Sunday, July 22, 2018
News Roundup

Controversial Public Service Commission member will be the next boss of Florida's parks

Last week, with no explanation, the longtime boss of the award-winning Florida state parks system was abruptly demoted. Donald Forgione was reassigned to run one single park in Gainesville instead of all 171.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday announced that his replacement will be Lisa Edgar, a Public Service Commission member who has been repeatedly accused of favoring utilities over customers.

"She does not do an adequate job of representing the ratepayers and consumers of the state of Florida," state Sen. Jack Latvala, the powerful Clearwater Republican, said during a 2013 hearing on her reappointment to the commission.

Edgar's term ends this month. She has no background running state parks.

Forgione, by contrast, joined the DEP as a park ranger in 1983 and worked his way up to director in 2010, the first person ever to do that. Forgione routinely signs his emails "Ranger First" as a reminder of that. He will now be in charge of Payne's Prairie State Park.

One of Edgar's longtime critics at the PSC criticized Gov. Rick Scott for making the switch.

"She took care of the utilities for the governor, and now he's taking care of her," said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who as a Republican state senator once opposed her reappointment to the PSC.

He was among the senators upset by her support of the nuclear advance fee, which allowed what was then known as Progress Energy to collect $1.5 billion in customer money for its Levy County nuclear project. The project was later canceled because it proved too costly.

Fasano said he was "disappointed the governor would reward her with another job just so she could collect a big pension down the road."

DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel denied those allegations. She pointed out that Edgar used to work for the agency as a deputy secretary overseeing the budget and the geological survey.

"She has years of experience protecting Florida's natural resources as a former DEP deputy secretary," Engel said, "as well service to the state as chief environmental policy analyst … under both Govs. (Lawton) Chiles and (Jeb) Bush."

None of those positions involved running state parks, however.

Edgar's husband, Michael "Mick" Edgar, is a division director for the Northwest Florida Water Management District, where DEP Secretary Jon Steverson used to be the executive director. Edgar will report to Deputy Secretary Gary Clark, a former water management district board member who once operated what was billed as "Northwest Florida's premier bobwhite quail hunting preserve."

Edgar, who has a law degree, will be taking a pay cut. She made $131,000 a year at the PSC. Her new position pays about $115,000 annually, about $1,000 more than Forgione made.

Edgar could not be reached for comment. In a statement released by the DEP, she said, "I look forward to working with this team to continue to achieve the Florida State Parks mission to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources."

Florida's park system is known throughout the country for its beauty and diversity. It is the only state that has won a prestigious national award for parks three times.

The parks are more than an environmental jewel — they're also an economic engine. A DEP analysis last year found that about 27 million people visited the parks, generating an economic impact of $2.1 billion.

However, Forgione faced demands from the Scott administration for the parks to generate even more money. The year the governor was sworn in, Forgione rushed out a plan to let private contractors design, build and operate new campsites in 56 state parks where camping had not previously been allowed. The campsites would have to accommodate not only tent camping but also popup trailers and RVs — even in places like Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin.

To make the new campgrounds work would have required adding new roads, restrooms, bathhouses, playgrounds, electric connections, grills and other amenities.

The push for more camping originated in the DEP's desire to help Scott fulfill a campaign promise to create 700,000 jobs, internal memos showed. Scott initially defended it.

But then 1,000 people turned out at a Dunedin public hearing to tell parks officials that this was a bad idea for Honeymoon Island, and a similar reaction greeted DEP officials at other hearings. Scott pulled the plug on the plan.

Last year, Steverson, the new DEP secretary, told state legislators he wanted to make the park system pay for itself. He wanted to rent out parts of the parks to ranchers to let their cattle graze there, and to timber companies to harvest trees from the forests.

"I want to maximize value for the taxpayers," he explained, "but also for the environment."

The DEP's plans even included allowing hunting. So far, though, no parks have been found to be suitable for those proposed changes.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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