Water district shake may present conflicts

With the St. Johns River Water Management District set to replace its ousted executive director this week, efforts by its board members to mold the powerful environmental agency into a smaller operation on friendlier terms with developers and utilities have created at least the appearance that a board member’s company could gain an unfair advantage when dealing with the district, according to an Orlando Sentinel report.

The district’s seven board members include three consultants whose companies have sought, or have assisted others in seeking, permits from the district, whose job it is to regulate and protect drinking water, wetlands and waterways in Central and North Florida.

Two of those three board members have already recused themselves from votes on permits involving their companies, and all three have said they will be diligent in opting out of future decisions whenever they might stand to gain financially.

But the three board members — Charles Drake, Maryam Ghyabi and John Miklos — have taken active and visible roles in the agency’s downsizing this summer, which included slashing 130 jobs, or 20 percent of the work force.

Though driven by a sharp reduction in the district’s budget this year, the process also had the goal of changing the district’s culture from one that some board members characterized as rigid and tightly controlled by senior managers to one in which individual staffers will work more independently and cooperatively with developers and water utilities when reviewing permits.

In such a climate, the remaining staff members fear being next in line for dismissal should they do something a board member perceives as detrimental to a business’ proposed project or overly protective of the environment, according to several employees who spoke privately with the Sentinel.

“There certainly is an appearance of potential impropriety,” said board member Richard Hamann, a law professor at the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida. “It puts a lot of pressure on employees when district board members are involved with permit applications.”

“I’m concerned about how we deal with this in a way that’s ethical and responsible,” Hamann said.

The agency, which had grown in size and power since its inception in 1972, was turned upside down earlier this year when the Legislature slashed its main source of income, local property taxes, by 25 percent. The state’s four other water-management districts were similarly affected.

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