Editorial: Scott usurps local control over South Florida water agency

With the abrupt departure of the South Florida Water Management District’s executive director and the sheepish backpedaling of the agency’s Board of Governors, there no longer can be any disputing that Gov. Rick Scott has assumed total control over the water district.

Does it matter that local sovereignty on water issues is lost, controlled from Tallahassee, or that the agency will be run, as of Oct. 1, by a former Scott staffer, an attorney and lobbyist fresh from one of the biggest scandals of Scott’s tenure?

Put it another way: Does flood protection in your neighborhood matter? Does Everglades restoration matter?

Do such endangered species as the Everglades snail kite and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow matter? Does the health of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries and Florida Bay matter?

Does the safety of residents of Belle Glade, South Bay and other lake communities matter?

We believe they do.

This coup d'etat from Tallahassee came immediately after the local governing board members dared to make an independent decision, one they believed was in the best interests of the millions of people who depend on the agency. Their sin was to vote 6-2 to maintain the district's tax rate, rather than lower it in conjunction with increasing property tax values. On orders from Tallahassee, the board has since undone that vote and gone with the governor's preferred tax cut.

But the board's reversal apparently wasn't enough for Scott. On Sept. 10, district Executive Director Blake Guillory resigned, and the board unanimously agreed to appoint a permanent successor. No search whatsoever was conducted. The new executive director is Scott's former general counsel Pete Antonacci.

Yes. That Pete Antonacci.

He’s the one who, in December, capped off extensive public service by engineering the questionable, and shameful exit of the highly respected head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — even though the Cabinet hadn’t yet taken a public vote.

The FDLE secretary, Gerald Bailey, was apparently persona non grata for refusing to allow his office to be politicized during Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Soon after that chapter, Antonacci left government service to rejoin his law firm and lobbying agency, GrayRobinson. He became a lobbyist for several clients, including charter school and education companies, prison health contractor Corizon, and an insurance firm, Meadowbrook.

So Antonacci is doing the governor another huge favor. One can only guess how he’ll be rewarded.

What will Antonacci’s order of business be? Let’s just say it doesn’t look good for the endangered snail kite.

The water district is preparing to sue the federal government over a decision based on the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is insisting the agency protect nesting snail kites if it wants permits for four massive pumps that can siphon Lake Okeechobee during times of severe drought. The pumps allow sugar farmers and citrus growers to keep irrigating during dry spells. But their use can lead marshes at the edge of the lake to die.

Those marshes are the kites’ prime nesting habitat. When marshes dry, predators like snakes and raccoons eat the kites’ eggs, and the kites’ food, apple snails, disappears.

The water district is outraged that the federal government is violating local sovereignty. We know just how it feels.