TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday reappointed the heads of two major state agencies, Rick Swearingen at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Jon Steverson at the Department of Environmental Protection.
Swearingen received stronger support than Steverson.
Steverson, a lawyer and former executive director of the 16-county Northwest Florida Water Management District, cited the state’s national award-winning park system and defended his plan for park “self-sustainability” which has drawn widespread criticism from Floridians who see it as the commercial “extraction” of a treasured public resource.
“We’re not privatizing these parks and we’re not commercializing these parks,” Steverson told his bosses. “I am in no way intending to harm the parks.” But he said his goal is to find ways for the parks to make money. “I want the state park trust fund to be robust,” he told his bosses.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam described the park proposal as a distraction, said parks were never envisioned to be self-supporting, and urged Steverson to “delete” it from his priority list.
Chief Financial Atwater Jeff Atwater prodded Steverson to be more open and inclusive with the public. “It’s time to include some other people in the conversation,” Atwater said.
Jean Huffman of Parks in Peril, a statewide advocacy group, said thousands of people have signed an online petition opposing commercial uses of parks. She urged Scott and the Cabinet to postpone a vote on Steverson until September — as Scott originally proposed in June — to give the public more time to comment on revenue-producing plans in parks. But the four officials moved forward with reappointing Steverson.
Scott appointed both men to their jobs last December and Cabinet members approved both picks amid a political furor. The fallout from the ouster of Swearingen’s predecessor, Gerald Bailey, forced the Cabinet to enact more formal procedures for interviews and evaluations of agency heads, but both men were thrown into political limbo after the Senate refused to confirm them in the 2015 legislative session. Scott reappointed both men on an interim basis in May.
Swearingen, a 31-year FDLE veteran, said a top priority is giving major pay raises to “grossly underpaid” crime lab analysts to reduce the rampant level of turnover in that unit, which is struggling with a major backlog in DNA cases. He said FDLE will rejoin a number of statewide law enforcement task forces after a long absence.
All three Cabinet members praised Swearingen at length for his open style of communication and his determination to make improvements at the statewide law enforcement agency.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.