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Political turmoil reigns at the moment at the St Johns River Water Management District after five senior staff members have departed recently. The underlying current is the suggestion that Gov. Rick Scott continues to exert his influence over these state agencies with negative results, a continuation of his shake-up which he started in 2011. The Gainesville Sun has run an article by By Dinah Voyles Pulver which is re-printed here. The original article can be seen online by following this link.
Resignations at St. Johns water district spark claims of interference
Published: Friday, May 8, 2015 at 6:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 8, 2015 at 6:08 p.m.
The departure of five senior staff members at the St. Johns River Water Management District in the past week have prompted renewed concerns from former officials and environmental advocates that Gov. Rick Scott and his administration may be working to further limit the agency’s power and authority.
In the second wave of senior staff resignations at the St. Johns water district since Scott took office in 2011, the district’s Executive Director Hans Tanzler left May 1 and four other key staff members resigned Monday and Tuesday. The district, headquartered in Palatka and one of five in Florida, oversees water supply, use and permitting in an 18-county region of North Florida, including eastern Alachua and Marion counties.
The resignations of the four staff members were at the request of Jon Steverson, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said Robert Christianson, one of the executives who resigned.
“On March 24, I met with Hans (Tanzler), at which time he informed me he was going to resign,” said Christianson, director of the district’s strategic planning and financial services division. “He also shared that the secretary of DEP informed him that the administration wanted a new culture in the leadership of the St. Johns district and that other senior staff would be let go.”
Within the next two weeks, Christianson said he had two conversations with John Miklos, chairman of the district’s governing board. “He confirmed to me that the secretary had told him there was a list of senior managers to be removed and my name was on the list.”
Miklos, president of the Orlando-based environmental consulting firm Bio-Tech Consulting Inc., was not available for an interview.
The DEP’s Steverson would not comment. Asked whether he had a list of staffers that he wanted removed, DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel stated the agency left personnel decisions to the water district. “The district staffing decisions are those of the executive director,” Engel said.
Mike Register, the water district’s interim executive director, issued a written statement that he “found it in the best interest of the District to accept the resignations of four at will employees this week.”
“Our organization is in a better position to accomplish our mission of protecting the environment and ensuring a reliable water supply as effectively and efficiently as possible,” he stated, adding it wasn’t “productive or necessary to expound upon the reasons for the resignations.”
Gov. Scott’s office would not comment and referred questions to DEP.
A number of current and former district officials were interviewed. The News-Journal also obtained numerous documents through public records requests, including executive calendars, which show Tanzler was asked to meet with Steverson in Tallahassee on March 17. Tanzler resigned 10 days later.
Tanzler is out of the country and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Week of resignations
Former board member Richard Hamann was among several current and former district officials who said this week they were surprised to hear of the departures. But Hamann said it’s part of a pattern by Scott’s administration.
“They want to make the districts instrumentalities of DEP and thus the governor’s office and they definitely want them to be reduced in terms of their influence,” said Hamann, an attorney in the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida. “Maybe they didn’t feel the purge went far enough.”
Tanzler’s last day in the office was May 1, the same day that Register, director of the district’s regulatory, engineering and environmental services division, assumed his interim role.
On Monday, Tom Bartol, an engineer who was an assistant division director, resigned, stating: “This letter constitutes my irrevocable resignation from District employment, in lieu of termination.”
On Tuesday, three other senior staff members resigned: Christianson, a respected authority on environmentally sensitive land acquisition and management, who also stated his resignation was in lieu of termination; Hal Wilkening, director of the strategic deliverables division, and chief of staff Jeff Cole, district records show.
Christianson said he was told that his “performance has been exemplary but there was a desire to change the leadership of the organization.”
Cole, Bartol and Wilkening couldn’t be reached for comment. The resignations aren’t effective until July 2. Christianson, Cole and Bartol are on administrative leave until then.
Also, a contract with Peggy White, a retired district employee working with senior staff on coaching and training, “ended,” said district spokesman Hank Largin, even though it had been amended in March to extend until June.
