Friday, July 15, 2011

Letter to SWFWMD Chairman Senft

July15, 2011

Dear Chairman Senft,

I have been unable to locate where the agenda has been published for the July 26 meeting of the governing board which is less than 10 days from now.  By cc of this to Bill Bilenky and Lou Kavouras, perhaps they can help me find it.  If it’s on SWFWMD’s website, it’s not where it would be normally.

My interest is whether there will be a discussion relating to the basin boards or how the governing board intends to move forward without them.  My guess is that the governing board will need to make some decisions to guide staff on how it wants to proceed and, obviously, I and others would be very interested in those discussions.

During the board’s discussion on June 28 when it abandoned the basin boards and discharged their members, the rationale seemed to be based upon several factors.  First, of course, was the “mandate … from Tallahassee” that the boards be dismantled;  second, was that the governing board had no choice; third, was that getting rid of the basin boards would relieve the staff of having to deal with them and save the district about $350,000 to $400,000 a year; fourth, was that the governor would not make the 31 board appointments because it was too much trouble; and fifth, the “local input” could be maintained by having a committee of the governing board meet separately to receive that local input and bring recommendations back to the main board, or have a committee of private citizens review the budget and make recommendations back to the governing board.

The following thoughts are shared by a number of folks with whom I’ve spoken.

Substitute Committees

Respectfully, it is my belief that establishing a committee of governing board members to act as surrogate basin board members to supposedly garner local input is not at all the same as having basin board members appointed by the governor from each county and recognized by statute.  Board committees would be ineffective because there will be no constraint on the governing board to limit the spending of taxes to purposes that benefit a particular basin. And, there would be no county by county representation on the committee like there was with the basin boards.  That parity among members and the counties they represent was very important but would be lost as would the legal limitation on where the taxes could be spent. 

Even if the governing board were to appoint private citizens to provide local input from the basin, there would be no requirement for the governing board to follow the decision of the committee members just as there is no requirement for the governing board to follow the recommendations of any of its so-called “advisory committees” which are the apparent models for this concept. 

To register my point, most if not all of the previous advisory committees (Agricultural, Environmental, Green Industry, Industrial, Public Supply, and Well Drillers committees) that existed prior to now have been summarily discarded, like the basin boards, all in the name of “efficiency.”  Why would the governing board feel any more compelled to follow the advice of a “basin” committee than it did of those now disbanded?

By the way, advisory committees  were established for very important reasons including to provide a representative voice from certain segments of the regulated public during significant periods such as when rules affecting their interests were being developed.  The opportunity to provide unified recommendations directly to the governing board gave them a sense of effective participation in the process. 

Having said as much, I agree that most if not all of them could remain dissolved because the critical period for their input has passed.  They were important when the initial body of rules pertaining to their interests were being developed and implemented but that role has waned substantially.

The Governor’s failure to make appointments

The thought that the governor has determined it is too much trouble to find and appoint members to basin boards is a bit mind boggling.  It amounts to an embarrassing admission of incompetence by either the governor’s staff or the governor himself.  Making appointments are among the governor’s most basic statutory responsibilities and have been achieved for basin boards with relative ease for the last fifty years. 

That he would use this duty to destroy a mechanism so near to conservative American beliefs reflects an extraordinary lack of understanding of what he is doing.  Basin boards, as I’ve said, are a means for property tax decisions to be made at the very lowest level of Florida government and provide the governor a personal communications link to each of the sixteen counties in SWFWMD, an area the size of the state of Vermont with 4.67 million residents.  He is simply denying himself an important means to stay connected to his constituency.

Notably, the governor’s lack of interest or capacity to make appointments is not limited to SWFWMD basin boards.  In this morning’s St. Pete Times, it was reported that the Hernando School Board is having problems making important and needed decisions because of vacancies the governor has not filled.  USF political science professor, Edwin Benton, was quoted saying, “This governor wants yes men and women.  He’s not going to make an appointment until he sees someone who won’t make waves for him or attack him from the flank.” 

So, maybe it isn’t incompetence or disinterest that is making it so difficult for him to make appointments.  Maybe he just feels he can’t trust anyone, which reflects a bit of his naiveté.  At some point he will realize that distrust is basic to life in Tallahassee and that he needs to deal with it.  In any form, his failure to make needed appointments reflects a fundamental lack of leadership for Florida’s highest ranking official and is very troubling.


