The meeting in Brooksville was a crucial one for setting property tax rates for next year. But the government agency in charge of protecting Tampa Bay’s regional waterways couldn’t muster enough people for a quorum so that the meeting could be legally held.
One reason the Southwest Florida Water Management District didn’t have enough people for its budget hearing earlier this month: Gov. Ron DeSantis hadn’t appointed any new members. The 13-member board had just seven members — and only six showed up.
The agency commonly known as Swiftmud is one of five water management districts in the state that oversee the state’s water supply. It’s also one of the agencies where DeSantis, who took office eight months ago, has not yet filled many of the board’s vacancies. One of the others, the Suwannee River Water Management District in north central Florida, also had to postpone a board meeting because it could not muster a quorum.
“No other governor has ever had this problem that I know of,” said Emilio “Sonny” Vergara, who served as executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District from 1997 to 2003 and executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District from 1978 to 1984.
Vergara warned that there could be legal ramifications if the vacancies mean the water boards are unable to keep to the timetable set by law for levying taxes and approving a budget.
DeSantis’ communications director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said DeSantis isn’t dragging his feet on the appointments. Instead, she said, he’s just being selective for such important positions.
“When it comes to water management, he wants to make sure his appointments are people who share his vision for Florida’s environment,” she said.
She said DeSantis is aware he needs to hurry up and make more appointments to the unpaid but powerful positions. But she also pointed out that the water board members have a responsibility too: “It’s on them to show up.”
DeSantis has tried to fix the problem. After the Suwannee River water district board failed to meet, he filled two posts there so that board can now have a quorum.
And after Swiftmud had to cancel this month’s meeting, he appointed one new member — Florida Aquarium CEO Roger Germann — and reappointed another, cattleman and real estate executive Kelly Rice. But before Germann could join the board, the term of yet another board member, Henry Paul Senft, Jr., expired. That means there are still only seven members and six vacant seats.
The other water boards in the state with multiple vacancies are the Northwest Florida Water Management District, which covers much of the Panhandle, and which has five members out of a possible nine; and the St. Johns River Water Management District, which stretches down the state’s east coast from the Jacksonville area to Indian River County and has five members and four vacancies.
Only the South Florida Water Management District, which covers the state peninsula’s southernmost counties, comes close to a full house. It has eight members and one empty seat. Shortly after taking office, DeSantis demanded that all of the South Florida board members resign, so he could have “a clean reset on the leadership of the board.”
The five water districts were created by the Legislature in 1972 after the state experienced its worst drought in history even as uncontrolled development drained water resources. The districts were given charge of issuing permits for water use and wetlands destruction as well as protecting developed areas against flooding. They have the power to levy taxes on property owners in their regions in order to pay for what they do.
DeSantis started off his term in office in January already grappling with an unprecedented appointments mess, as departing Gov. Rick Scott filled 84 state jobs on his way out the door. DeSantis wound up pulling the plug on more than 100 of Scott’s appointees, and thus began office with a big backlog of vacancies.
As a result, some of the water district board members’ terms expired without DeSantis naming a replacement. But state law allows a grace period of 180 days during which they can stay in their seats until replaced. However, when DeSantis still had failed to name replacements, several water board members’ extended terms finally ended in August.
Swiftmud had the added problems of seeing one of its board members resign due to illness, while another moved out of state, according to agency spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh. A third, Pasco County rancher Randy Maggard, left the board when he was elected to a state House seat. He replaced former Rep. Danny Burgess, who left the Legislature because DeSantis appointed him the executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.