Together, the five staffers and White had worked for the district more than 100 years. Two other longtime district scientists, Jim Gross and Don Brandes, were forced to resign in February, Gross said this week.
District officials learned the staff members were targeted weeks earlier, shortly after Tanzler resigned, said board member Doug Bournique.
Asked whether those decisions were being driven by DEP, agency spokeswoman Engel reiterated the “St. Johns River Water Management District has sole authority over its personnel decisions.”
Tanzler announced at the April board meeting that he was naming Register as the interim director of the district. On March 25, Tanzler amended the district’s order of succession, placing Register’s name on the list at the top. Before that, General Counsel Bill Congdon was next in line, followed by Cole and Christianson, according to agency documents.
The state’s five water management districts were created by landmark legislation in the 1970s amid concerns about Florida’s water supply and water quality. But over time, concerns grew in some sectors that the districts were too big, had too much authority, were stifling development and acquiring too much conservation land.
After Gov. Scott took office, a series of directives in early 2011 ordered the districts to reduce budgets and staffing by more than 25 percent, and imposed more stringent requirements for DEP oversight. And, in a controversial directive, districts were ordered to review land holdings to look for “surplus land” that could be sold.
District board member Chuck Drake said the changes in 2011 were needed because the districts needed to improve at “transparency and making sure we’re making the best use of taxpayers’ money.”
Board member Ron Howse said he sat down with the governor when he was appointed earlier this year. “He said, ‘Ron, the district’s got some problems, it’s got some issues. What you need to do is get in there and see what you can do to make it a better place,’ ” Howse said.
Several former board members said this week the forced resignations are the latest example of interference by Scott’s appointees to DEP.
Former board member Saundra Gray of DeBary called it a “tragedy.”
“I just can’t see why the current administration doesn’t seem to realize the tie between good environmental regulation and the economy,” Gray said. “People come to Florida because it’s beautiful and we’ve taken care of it. We’ve got to continue taking care of it.”
Two former longtime executive directors — Kirby Green and Henry Dean — said DEP is reaching down into the districts to rearrange senior staff, something they couldn’t remember happening before.
Green was serving as executive director when Scott took office in 2011. Several months later, Green said he was directed by donors to Scott’s campaign to force the resignations of five senior staff, including the general counsel and three department heads.
The former board members and directors said the latest changes are being steered by interim DEP secretary Steverson, who also was involved in changes to the districts in 2011. While then serving as special counsel on policy and legislative affairs for DEP, he wrote it was imperative that the districts re-examine their structures and activities.
In December 2014, Scott appointed Steverson as DEP secretary. Since then, Steverson has kept in close contact with district officials.
For example, Steverson hired attorney Craig Varn in February to serve as special counsel for water policy and legal affairs. Varn had a standing weekly conference call with Tanzler on Wednesdays. Records show Steverson and board chairman Miklos met for dinner at Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBQ in Orlando on March 11, and Steverson met with Register on March 19.
Board member Fred Roberts said he wasn’t surprised by the departure of the staff members. Anytime there’s transition in executive directors, he said, “it’s certainly likely going to cause turnover within staff.”
Several district officials said this week that DEP and Register have floated the name of Ann Shortelle — now serving as the Suwannee River Water Management District executive director — as the new executive director. The board is scheduled to discuss how they will replace Tanzler at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Board member Drake said Register mentioned Shortelle’s name to him on May 1. Board member Roberts also said he had heard Shortelle’s name mentioned. He said he has had recent conversations with Steverson, but when asked if the interim DEP secretary had presented him with a possible candidate for executive director, Roberts said he didn’t “feel comfortable with commenting on what the secretary said in that regard.”
Board member Howse, a retired civil engineer, said he spoke with Steverson last week and asked him about the “game plan” for replacing the executive director. “He said, ‘We’re still vetting that,’” Howse said.
Environmental organizations are angry about the changes, especially Christianson’s departure.
St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman called the changes “a further gutting of the water management districts out of Tallahassee, to reduce their authority and institutional knowledge.”
OSFR is grateful to Nathan Crabbe and the Gainesville Sun for permission to re-print this article in its entirety.