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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Leadership void on transportation, environment

With two years left in Gov. Rick Scott’s second term, the leaders of the transportation and environmental regulation departments are leaving for well-connected private firms in Tallahassee. These departments need strong leaders now.
With two years left in Gov. Rick Scott’s second term, the leaders of the transportation and environmental regulation departments are leaving for well-connected private firms in Tallahassee. These departments need strong leaders now.
Published Jan. 24, 2017

With two years left in Gov. Rick Scott's second term, the golden parachutes have opened. The leaders of the transportation and environmental regulation departments are leaving for well-connected private firms in Tallahassee. This governor's transportation and environmental policies have done more harm than good. Perhaps his successor will be more enlightened. But Florida cannot afford to stall until 2019 on improving transportation and protecting the environment. These departments need strong leaders now.

Transportation

Florida Secretary of Transportation Jim Boxold's resignation leaves the state without a clear voice about the future of road-building and mass transit. The governor's initial reaction suggests he's not concerned that Tampa Bay could be stuck in neutral at a critical time.

Scott appointed as interim secretary Rachel Cone, who has nothing on her resume suggesting she is qualified to even temporarily oversee an agency with a $10 billion budget and 6,200 employees. Cone was the communications director for the Department of Environmental Protection and then moved to the governor's office before joining DOT two years ago as assistant secretary for finance and administration. She has no prior background in transportation, and her greatest asset appears to be that she has been a Scott loyalist.

When Boxold pronounced last month he wanted to ''hit the reset button'' on the controversial Tampa Bay Express project, he must have meant stall until he could walk away. This lack of clarity and sudden power vacuum at DOT is not healthy, and it gives skeptical legislators more leeway to question whether TBX should remain in the state's five-year work program or be buried with another legislative maneuver.

Just last week, DOT officials introduced new wrinkles to the $6 billion plan to add toll lanes to the Howard Frankland Bridge and Interstate 275 in Tampa. These included concrete barriers in some areas between toll lanes and free lanes, which could be welcome. But officials also talked of building a third span of the Howard Frankland for cars if the planned replacement span adds rail someday. That was not mentioned two years ago when DOT agreed to spend $25 million to reinforce the substructure of the replacement bridge span below the water level to accommodate light rail in the future. Good luck persuading taxpayers to pay for light rail across the bay if that also requires building a third bridge.

Boxold's departure also clouds an effort pushed by Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long to create a regional structure for coordinating and implementing mass transit, which could include merging bus systems and transportation planning. That effort is gaining support and could require legislation this spring to study it. But the effort also will need support from DOT, which could include the study in its work plan.

For years, DOT officials have complained it is difficult to address Tampa Bay's transportation needs because the region does not speak with one voice. Now there is a regional effort to do just that, but DOT is rudderless and the governor appears more interested in his political future. If there is a silver lining, Cone should not be in charge of DOT for long. State law requires the Florida Transportation Commission to screen candidates for DOT secretary and send three names to the governor for consideration.

Environment

Few agencies in a growing, coastal state like Florida require stronger leadership than the Department of Environmental Protection. That's why Friday's abrupt resignation of DEP Secretary Jon Steverson presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet should find a successor who acknowledges the modern threat of climate change and who can rally broad support for protecting the state's natural resources instead of looking for ways to make money from them.

Steverson's two-year term was marked by secrecy and the wrong priorities, as he worked to monetize the award-winning state park system and kept the public (and the governor) in the dark about a sinkhole at Mosaic's Polk County phosphate plant last year. As the Times/Herald capital bureau's Mary Ellen Klas reported, Steverson's resignation came just two days after House budget officials faulted his oversight of a legal services contract that had grown by more than $54 million in the last two years. An agency spokeswoman said Steverson's resignation had nothing to do with concerns over the contract, but "is simply the result of receiving an offer in the private sector." He going to work for Foley Lardner, one of the four law firms hired by the state under the costly contract and the same destination for his predecessor at DEP. Now that is a real revolving door.

This departure marks a chance to bring fresh thinking and an open leadership style to an agency that has become all too culpable in carrying out Scott's pro-business agenda. Steverson's insistence on squeezing more money from the parks system — through the use of timber harvesting, cattle grazing and other schemes — was tone-deaf and at odds with his agency's mission. He offered no robust vision for the times or much leadership in framing the environmental debate, whether in confronting rising sea levels and other impacts from climate change or in promoting the need for clean energy. His voice won't be missed because it was missing already.

The next DEP secretary should help communities across Florida deal with the impact of global warming. Local governments are doing what they can, but they need guidance and resources to better protect public health and safety, businesses and property, and critical infrastructure. The next secretary should support a plan by Senate President Joe Negron to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to curb the flow of pollution to the coasts and to rehydrate the Everglades basin. Under Steverson, the DEP withheld support. His successor also needs to be more accessible to the public and to get a grip on legal fees tied to the state's water war with Georgia. DEP's professional staff also needs to be protected from politics.

There is never a good time for a leadership void. The state has plenty to do to repair its natural springs, replace leaky septic tanks polluting the waterways, make more efficient use of its wastewater and ensure that its natural resources can sustain a range of lifestyles and industries. That would require a secretary who takes a broader view of what's involved in protecting the state's natural resources.

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