By the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board
When Ron DeSantis took office in January 2019, the St. Johns River Water Management District had a full complement of nine governing board members.
By May of last year, it was down to six. By September, five. By May 2020 it was whittled down to four, not enough for a quorum.
Today, an agency with a budget of nearly a quarter-billion dollars, and as much influence over Central Florida’s water quality and quantity as any other single agency in the state, has just three people remaining on its nine-member board.
They include the president of a defense consulting firm, a real-estate developer and an executive with a trash-collection company. Conspicuously absent are any voices from the world of environmental advocacy.
This is the direct result of neglect — benign or deliberate — by DeSantis, who swooped into Tallahassee as an environmental avenging angel but who can’t be bothered to fulfill one of his most basic and important environmental duties.
After grabbing some post-inauguration headlines in 2019 for getting tough with the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board — demanding mass resignations because of a shady land deal with sugar farmers — DeSantis is losing interest.
We were sounding the alarm back in February, before the pandemic, when the St. Johns governing board was down to five members. Now it has three. The nine-member Suwannee River Water Management District’s board is down to four members. The Southwest Florida district board, which has 13 slots, is hanging on to a quorum with seven members.
We’re starting to think all that champion of the environment stuff might have been just for show.
It’s not like DeSantis has to spend hours on Google digging up board members himself. He has at his disposal the executive branch of government of the nation’s third-largest state to go out and find him some names to pick from.
To an extent, he doesn’t even need to go looking. Qualified applicants like Bob Knight, the director of the Florida Springs Institute, have applied. People like him just don’t get appointed.
Why should we care about the size and membership of governing boards? Because they make consequential decisions and set policy that influence whether Florida’s springs, lakes, lagoons and aquifer are sick or healthy.
They’re also making spending decisions, like how much you pay in taxes. Unless something changes pretty quickly, the St. Johns District board will meet with just three of its nine members next month to decide next year’s property tax rate and its proposed $242 million budget.
The reason they can get away with that is because DeSantis has signed a series of executive orders following the coronavirus emergency that allow taxing authorities to make decisions without quorums.
Those orders are reasonable enough in a pandemic — unless boards don’t have quorums because the governor doesn’t get around to making appointments.
Well, some appointments.
While regional water boards decline, the governor last week named two people to the Holmes County Hospital Corp. Last month, he made appointments to the Clay County Utility and Clay County Development authorities.
DeSantis has appointed a bunch of judges, too, including one to the Florida Supreme Court. That took a turn when her would-be fellow justices on the court recently ruled the appointment should never have been made because the candidate hadn’t been a member of the Florida Bar long enough. But she was a member of the conservative Federalist Society, so there is that.
DeSantis is failing the state and its environment by allowing important leadership positions to go unfilled and policy-making boards to wither. If he really cared about the environment, he would have carved out more time to find a handful of Floridians among the state’s 20 million residents who can serve.
Maybe, just maybe, he would find some board members whose first passion is for the state’s natural resources.
This abdication of duty is more evidence that Florida’s governors make far too many appointments in the first place. Filling many of those posts, like local transportation and hospital authorities, should be left to locally elected bodies rather than governors inclined to use their appointment power as political patronage.
If the governor finds that making appointments are too boring or troublesome, someone else should do it for him.
Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.