The board’s stated interest in saving dollars by dissolving the basin boards was best refuted by board member Todd Pressman on June 28 when he noted that creating committees of board members or private citizens will not in fact result in any greater efficiency.  It was one of those “aha” moments the rest of the board unfortunately chose to ignore. 

Any committee that renders a recommendation upon which the board purportedly will rely to make a final decision is subject to the same administrative statutes the basins were.  This means each meeting will need to have an agenda, it will need to be published, minutes will have to be produced, meetings will have to be noticed, staff will need to attend and provide support, etc.  These are the duties the staff was carrying out that were so costly for basin boards and which the governing board assumed incorrectly would no longer be necessary.

Nothing was said about the work the basins actually do that the governing board will now have to undertake.  Frankly, it will not get done.  The governing board doesn’t have enough time to discuss and carefully consider the work seven basins would otherwise do.  Apparently, this work is no longer considered worth doing.  Is this the same consideration the governing board holds for all the work they did for the last 50 years?  If it is the board’s goal for the district to simply do less, this will achieve it.

Kurt Fritsch was the district’s most recent statutorily-required Inspector General and did a truly great job while there.  He was of unique and valuable assistance to me when I was at the district.  He is now the district’s new Deputy Executive Director for administration where, I’m certain, he’ll do equally as well.  The office he left, however, was budgeted at over $400,000 for fiscal year 2011, if my memory is correct.  Isn’t there any question that a one man office costing $400,000 is considered okay while the services provided for a lesser cost by eight basin boards to nearly five million residents is considered expendable and unnecessary? 

There’s talk about Tallahassee wanting to consolidate such internal services as HR, legal, payroll, etc.  This may work for some of those activities and should be assessed but I don’t have a lot of confidence it’ll result in any greater efficiencies.  It’ll just move the work elsewhere, create another level of bureaucracy, probably cost more and take longer to get things done. 

Nevertheless, one function that can definitely be consolidated among the five districts if not discarded altogether is the office of Inspector General.  The service might be needed from time to time but not full time by any one district.  When determined to be needed by the governing board, it can be outsourced.

Mandate from Tallahassee

The extent to which it is apparent this governor is trying to control local work by legitimate agencies that have clear statutory duties should be considered offensive to board members at any level.  Appointments are made to give people responsibility to carry out policy and activities authorized by Florida law in good faith to the best of their abilities, and appointees should be trusted to do so. 

Appointments are not intended to plant “yes” persons in important places to carry out political dogma without consideration for what’s right.  Appointees should be able to make decisions without fear of personal retribution from Herschel Vineyard, Rick Scott, J. D. Alexander or anyone else for that matter, as long as they’re doing what’s right. 

If there was ever a need to be forthright it is now.  Someone needs to tell the king he has no clothes.  Somebody needs to tell Rick Scott he is dead wrong in his apparent view that Florida’s future quality of life should be sacrificed on the alter of business and job growth at any cost.  Without environmental quality, Florida will have no future businesses or jobs worth having.  Rick Scott clearly has not brought environmental enlightenment with him to Tallahassee.  For Florida’s sake, hopefully he’ll find some before it’s too late.

Mr. Chairman.  I sincerely hope the board will re-establish basin boards, if not eight then perhaps three or four as has been discussed, but with the same structure and authority as the original eight, to serve as well as they have for the last 50 years.

I apologize for the length of this but there are many issues before you needing to be addressed.  These are my two cents, forthright and without whispering.

Thank you for your consideration.



  1. Very well said. Although, it should be noted that the OIG is statutorily required of every state agency and the cost of running such a function is more than paid more by the savings realized in coordinating activities that promote accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency in the District.

  2. Beautifully said, Sonny. As a former Basin Board Member, there is no sense in abolishing the Boards. Taxes collected for certain basins should be spent in those respective basins. I also agree with your remarks about the responsibility of Gov. Scott in making these appointments.

  3. ... I concur with all you have said and I am deeply concerned that local representation is being lost in favor of governor appointed YES people who don't even have the background to deal with water resources and perhaps a water czar to order water to the highest bidder. It bothers me that the Board of Governors is made up of people heavily concentrated around Tampa with no present representation from such counties as Marion, Citrus,and Levy, the counties from which they will be wanting to take water. How can the makeup of the governing board be more uniformly representative if we have no basin boards?