In an article by reporter Kevin Spear published 8.15.11, in the Orlando Sentinel, he writes,
"Mass layoffs at the state agency most responsible for protecting Central Florida's waters and wetlands were ordered by Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers as a break for taxpayers, but the forced departures of key regulators appear to be driven by backlash from the development industry."
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St. Johns water-district layoffs driven by developers, environmentalists say
By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel10:33 PM EDT, August 15, 2011Mass layoffs at the state agency most responsible for protecting Central Florida's waters and wetlands were ordered by Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers as a break for taxpayers, but the forced departures of key regulators appear to be driven by backlash from the development industry.
At the St. Johns River Water Management District, a development consultant on the agency's citizen board of directors asked last week that all senior staff members resign because the district has gotten a "black eye" for the way it treats those who apply for permits to consume large quantities of water or destroy wetlands.
"The senior, senior people have set the direction in the wrong path," Maryam Ghyabi, president of Ghyabi & Associates Inc., said during last Tuesday's board meeting. "I've been getting a lot of complaints about our agency."
The next day, three high-ranking managers charged with enforcing water and wetlands protections were asked to leave the 18-county agency, which takes in most of Central Florida. Their departures are not yet firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5062
The three employees, well-known outside the agency, include Jeff Elledge, the longtime top director of permitting for construction projects that cause damage to wetlands.
Elledge, a 31-year veteran of the water district, would not comment on his departure beyond saying that his employment contract specifies that he serves "at the pleasure" of the agency's director and can be fired with little explanation.
The three dismissals appear to be politically motivated, said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's advocacy director, and not part of the larger, cost-cutting layoffs announced Aug. 1, when 130 positions — nearly 20 percent of the district's workforce — were eliminated to save $12 million a year in salary and benefits.
"These were targeted decisions that were steeped in retribution against agency staff members with a long and commendable professional history," Lee said of the three senior executives. "These were targeted dismissals that were intended to destabilize the agency and reduce the protection of the environment."
The other two asked to leave the agency, Marc Minno and Glenn Lowe, could not be reached for comment.
Lowe is director of the district's Division of Environmental Resource Management, overseeing reviews by district staffers of permit applications for wetlands impacts. Minno is a supervising scientist in the Division of Water Use Regulation, in charge of assessing environmental harm from utilities' pumping of aquifer water.
The agency's 10-year executive director, Kirby Green, is slated to retire next February but has come under new pressure from board member Charles Drake to leave sooner.
Drake, vice president of the water consultant Tetra Tech in Orlando, said during last week's board meeting that he wanted Green to resign as soon as next month. No decision was made, and Green's tenure and the possibility of additional layoffs are expected to come up again at next month's board meeting.
Green said Monday it was a coincidence that Elledge, Lowe and Minno were asked to leave less than a day after Ghyabi of Ormond Beach called for the resignations of senior managers. He said the layoffs, with potentially more to come, were for reasons "more organizational" in nature than for cost-cutting purposes.
For example, Green said, his Palatka-based agency will be delegating more responsibility to its satellite offices, including one in Altamonte Springs. As a result, he said, much of the work that Lowe does in Palatka will be reassigned to other offices.
He said Ghyabi's comment about the district's "black eye" is part of a larger, anti-regulatory backlash in the state that has resulted in the downsizing this year of state agencies such as the departments of Community Affairs and Environmental Protection.
Green said the water district is being revamped to make wetlands and water permitting quicker and less bureaucratic but not less protective of the environment.
"I think we've heard the message loud and clear that we need to be more effective in dealing with [development and water] applicants," Green said. "Effective means, No. 1, protecting the environment and, No. 2, moving them through the process so that it doesn't take as long."
The state's five water districts, whose board members are appointed by the governor, have long been somewhat insulated from politics.
But they also have been often attacked by environmentalists for being lax and subservient to the development industry, and criticized by developers and municipal utilities for being a bully when protecting the state's aquifers, wetlands and waterways.
Scott's call for steep budget cuts early this year — which for a home with a taxable value of $150,000 resulted in a tax break of $62 to $50 a year — also carried a mandate that the water districts narrow their priorities to "water supply, flood protection, and resource protection."
"Core mission has become a mantra out of the Governor's Office," said Sonny Vergara, a former executive director of the St. Johns district and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "My argument is, what the hell does that mean? 'We're going to stop doing a lot of things' is basically what they mean."Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel