The South Florida Water Management District is cracking down on citizens who ask too many questions. The state agency recently threatened legal action against 16 people requesting details on its multi-million-dollar deal with a Martin County mining operation.
And when their intimidation became public, SFWMD didn’t apologize or back down. Instead the agency claimed the targets were harassing the agency, trying to trick it into failing to honor requests and violating the Florida Sunshine Law. (Apparently releasing public records on the mining deal was off the table.)
Of course, thanks to taxpayer funding, a government agency has virtually unlimited legal resources–unlike the people SFWMD threatened with subpoenas. So it worked: The public doesn’t know why the agency abruptly changed direction and cut a deal to settle a lawsuit, which board vice chair Jim Moran claimed it would probably win. But the answers could come to light if the Everglades Law Center wins its case to release the transcript of the deal’s negotiation.
What we do know is that it all starts and ends with water, like everything in Florida.
The mining deal started out as a real estate scheme (another Florida story) to build a development–Lake Point–for polo players on 2,200 acres of sugarcane fields near Lake Okeechobee. The scheme tanked. In its place investors wanted to mine rock on the site and use the empty quarries to collect water and sell it to public utilities. To get buy-in from regulators they agreed that after 20 years, the state could use the pits to treat polluted lake water. But the local government balked over concerns for wetlands and area water quality.
So Lake Point’s investors lawyered up, led by billionaire George Lindemann Jr. (Convicted for contract-murdering a disappointing show horse, Lindemann may have been better suited to head the rock-breaking/water-hustling operation than the polo community.) He and his group sued SFWMD, Martin County, and former county commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, who they said hurt their reputation by questioning the mine’s impact on wetlands.
They won, getting a $4 million judgement against Hurchalla and a $12 million settlement from Martin County, plus a written apology from the county’s self-described “pro-growth” commission, which didn’t share its predecessors’ concerns for wetlands or water quality.
SFWMD settled, too. In a secret meeting last summer, the agency agreed to buy at least a million dollars worth of rock from Lindemann’s group every year for the next 15. And to let Lake Point keep every dime it makes from any business it runs, specifically selling Florida taxpayers’ water back to them. (The state still gets the empty holes eventually, but not for 50 years.)
After that meeting, Moran said SFWMD could have won in court but decided a settlement was in taxpayers’ best interests.
So how was settling better than winning? SFWMD refuses to release what convinced its once-confident attorneys to cave and dole out millions of tax dollars to a billionaire. Instead of merely denying their requests, the agency has aggressively attacked anyone who dares to ask. So what in that discussion could be so incriminating or shocking? What is so toxic that it justifies open, state-sponsored intimidation?
We may find out (although maybe not before the elections). In the meantime, it’s important to remember that Florida state law still allows citizens to request public records from state agencies for any reason. For instance you can easily use this short online form to ask SFWMD for records, such as the transcript of its August 23, 2017 meeting on the Lake Point settlement.
You have a legal right to see how people whose salaries you pay decided to spend $15-20 million of your money. Or how they justify granting a license for a private company to sell you water that you already own. But beware: Any tax dollars that you contribute to SFWMD can and may be used against you in a court of law to bully, threaten, or intimidate you.