DeSantis appoints four to key administration posts in major reshuffle

Gov. Ron DeSantis names new chiefs for the departments of Corrections, Juvenile Justice and Elder Affairs as well as the state’s resilience officer.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Nov. 19, 2021|Updated Nov. 19, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday tapped four people to lead key parts of his administration, a shake-up that includes a new corrections secretary to oversee a Florida prison system that has long been in turmoil.

The governor’s office announced that Ricky Dixon, a longtime official with the Department of Corrections, will soon replace Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, who is retiring.

Dixon has served as the agency’s second-in-command since 2015, including nearly three years as Inch’s right-hand man. Inch’s time at the state agency was spent grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, severe staffing shortages, prison closures and, in the last two years, wrangling with legislators over department funding as he warned legislators of a looming “crisis.”

In addition to Dixon, DeSantis named Wesley Brooks as the state’s third chief resilience officer, the person tasked with helping Florida face the impacts of climate change; Eric Hall as the secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice, and Michelle L. Branham, as the secretary of the state Department of Elder Affairs.

“In Florida, we are working toward a brighter future for generations to come — there is no doubt that these are the best people to bring on to our team with that goal in mind,” DeSantis said in a statement Friday. “With diverse backgrounds and wide-ranging experience, this team brings invaluable knowledge to their roles.”

The appointments of Dixon, Hall and Branham need to be confirmed by the Florida Senate. Brooks’ appointment does not need confirmation.

Chief resilience officer

Wesley Brooks
Wesley Brooks [ Special to the Times ]

As the state’s resilience officer, Brooks will be the state’s point person on climate change, coordinate regional efforts and report directly to the governor.

For nearly two years, Brooks, has been the director of federal affairs for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, where his work included expedited construction of Everglades projects and reauthorization of the federal Coral Reef Conservation Act, according to the governor’s office.

Previously, he worked as a staffer for members of Florida’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Brian Mast and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. While with Rubio, he worked on policies for Everglades restoration, coastal resiliency and harmful algal bloom monitoring, according to the governor’s office.

The position of chief resilience officer is relatively new, created by DeSantis in the summer of 2019.

But the position has been vacant for months.

The first chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, worked six months before leaving for a job as a Homeland Security advisor in the Trump administration. In a 2019 report to DeSantis, she concluded the state lacked a strategy for dealing with climate change.

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“Florida needs a statewide strategy,” Nesheiwat wrote. “Communities are overwhelmed and need one place to turn for guidance.”

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein later took on a dual role as Nesheiwat’s replacement, but he resigned in May.

Brooks is a Miami-Dade County native, according to his LinkedIn profile, and he has undergraduate degrees in political science and biology from Duke University and a PhD in ecological science from Rutgers University.

“Dr. Brooks is an excellent choice for this important position,” Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the environmental advocacy group Everglades Foundation, said in a statement.

Brooks will make $125,000 a year, the governor’s office said..

Department of Corrections

Rickey Dixon
Rickey Dixon [ Special to the Times ]

Dixon, 50, will come into the role of corrections secretary just as DeSantis and Inch renewed a push for boosting correctional officers’ pay amid staffing shortages.

Earlier this month, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission approved a plan that will give correctional officers a base-pay increase of at least $5,000 and newly-hired officers will get a one-time $3,000 bonus.

During his time at the department, Inch lobbied lawmakers for more resources. Since 2019, Inch has told lawmakers that funding shortfalls and staffing shortages have proven to be “demonstrably counterproductive and exceptionally detrimental to the department’s ability to meet its mission requirements.”

Prior to his role as the state’s prison chief, Inch, a retired two-star Army general, served as the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Inch’s time as chief of the federal Department of Justice’s prison arm was brief. He was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in August 2017, then resigned unexpectedly in May 2018.

The New York Times later reported that Inch told Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein he was tired of the administration flouting “departmental norms.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform in the Legislature, said Inch’s departure is a “huge loss for the state, the corrections officers, those incarcerated, and their loved ones.”

“He is one of the hardest working, knowledgeable, and most honorable people I have ever worked with,” Brandes said. “Godspeed general.”

Dixon will earn $175,000 a year, according to the governor’s office.

Department of Elder Affairs

Michelle Branham, who was chosen Nov. 19, 2021 to be Gov. Ron DeSantis' Secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.
Michelle Branham, who was chosen Nov. 19, 2021 to be Gov. Ron DeSantis' Secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. [ Alzheimer's Association ]

As the secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs, Branham will be charged with overseeing a number of state initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the state’s rapidly growing senior citizen population.

Those services are given mostly through a series of locally run programs such as programs of all inclusive care for the elderly (PACE).

The department has 407 staffers, and had a budget this year of more than $446 million. Branham will earn $165,000 a year.

This is not the first time Branham, 50, of Jacksonville Beach, has been appointed to a position by DeSantis. In 2019, she was picked to lead the state’s Alzheimer’s Disease Advisory Committee.

As the former vice president of public policy for the Alzheimer’s Association, Branham had a history of advocating for patients suffering from that disease.

In June, when a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug was provisionally approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Branham and her association were among its most vocal supporters. She called it a “game changing, celebratory victory” that the drug, aducanumab, was approved. Some others questioned the drug’s efficacy and cost.

Department of Juvenile Justice

Eric Hall
Eric Hall [ Special to the Times ]

As the secretary of the Juvenile Justice Department, Hall will oversee 21 juvenile justice centers in the state and education, prevention and mental and substance abuse services to youth.

Since 2019, Hall has been in the Florida Department of Education and served as senior chancellor, a position in which he oversaw the division of K-12 public schools, the Florida College System, the Office of Safe Schools and the Office of Early Learning, and other divisions in the agency.

Hall, 48, will earn an annual salary of $174,000, according to the governor’s office.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.