budget staff members were “somewhat new to the process” so they couldn’t explain how and why it happened.

Why is this a problem? In plain language, if you don’t know how to track the taxpayers’ money, you risk spending too much of it, the auditors said.

“Absent effective budgetary controls, including budgetary monitoring controls, there is an increased risk that district expenditures will exceed established budgeted amounts and available resources,” the report concluded. Read more here:  Auditors find millions in ‘questionable costs’ at water district

Photo: This is a view of the Suwannee River near White Springs from 2010. Susan Cocking Miami Herald file photo

June 29, 2017

Florida lawmakers tell Trump to back off Atlantic drilling

via @learyreports

WASHINGTON - A large, bipartisan contingent of the Florida House delegation has a firm message for President Donald Trump: Lay off plans for oil drilling in the Atlantic.

“Opening the Atlantic to seismic testing and drilling jeopardizes our coastal businesses, fishing communities, tourism, and our national security,” reads a letter signed by the Florida lawmakers and dozens of others. “It harms our coastal economies in the near term and opens the door to even greater risks from offshore oil and gas production down the road. Therefore, we implore you not to issue any permits for seismic airgun surveys for subsea oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean.”

The letter was sent to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and was signed by Florida Reps. John Rutherford, Darren Soto, Bill Posey, Alcee Hastings, Matt Gaetz, Charlie Crist, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Frederica Wilson, Brian Mast, Dennis Ross, Val Demings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Yoho, Kathy Castor, Francis Rooney, Al  Lawson, Ted Deutch, Ron DeSantis, Lois Frankel, Vern Buchanan and Stephanie Murphy.

The Trump administration announced in April it was exploring opening up the Atlantic for oil and gas exploration.

The letter (see below) was organized by Rutherford, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat.

Continue reading "Florida lawmakers tell Trump to back off Atlantic drilling" »

June 02, 2017

Is man-made climate change real? Don't ask top Florida Republican leaders

FLA_Budget_MJO_03
@PatriciaMazzei

Of Florida’s top three Republican leaders, only one of them — Senate President Joe Negron — is willing to say, grudgingly, that human activity contributes to climate change.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran won’t go there.

Asked repeatedly Friday if man-made climate change is real, as a broad consensus of scientists have long concluded, Corcoran refused to answer. 

“We should do all we can to protect the environment,” he said.

That doesn’t answer the question, he was told. 

“Whatever,” responded Corcoran, of Land O’Lakes. “I’m not going down that path.”

A day after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international Paris climate agreement, the three most powerful men in Florida government declined to acknowledge the threat of rising seas to one of the nation’s most vulnerable states.

Instead, Scott, who has touted his friendly relationship with the president, defended Trump’s decision.

“He’s doing exactly what he said he was going to do on the campaign: He’s focused on American jobs,” Scott said. “The Paris accord clearly was not focused on American jobs. And it’s no different than we’ve done here.”

More here.

Photo credit: Matias J. Ocner, for the Miami Herald

May 26, 2017

New DEP secretary’s cell phone is primary contact for business he says he doesn’t run

Noah ValensteinFlorida’s new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Noah Valenstein, flatly denied this week he had any role in the political consulting and polling businesses he turned over to his wife when he came to work for the governor in 2012.

But the company web site on Thursday still listed his personal phone number as the contact. It was the same phone number Valenstein used on his application for the DEP job.

“Thank you for raising this issue to my attention,” Valenstein said in an email to the Herald/Times. “I have asked my wife to immediately remove my cell phone number from her company’s website. Upon entering public service in 2012, I removed myself from the business and my wife has owned and operated it since.I was not aware my cellphone number remained on her website and neither was she.”

The companies, Voter Opinions, LLC, and Campaign Facts, LLC, (with website Facts2Win.com) are income-producing businesses for Jennifer Valenstein. Started by Noah Valenstein in 2010 out of their Tallahassee home, the companies have been paid nearly $1 million by candidates and political committees.

When Noah Valenstein was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to serve as his policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment in December 2012, Valenstein revised the paperwork to make Jennifer the registered agent. Both are lawyers.

Since then, the company has continued to operate, serving legislative campaigns and the political committees of groups that do business with the governor, his agencies or want to advance his fortunes.

Committees that have hired Valenstein’s companies include those run by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron, the business lobbyist groups Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the House Republican Campaign Committee, Sens. Wilton Simpson and Kathleen Passidomo, former Sens. John Thrasher and Frank Artiles, former House Speakers Steve Crisafulli and Will Weatherford, the Florida Medical Association, several current House members, and former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, now a congressman. Story here.