Recently, four top executives at the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) suddenly resigned, with two of them stating in their resignation letters that they were resigning "in lieu of termination." Collectively, the four have 89 years of experience with the agency and all have received high marks on performance evaluations. This comes on the heels of two senior scientists who said they were forced to resign in February.
Sources indicate that the employees were targeting for removal by Jon Steverson, the interim Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A spokesperson for DEP said that Mr. Steverson did not have anything to do with the purge at the District, claiming that personnel decisions are the responsibility of Mike Register, the interim Executive Director of the SJRWMD. Register had only been on the job a few days before the resignations were received.
However, information uncovered by reporters and statements made by several of the individuals and Board members involved suggest a direct connection to Governor Scott's administration and the DEP Secretary. Since being elected, Governor Scott has consistently taken steps to weaken and wrest control from the water management districts by letting go key adminstrators and scientists, slashing budgets, watering down rules, and centralizing decision-making in Tallahassee.
We obviously do not always agree with the water management district and some changes were needed to make the agency more responsive to its mission. However, the dramatic changes being directed by Governor Scott have been for the worse, resulting in an agency that is ill-equipped and less focused on protecting and restoring the public's water resources.
Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, expressed our concerns regarding this issue to the SJRWMD Governing Board on Tuesday, May 12, 2015:
"The mission of the SJRWMD is to ensure the sustainable use and protection of the water resources for the benefits of the people of the District and the State of Florida.
- To provide a regional strategy for sustainable water supply
- To prevent flooding
- To protect and improve water quality
- To protect and improve natural systems
The rumors of the purging surfaced long before Mr. Register assumed his new position. It is clear that Tallahassee is directing this further gutting of the District’s institutional knowledge and regulatory authority.
If the administration wants a new culture in leadership, then we as citizens deserve to know what that truly means. What is the culture that Tallahassee would like to see?
As a board member, what culture do you want to instill? What culture must exist to meet your mission to provide sustainable water supply while protecting our natural systems?
Is it one of sustainability? If so, then why would you allow the firing of the modeler with decades of experience who identified the sustainable yield of our aquifer?
Is it a culture of living within our water means? If so, then why fire the 32-year-employee who led the 2-year, stakeholder-driven effort to produce a reasonable, responsible and quantifiable water conservation program?
Is it your role to prevent flooding, improve water quality and protect natural systems? If so, then why fire the 25-year-old veteran who has developed a model conservation land program that has been praised by government agencies and conservationists alike?
If your mission is to ensure the sustainable use and protection of the water resources for the benefits of the people of the District and the State of Florida, you would stand united to question this purge of more than 100 years of institutional knowledge.
DEP officials have stated that the SJRWMD has “sole authority” over personnel decisions. Board members have stated that this authority lies with the Executive Director. However, we all know that this list of sacrificial lambs was produced at least 45 days before Mr. Register assumed his new role, as interim Executive Director.
If you are committed to truly protecting Florida’s future by fulfilling your mission and your responsibility as SJRWMD Board Members, we ask that you engage and reverse this ill-advised decision to purge the District of so much of its senior leadership."
Read some of the recent articles and editorials about this controversial issue:
Editorial: Political purge, The Gainesville Sun 5.12.15
"The idea that Florida's water management districts should put science before politics is being washed down the drain. Gov. Rick Scott is instead stacking the districts with employees who blindly adhere to his political beliefs rather than base decisions on what is best for the environment."
After wave of resignations, St. Johns water district set to hire new executive director, The Daytona Beach News-Journal 5.12.15
"One of those staff members, Robert Christianson, a respected authority on the acquisition and management of conservation lands, said board chairman John Miklos told him the employee resignations were required by Jon Steverson, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Several board members also said they were told DEP was targeting the staff members."
Five resignations at St. Johns water district spark charges of governor's interference, The Daytona Beach News-Journal 5.8.15
"Two former long-time executive directors — Kirby Green and Henry Dean — said they couldn’t remember another time when DEP reached down into the districts to rearrange senior staff. Green was serving as executive director when Scott took office in 2011. Several months later, Green said he was directed by donors to Scott’s campaign to force the resignations of five senior staff, including the general counsel and three department heads."
Ron Littlepage: Scott offers proof that he is not a scientist, Florida Times-Union 5.7.15
"If he doesn’t like what scientists working for the state find out, then he gets rid of the scientists. That’s the conclusion environmental groups reached this week after a blood-letting at the St. Johns River Water Management District that left several of the district’s top scientists with years of experience suddenly unemployed."
Central Florida's water agency roils with resignations, Orlando Sentinel 5.6.15
"Simultaneous and unexplained departures by four executives from the agency that protects Central Florida's wetlands, rivers and aquifer triggered complaints Wednesday that the moves were orchestrated to weaken the region's environmental safeguards."
Senior staff exit St. Johns River Water Management District, worrying environmentalists, The Florida Times-Union 5.6.15
"This is a part of a larger pattern,” Lee said, adding the effect of the staff changes “would be to make it easier to make decisions that are … less science-based” and fit easily with short-range political goals.