By Paula Dockery
Some of the state’s strongest protectors of our natural resources were recently expelled from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Fifty-eight of the most knowledgeable and long-serving employees were let go in order to fulfill the governor’s promise/threat of less regulation.
While I believe that the executive branch of government has the responsibility of managing state agencies, it’s vital that within their discretion lies the moral imperative to abide by the mission of the department and the laws that govern them.
While administrations come and go, longtime department employees possess the commitment, institutional knowledge and continuity to adhere to that mission. They also should be free to perform their duties without fear of political reprisals and without overt political favoritism.
When political novice Rick Scott became Florida’s governor, he appointed Herschel Vinyard, a shipyard executive, to be secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. Many of us who have been involved with environmental and water resource issues were very concerned about what message that sent and worried about the possible lack of commitment to protection.
Trying to keep an open mind and respect the governor’s right to name his secretaries, I reluctantly voted to confirm Mr. Vinyard after meeting with him and asking numerous questions about his philosophy and intentions. Once confirmed, he validated my fears through his actions relating to water management districts, funding and selling state-owned lands.
Stories leaked out about water management district employees being purged because they were perceived to be too tough on politically influential developers and engineers. Then came the story of a Department of Environmental Protection employee let go for doing what the law required, despite higher-ups wanting her to turn her head on a questionable permitting issue.
Now a major cleaning out of veteran employees puts the state’s environment in further and potentially irreversible peril. Poor planning decisions lead to long-term and costly damage.
This has come about on top of the dissolution — during the governor’s first year in office — of the Department of Community Affairs and the demise of Florida’s Growth Management laws that protected our resources while limiting costly sprawl.
Florida, more than most states, relies on its natural beauty to keep our economy humming. While 18 million residents populate our state, more than 80 million visitors a year flock to our beaches, rivers, lakes and parks, keeping tourism as a cog in our economic engine. Additionally, ecotourism filled the void when visitors couldn’t afford the more costly tourist venues, keeping many Floridians employed.
Florida’s economy depends heavily on its environment, which brings tourists and new residents here and provides the quality of life that businesses indicate is a leading factor in their relocation decisions. According to Tim Center, executive director of Sustainable Florida, “we look forward to policies and practices that serve the long-term needs of Florida that will continue to attract millions of visitors, millions of dollars in investments and help businesses and residents prosper.”
It is sheer folly to think that protecting the environment is somehow responsible for killing jobs or hurting business when, in fact, it does the opposite.
Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, believes the restoration of the Everglades is a key driver of Florida’s economic future. He stated, “Nearly one in three Floridians depend on the Everglades ecosystem for their drinking water. Without that supply of water, Florida’s economic growth will be jeopardized.”
After decades of good environmental stewardship under governors of both parties — Graham, Chiles, Martinez, Bush, Crist — many of our successes are being dismantled in a mere two years.
A plea to the governor and the Department of Environmental Protection secretary: Please put the “protection” back in the Department of Environmental Protection.
This can be achieved by taking the following steps:
— Rehire and keep the most knowledgeable and experienced employees who have dedicated their professional lives to the protection of Florida’s natural resources.
— Reverse shortsighted decisions and impulsive actions that will have long-term and costly consequences.
— Resist the urge to expedite developments of the politically connected at the expense of Floridians’ quality of life.
— Adequately fund water resource development to ensure a safe and plentiful water supply and avoid a return to the water wars of the past.
— Restore polluted water bodies and prevent further water quality degradation; it is much more costly to clean up a polluted water body than to keep it clean and healthy.
Paula Dockery was term-limited as a Republican state senator from Lakeland after 16 years in the Florida Legislature. She can be reached by email here.