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South Florida water managers cut back on public comment


If you've got something to say to the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, talk fast.

On Thursday, the board unveiled a new policy that cuts back on public comment. Rather than give speakers three minutes to address the board as each issue - often technical stuff loaded with politics and science - is discussed, public speakers now get only one shot at addressing the board. For three minutes. Total.

That did not go over well with regular attendees, mostly environmentalists, who often drive many miles to reach the West Palm Beach headquarters for a district spread over 16 counties.

When her turn came and board chairman Dan O'Keefe refused to extend the three-minute limit, Tropical Audubon Executive Director Laura Reynolds gave up and walked away. Reynolds had hoped to talk about worsening conditions in Florida Bay, where at least 40,000 acres of dead seagrass are raising concerns about an algae bloom. Second on her list was sea rise and the district's efforts to analyze aging flood control structures not designed to deal with a six to 12-inch rise projected over the next 15 years.

"I was trying to give them a heads up and provide them with important data and input," Reynolds later texted. "I drove all the way up there and he could not even give me time to bring Miami-Dade issues to the public hearing."

Drew Martin, conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Loxahatchee Group and a regular speaker, said the board needs to hear from the public.

"I don’t think the public has taken up that much of your time at most meetings," he said.

Tabitha Cale, an Everglades policy analyst for the National Audubon Society, called the decision "really frustrating and disappointing to see from a state agency."

O'Keefe said he was willing to reconsider the policy if any "robust" issues warrant longer comments.

"Nothing is set in stone and I’m going to look at how our resources are managed and time is managed."