With a stroke of his pen last week, Gov. Charlie Crist put the future of Florida's water resources in the hands of five people.
Now the five — four men and one woman — are trying to figure out how to wield their significant new power over development and water-use permits, yet still give the public a chance to be heard.
"We're all thinking through how this is going to be done," said Dave Moore of Odessa, who as executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, is one of the five.
Another of the five says he plans to defy the law. A third promises to make the permitting process more open to the public than ever before.
On Tuesday, Crist signed into law Senate Bill 2080, which gives authority over issuing state permits for wetlands destruction and water consumption to the executive directors of Florida's five water management districts.
Until this week, if a bottling company wanted to slurp millions of gallons of water out of the aquifer or a developer wanted to pave over thousands of acres of swamps, the state permits had to be approved by one of five water management district boards appointed by the governor. The board's vote took place in a public meeting where residents could stand up and give their opinion.
But on the next-to-last day of the session, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, added an amendment to SB 2080 that even the bill's sponsor says he didn't know about. The bill — originally just aimed at promoting water conservation — passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously.
Only afterward did the public discover that Alexander's amendment shifted the power over permitting away from the boards and open meetings. It said that "the governing board shall delegate to the executive director all of its authority to take final action on permit applications."
That way, one person could make the decision instead of a nine-member board, and thus there would be no need to wait for a monthly meeting, speeding up the approval of permits. The measure was one of several initiatives this year to streamline the permitting process in a bid to revive Florida's moribund construction industry.
But the proposal to put five unelected, largely unknown bureaucrats, all of them white and in their 50s, in charge of handing out the permits without public input sparked a furor.
A host of opponents lined up to call on Crist to veto the bill, including not just environmental groups but also the Hillsborough County Commission and the mayor of Jacksonville. In May, the governor said he was leaning toward a veto but then changed his mind.
Still, in a letter that accompanied his signing of the bill, Crist urged the water districts to "continue to include … permits on all board meeting agendas or other public meetings for discussion and transparency purposes."
Opponents of the bill scoffed at Crist's letter. "It's not a directive, it's a request — and once there's a new governor, it can be rescinded," said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club.
But to David Still, executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, Crist's letter said to disobey the new law.
"It says continue doing what you've been doing," said Still.
So instead of making the permitting decisions himself, Still plans to continue asking his board to vote on permits in public meetings. That may break the law, he said, but "are you going to sue me for opening up the process to the public? … Go ahead, take me to court. Make my day."
Carol Wehle, an engineer, is the sole woman on the list of five. She's going to obey the law, but says she's also going to go the extra mile in complying with Crist's request.
"We're working to have the most open process the public has ever had," said Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.
On Wednesday, she will present her board with a plan that calls for posting every single permit application on the agency's Web site "so the public is notified right from the beginning." Every step in the permitting process will be posted on there, too, she said, giving people a chance to comment prior to when she makes the final decision.
"And if any permits seem controversial," she said, "we will hold a public hearing in the affected area, and I will attend."
Several of the five said they weren't all that thrilled to have so much power thrust upon them. "More like a tar baby," complained Kirby Green of the St. Johns River Water Management District. "It's like, 'Uh-oh, now what are we going to do?' "
Green and Moore, the Swiftmud executive director, both say they also will use their Web sites to publicize what steps they're taking on permits.
"We're going to bend over backward to assure all the due process is followed," said Moore, who will also post permit information on the board agenda.
A supporter of the bill, Moore said he think it will "save four to six weeks on permit processing time."
Most of the five executive directors pointed out that the Legislature may come back at the issue again next year and take away their power or scale it back. That would be fine with Douglas Barr, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District for 17 years.
"I was perfectly comfortable with the way the permits were approved previously," Barr said.