Controversial Environmental Protection Chief Reappointed in Florida

by | August 7, 2015

By Steve Bousquet

Florida's chief land and water regulator won reappointment Wednesday from Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, despite mounting public opposition to his plan for private money-making ventures at state parks.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson received a unanimous vote of support as did the state's top cop, Commissioner Rick Swearingen of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Scott named both men to their $150,000-a-year jobs last December, and both appointments require Cabinet approval and Senate confirmation. They are the first agency heads required to undergo detailed public job reviews in the fallout from Scott's abrupt dismissal of former FDLE chief Gerald Bailey.

Swearingen, a 31-year FDLE veteran, won praise from all three Cabinet members for his communication skills, and said his top priority is giving large pay raises to "grossly underpaid" crime lab analysts to reduce the steep turnover in that unit.

But Steverson's reappointment was a very different story, as Cabinet members chided him for not doing a better job of explaining to Floridians his controversial plan to use private contractors to manage parks and to possibly allow grazing, hunting and timber harvesting in parks, which have been honored three times as the best state park system in America.

The controversial changes to parks were first reported by the Tampa Bay Times in April in response to a public records request.

Steverson said he's committed to protecting parks, but he wants to maximize their ability to make money and seemed taken aback by public opposition.

"It seems like everybody is ready to kill it in the cradle," Steverson said. "I am in no way trying to harm the parks."

Jean Huffman of Parks in Peril, a grass-roots advocacy group, said 6,000 people have signed an online petition opposing private park uses, which she called "radical changes" and a threat to precious public resources.

Huffman urged Scott and the Cabinet to delay voting on Steverson until September, as Scott proposed in June, to give people more time to comment on proposed changes to parks. But the four officials moved ahead.

Scott said Steverson must improve communication with Floridians.

"What the secretary ought to be doing is sitting down with all the people that use the state parks and make sure we're doing the right thing," Scott told reporters.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam called the park proposal a distraction and suggested Steverson "delete" it from his priority list.

Chief Financial Atwater Jeff Atwater told Steverson to be more inclusive with the public: "It's time to include some other people in the conversation," he said. "I think that would be healthy."

Steverson, a lawyer and former executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, said afterward that he'll retool the park proposal, but he won't abandon it.

"My family's been in this state since the 1800s," Steverson said. "I'm committed to this state. I want to be part of that solution, but I think we need to have that conversation."

(c)2015 Miami Herald