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Swiftmud's longtime chief resigns

The longtime executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District has resigned, leading to questions about whether Gov. Rick Scott is pushing out the directors of all five of the state water districts.

Dave Moore, 54, did not give a specific reason for his departure in his resignation letter, which he sent to the governor and his board members at 9 a.m. Thursday. He also did not specify his last day, instead offering to stay in the $194,875-a-year job for several months until a replacement is hired.

There "may have been a suggestion" from Tallahassee that Moore should quit, said Ronald Oakley, the water district's chairman for the past year.

"When the governor was first elected, there were a lot of rumors that he would change all the executive directors," Oakley said, "but you never know whether it's true until something like that happens."

Moore, who has run the agency commonly known as Swiftmud since 2003, is the second of the five water management executive directors to quit. The first, Carol Wehle, abruptly resigned as executive director of the South Florida Water Management District in April after six years on the job. Wehle was paid $200,000 a year to lead that 1,700-employee agency.

Scott sought to cut by 25 percent the budgets of the state's five water management districts, which regulate every aspect of water use, from utility pumping to wetlands development, around the state. The Legislature passed a bill ordering Swiftmud to cut its taxes by 36 percent —- in effect, setting the independent agency's tax rate for it.

And at Scott's behest, Swiftmud's board voted this week to abolish its seven basin boards, volunteer-run taxing districts that oversaw everything from water supply to conservation projects.

"The governor is in the process of replacing all the old horses at the water districts, including the executive directors and the general counsels," said Moore's predecessor, E.G. "Sonny" Vegara, who ran Swiftmud for five years. "Dave has done an exemplary job, but he's still an old horse."

But Moore said that Scott's push to remake the water districts "didn't factor into my decision. These positions aren't meant to be forever. … You just come to the point where it's time to leave."

In addition to Moore and Wehle, longtime St. Johns River Water Management District general counsel Kathryn L. Mennella announced her resignation this week. She had been with the agency for 27 years. Like Moore and Wehle, Mennella gave no reason for her resignation.

St. Johns River executive director Kirby Green and Northwest Florida Water Management District executive director Doug Barr did not respond to requests for comment. Suwannee River Water Management District executive director David Still said no one has asked him to quit. Requests for comment sent to Scott's office were not acknowledged or replied to.

"The resignations of David Moore and Carol Wehle were not the result of any action taken by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection," said Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the DEP, which oversees the water boards.

Moore, a hydrogeologist, has worked for Swiftmud since 1984. He was deputy executive director eight years ago when he was named executive director, beating out 10 other applicants. The agency now employs 804 people, down this year from a high of about 900.

During his time at the top, Moore said, he has been proud of the restoration work that has helped clean up Tampa Bay and the imposition of new rules on emergency farm irrigation in the wake of winter's overpumping in Plant City and Dover that led to sinkholes and other damage.

Oakley said Moore worked hard to create new water supply sources for the district's 16-county region —- until the economy slumped and the region's population boom went bust.

"We went from thinking that we were not going to have enough water to having enough water for 20 years out," he said.

Choosing his replacement could take some time.

"Over the next few weeks, we will be determining what process we will follow in making this important selection," Swiftmud's new chairman, H. Paul Senft, wrote in a memo sent to the rest of the board Thursday. "We will also seek any clarification and guidance that is appropriate from the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Swiftmud's longtime chief resigns 05/26/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 10:32pm]
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