TALLAHASSEE — Section 373.073 of Florida law requires the governor to fill the state’s water management district boards.
So far, Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t followed it.
That’s a problem for the Florida Springs Council, a statewide nonprofit which advocates for the protection of Florida’s springs and spring-fed rivers.
“We urge you to do your job as Governor, to follow the laws of our state, and to appoint qualified applicants to fill the nine 2020 vacancies on Florida’s water management districts,” wrote Ryan Smart, the group’s executive director, in a letter to DeSantis Thursday.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment.
Florida’s five water management districts, as their names might suggest, manage how the state uses its water. Their overseers are governor-appointed (and state Senate-confirmed) board members. These boards have the ability to, among other things, tax Floridians and hand out consumption permits to corporations that wish to use Florida’s water for commercial purposes. They’re partially responsible for keeping Florida’s waterways clean and its water drinkable. They also help regions plan for future flood risk, which could have major implications in the age of climate change, intensifying storms and rising sea levels.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which governs all or parts of 16 counties, including the entire Tampa Bay region, has a tentative fiscal year 2020-2021 budget of about $183.3 million. The body’s programs are financed largely through property taxes.
The 13-member board has a bare majority — seven — of its positions filled. DeSantis was legally tasked with filling three positions earlier this year, but he has not. Among the unfilled positions are two of the seats required to be filled by Pinellas County residents.
But at least the Southwest Florida Water Management District can hold meetings by reading a quorum. Three of Florida’s five boards — which together represent about two-thirds of Florida’s 67 counties — will soon be unable to reach the required majority attendance of their boards at meetings if DeSantis doesn’t make more appointments, the Springs Council warned.
The boards have a plan for falling short. For example, St. Johns River Water Management District in northeast and east-central Florida plans, to continue meeting with just three of its nine board positions filled, said spokeswoman Teresa Holifield Monson.
The district can do this, in part, because of an executive order signed by DeSantis that suspended any state rules requiring a quorum of a budget-making government body to be present in person at a meeting.
But Smart said his organization could legally challenge any action taken by a water management district operating below its mandated capacity.
“We don’t think it’s proper that they’re operating under the executive order,” Smart said.
Many of the soon-to-be empty board seats expired March 1 — before the full effects of the coronavirus became clear to state officials. Florida law gave DeSantis 180 days after March 1 to fill the seats, or else they’d become vacant. That deadline expired Friday.
DeSantis has styled himself an environmentalist governor. One of his first acts was to call for the resignation of the entire South Florida Water Management District board, the state’s largest such regulatory body. DeSantis’ allies at the time said the board had become too friendly to Florida’s sugar industry, which often stands at odds with water quality advocates.
But since that action, Smart said, DeSantis has let membership lapse on water management boards all over the state. This has happened even though the Florida Springs Council has recommended at least nine candidates to the governor, Smart said.
While the coronavirus pandemic is no doubt a difficult time for any governor to focus on obscure bureaucratic personnel decisions, DeSantis has managed to make other appointments this summer. He’s tapped dozens of people all over the state to serve on a variety of bodies. He’s appointed judges, University of Florida Board trustees, and members of the Board of Chiropractic Medicine.
Smart said he can only think of two reasons why DeSantis hasn’t made appointments to these specific boards. To Smart, one of the possibilities: DeSantis isn’t interested in doing this part of his job.
“The other possibility,” Smart said, “is that he’s intentionally trying to weaken the water management districts by not giving them full boards.”