Sunday, May 27, 2018
Editorials

Smell of cronyism in the wetlands

Every Floridian has a vested interest in wetlands — a primary means for recharging the aquifer and drinking water supply — and so should the state Department of Environmental Protection. But the more that is learned about how top officials have handled the wetland mitigation credit application of a well-connected landowner, the more it appears Gov. Rick Scott's administration is more interested in currying favor than following the law.

As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Craig Pittman has reported, nothing about the way the DEP has handled the application from Highlands Ranch Mitigation Bank has been routine. The company is a joint venture of an influential private equity firm, the Carlyle Group, and a Jacksonville company, Hassan & Lear Acquisitions. They spent $15 million buying a 1,575-acre pine plantation in Clay County and hoped to win nearly 700 wetland mitigation credits to sell to developers who want to destroy swamps or marshes elsewhere. A single credit can sell for as much as $100,000, and the growth-friendly scheme is supposed to ensure the aquifer and its drinking water supply remain protected — though earlier Times reporting has raised serious questions about the effectiveness of such mitigation.

After Highlands Ranch's initial effort to play by the rules netted it just 193 of the 688 mitigation credits it sought from the St. Johns River Water Management District, the firm has been betting on political clout to get its way. First it tried to get the Legislature to change the mitigation law. After that failed, it filed an application for 425 credits with the DEP and took the unprecedented step of hiring a high-profile lobbyist to shepherd it. Jacksonville lobbyist Edward "Ward" Blakely Jr. has longtime political connections to DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard.

DEP's wetlands expert, Connie Bersok, wasn't impressed. She said the application still failed to meet legal requirements because it didn't spell out how the firm planned to restore wetlands. Bersok was put on leave, with agency leaders alleging she may have leaked information in the file to the media (all of which was public record). A subsequent investigation cleared her.

Vinyard has refused to be interviewed on the issue, sending Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn to make the case that nothing untoward has occurred; the DEP is simply interested in using the Highlands Ranch application as a pilot project for examining new ways to regulate wetlands mitigation credits. But Bersok has contended the law doesn't allow what the bankers wanted, and the 2011 Legislature wouldn't sign off on the changes Highlands Ranch wanted, either.

The question is why Scott, generally critical of government regulation, has ignored that his own regulators appear to be engaging in such favoritism. The renegade bureaucrat has never been Bersok but a DEP administrative team that acts as though it can change the rules as it pleases. That's not better regulation, it's special interest cronyism. Why has Scott not stopped it?

Comments
Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Itís human nature in following any tragedy to imagine: How could this have been prevented? On that score, the city of Tampa responded appropriately to the deaths this week of a mother and her toddler whom police say were hit by a teenage driver racin...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

One of the worst ideas in a long time in the field of urban planning received a blessing this month when the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved a land-use change for a project that calls for filling three acres of water insi...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Send out an Amber Alert for Adam Putnam. The red-haired, affable fellow who has served capably as a state legislator, member of Congress and agriculture commissioner is missing. In his place is a far-right caricature who has branded himself as a prou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Floridians are paying a steep price for a system that makes it as difficult as possible for people who leave prison to reintegrate into civic life. Gov. Rick Scottís clemency process isnít just archaic and cruel ó it also wastes enormous public resou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Regardless of the reason, the cancellation of the U.S.-North Korea summit to address Pyonyangís nuclear program is hardly the worst possible outcome of this high-stakes diplomatic gamble. President Donald Trump was unprepared, North Koreaís Kim Jong ...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18

NFL kneels before the altar of profits

The owners of the 32 National Football League teams sent a wrongheaded and, frankly, un-American message to their players Wednesday: Expressing your opinion during the national anthem is no longer permitted."A club will be fined by the League if its ...
Published: 05/24/18

Editorial: A positive first step in ensuring student access at USFSP

As a task force sorts out countless details involved in folding the University of South Florida St. Petersburg back into the major research university based in Tampa, ensuring access for good Pinellas students remains a concern. An enhanced cooperati...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Legislation that waters down the 2010 Dodd-Frank law and was sent to President Donald Trump this week is a mixed bag at best. Some provisions recognize that Congress may have gone too far in some areas in the wake of the Great Recession to place new ...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/24/18
Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

The rising tensions with Iran, the resurgence of violence in the Mideast and the uncertainty over a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea combine to create an unsettling time this Memorial Day. These grave threats to peace are another reminder of...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/25/18

Another voice: The chutzpah of these men

A new phase of the #MeToo movement may be upon us. Call it the "not so fast" era: Powerful men who plotted career comebacks mere months after being taken down by accusations of sexual misconduct now face even more alarming claims.Mario Batali, the ce...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18