August 25, 2016
Environmentalists cite 'bullying' pattern by water management district
TALLAHASSEE — Some environmentalists say they're taken aback by recent South Florida Water Management District news releases and other messages they say are targeting environmental groups, scientists and other public agencies.
Last week, the district accused Audubon Florida in a news release of seeking to raise taxes to pay for invasive plant control in a federal wildlife refuge. When an Everglades Law Center lawyer this week asked the district for a list of news release recipients, the district sent a memo warning that their email addresses could be sold.
Lisa Interlandi, the lawyer with the Everglades Law Center, said the email list was requested because groups should have a right to respond and that the district's privacy threat memo was retaliatory. She said the memo this week and press release last week were part of a pattern by the district.
"It is a shame that the SFWMD continues to attempt to bully into submission anyone and everyone who expresses a difference of opinion from theirs," Interlandi said in an email to POLITICO Florida.
She pointed to several press releases over the last five months along with a letter in July from district executive director Peter Antonacci to Florida's U. S. senators about the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In response to Interlandi, water management district spokesman Randy Smith said the agency "is responsible for distribution of facts related to the agency’s mission in the interests of encouraging informed public discourse."
The South Florida Water Management District seems more aggressive on the public relations front under Antonacci, who was Scott's former legal adviser before being appointed the district's executive director in 2015.
In March, Antonacci accused a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee with threatening district officials with arrest over water management affecting the endangered snail kite, an accusation that the federal agency denied, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
In July, Antonacci wrote in a letter to U. S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio that the federal agency was standing behind such threats despite the state's efforts to reduce harmful water releases from Lake Okeechobee.
"For our part, we'll continue to protect our citizens and take our chances with a federal judge if and when these tin-eared bureaucrats haul us off to court," Antonacci wrote. The letter led Rubio, a Republican from Miami running for re-election, to call the Fish and Wildlife Service "an example of a federal bureaucracy run amok."
In May, the district accused Caloosahatchee Riverwatch in advance of holding a forum consisting of "one-sided detractors" who were critical of a South Florida reservoir project, called the C-43 Reservoir.
"The district's bullying in a public forum backed by public money did not feel right especially since our concerns with reservoir design and performance stemmed from the district's and ACOE's (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers) own studies and reports," John Cassani, the group's technical committee chairman, said Wednesday of the district's press release in May.
Last week, the district sent the "Get the Facts" news release stating: "Audubon Florida wants to raise your taxes to pay for the federal government's failure to control invasive plants."
The email provided a video link to Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper on Aug. 11 urging the district board to consider spending more to control old world climbing fern at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The district owns the 144,000 acre refuge, which is leased to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2015, district board chairman Daniel O'Keefe wrote to the federal agency saying it was required under the lease to achieve maintenance and sustain maintenance control of old world climbing fern and melaleuca, an invasive tree, by 2017.
"If SFWMD (South Florida Water Management District) cannot receive a firm commitment from the service to adequately fund its exotic control responsibilities, SFWMD will have to evaluate its legal options under the license for non-performance by the service, " O'Keefe wrote.
Draper told the board that the district has more financial resources and that it is "not an appropriate or smart strategy" to be blame the Fish and Wildlife Service at a time when Congress is cutting back its budget to deal with the federal deficit.
"You have the power to do something other than to send a letter to the federal government," Draper said in the video.
But Antonacci responded to the board that the district was under no obligation but had spent $2.3 million last year to control old world climbing fern.
"And still we have not seen our federal colleagues step up with a plan to do something similar," he said.
Draper said Tuesday that the privacy threat memo sent this week in response to the Everglades Law Center request was "extraordinary."
And in response to the email last week saying that Audubon Florida wanted to raise taxes, Draper said, "attacking an advocate for advocating was bizarre." He said he didn't advocate raising taxes, rather he said the district didn't have to reduce property taxes to the "roll-back" rate that produces the same revenue as the previous year.
In July, Draper said that Antonacci had "over-lawyered" in response to the alleged threat of arrest from the Fish and Wildlife Service employee.
And asked Tuesday whether there is a growing feud between environmentalists and the district, Draper only pointed out that Antonacci is a former state attorney from Palm Beach County who "has a different style of communicating."
"He wants the record to reflect a certain point of view," Draper said, while adding that his group always has worked closely with the district on issues. "They have become really good about getting their point of view out there. They are not always correct. I think they bend the facts in their direction as much as anyone else does."
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