Tampa Bay Times

August 25, 2016


Florida water managers send message: Don't make us mad

By Mary Ellen Klas, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau


TALLAHASSEE If you want to keep a low profile, don't disagree with the South Florida Water Management District, or ask for its email list.

That's what Lisa Interlandi, a lawyer with the nonprofit Everglades Law Center, and other environmental advocates have learned in the last few months as they have become the target of email blasts by the state agency.

The latest email was issued Monday to the more than 5,000 addresses on the district's email list. With a subject head labeled "Your privacy," the agency gave out Interlandi's email address and then announced she had done what anyone in Florida is entitled to do: submit a records request seeking SFWMD's email distribution list.

"As you may know, such email lists and addresses are commercial commodities that are often bought and sold," the agency wrote. It cited no examples. "The law prohibits SFWMD from asking about the intended use for the information. Any concern you may have about a potential invasion of privacy is understandable."

Interlandi said the suggestion that she wanted to sell the list was "absurd."

"It's a public record. It has no value. Anyone who asks for it can get it for free," she said. Instead, she said she wanted the list after watching the water management district increasingly use hostile news releases to target critics of the agency and she thought having the list could be helpful if anyone wanted to "counter the attacks."

Randy Smith, spokesman for the SFWMD, said the agency never before had "received a mass public records demand for an email address list" and called the request "completely out of the ordinary."

"Persons having entrusted their email addresses to the state have every right to know that their information has been obtained by a third party without their consent," he said.

Most other state agencies include a standard disclosure on the bottom of agency emails reminding people that Florida has a broad public records law and most written communication to or from state officials regarding state business including all emails is considered a public record.

The SFWMD, which is funded by state and local tax dollars and is considered a state agency, does not include such a disclosure when it sends email. Smith did not answer why.

When asked for an example of how the district's email list was used as a commercial commodity that was bought and sold, Smith provided links to commercial email list companies but offered no examples.

Interlandi, who has only once before requested public records from the agency, said that the tactic may have been "a retaliatory attempt to chill and bully their detractors" and an attempt to provoke a flurry of angry emails to her inbox. If true, she said, it didn't work.

"I received four emails from people who were curious why they wanted my email address. One was a reporter," she said. "It seems very counter to the idea of a government that is responsive to its citizens. Instead, this seems more like a political campaign with an attempt to smear people and discredit those who disagree with their approach."

Since Gov. Rick Scott and the water management district board installed former Scott general counsel and Palm Beach County state attorney Pete Antonacci as head of the district last fall, the agency has gotten more aggressive in its dealing with advocacy groups that traditionally had a good working relationship with the district.

In March the Tampa Bay Times reported that Antonacci angered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials when he accused them of threatening the arrest of district officials over the SFWMD's handling of the endangered snail kite, an allegation federal officials denied.

When the Caloosahatchee River Watch in Fort Myers held a public forum May 11 to "discuss the reservoir and what additional features or projects can improve its contributions to solving regional water problems," the SFWMD sent an email concluding that the discussion "will consist solely of one-sided detractors in pursuit of an agenda without facts to support it." And it also called out former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, a Republican, for criticizing the district's scientific modeling.

After scientists and Miami-Dade and Monroe county officials suggested in a Miami Herald report in July that a district proposal was a "short-term fix," the district sent out an email blast suggesting the critics and scientists were "career pessimists."

And last month, the agency used a press release to criticize Audubon of Florida for disagreeing with the district's decision to rollback property taxes instead of paying for invasive species control in the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge.

The district has criticized the media, too. In April, it said the Fort Myers News-Press report on skepticism over a district proposal for the C-43 Reservoir was "an astonishing evasion of the facts."

Antonacci, the fourth executive director appointed by the governor in four years, said in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last year that "the district is not effective at getting its message out about what this organization does and how critical this organization is to South Florida." 

Smith would not respond to questions about whether the district's hard-line tactics were an attempt to address that issue.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.