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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Arguing the members of the South Florida Water Management District have repeatedly displayed “a huge level of arrogance…and a huge level of entitlement,” Congressman Brian Mast is calling on the nine-member board to step down.

“I think there are a number of places where the members of the south Florida water management district board have proven that they are not taking into account the considerations of the people,” the Treasure Coast Republican told CBS Miami in an interview that aired Sunday.

Mast’s comments followed a South Florida Water Management meeting last month, in which the board voted grant Florida Crystals an eight-year lease extension to grow sugar cane on 16,000 acres of state owned land. That parcel located south of Lake Okeechobee is also slated to be the site for a new reservoir critical to Everglades restoration.

The reservoir has taken on added importance in recent years because of the toxic blue-green algae crisis that has decimated both coasts of Florida. Rather than pumping polluted lake water east and west to the coasts, the water could instead be sent south to the planned reservoir, where it would be cleaned and ultimately dispersed into the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Environmentalists worry that the new, eight year lease with Florida Crystals could delay or hamper the building of the reservoir. The SFWMD says there are provisions in the lease that would allow the state to take back the land when contracts to build the reservoir are signed. Members of the district also argue that the legislature always intended for farming to continue on the land until the reservoir is ready to be built.

Mast and environmental groups complain the lease was negotiated in secret and placed on the district’s agenda at 9 pm the night before the meeting. Mast attended the meeting on behalf of himself and Governor-elect Ron DeSantis to ask the board to postpone a vote on the lease until they had an opportunity to review it. Environmental groups also asked for a delay. But the SFWMD refused and voted unanimously to approve the lease.

Facing South Florida: Interview With Congressman Brian Mast 

 

“Nobody’s questions were answered by that board,” Mast told CBS Miami. “Everybody’s questions were ignored and they said no, we’re going to go out there, we’re going to go vote yes on these even though people haven’t had the opportunity to review them, the governor elect has not had the opportunity to review them, the federal government has not had the opportunity to review them. They basically said they couldn’t give a rat’s caboose what everybody else thinks.”

“I think it shows me a huge level of arrogance on their part and a huge level of entitlement on their part,” he continued. “And I think it shows this is an entity that is not being responsive to the people when their own guidelines show they are supposed to allow the people to review things like leases.”

Asked if he believes the members of the SFWMD are more beholden to agriculture and the sugar industry than they are to the people, Mast responded with one word: “Yes.”

For years the SFWMD has been perceived as protecting the interests of Big Sugar rather than the needs of the community. Mast said the vote to approve the Florida Crystals lease only reaffirms that view.

He said it was time for a change.

“I think it would be appropriate that they [SFWMD] step down,” he said. “This was pushed through in the dark of night, that was not above board. There are other places where I think the water management district is not being beholden to the people, being responsible to the residents of the state of Florida. I think they have been derelict in their duties and I think they should be replaced.”

Both Mast and DeSantis have expressed concern with the power the sugar industry exerts in Florida. While in Congress, both men voted against price support for Big Sugar. During the campaign, DeSantis often lamented that Big Sugar spent millions to oppose him in his bid for Governor.

And since Mast is now the head of the DeSantis’s environmental transition team, it is likely the governor-elect will weigh in soon with his own criticism of the water management district, essentially setting up a proxy war with Big Sugar.

Brandon Tucker, who was appointed to the district in 2017 by Gov. Rick Scott, defended the lease with Florida Crystals.

“I truly believed it was the right decision to make,” he told CBS Miami. “If I would have in any way shape or form thought that anything we were doing was going to be a delay [in building the reservoir], I would have absolutely agreed with him and said no. I did not see any reason why to delay.”

He said it will take at least two years to design and get the necessary permits for the reservoir and they included provisions in the lease to kick Florida Crystals off the land when they need it. In the meantime, he said, the land continues to be used for farming, employing people in the community and earning the state a million dollars a year in lease payments.

Critics, however, note that if the land was needed for temporary water storage or if they want to do remediation on the land before the contracts are finished, they are blocked from doing anything.

“The conversation that needs to occur is between this agency and the public who owns the land,” Shannon Estenoz, COO of the Everglades Foundation, told the district before they voted. “And the focus of that conversation needs to be on how can we maximize the public interest by bringing this land into public ownership and public use as soon as possible.”

Facing South Florida: Interview With SFWMD Board Member Brandon Tucker 

 

Added Lisa Interlandi, the executive director of the Everglades Law Center:  “I think it is a real shame the way this agency is operating. It seems like honestly, it is an attempt to hide the ball. It’s an attempt to hide the fact that these leases are being extended and being voted on without any public information or awareness.”

But Tucker said he wants to see what’s best for the environment.

“I deal with this every day,” he told CBS Miami. “Six days a week my children, 15 and 13, row on the St. Lucie River. My parents have a home on the St. Lucie River. I go to church with people who live in that community. There is almost nowhere I can go and not avoid this issue. I take this issue very, very personally, it effects not only the environment, it effects people’s businesses – every part of my life it affects and it surrounds me.”

Told Mast was calling on him to resign, Tucker responded: “He’s wrong.”

“I’m laser focused on getting that done with all of the distractions,” he said. “I don’t see that as being arrogant. I’m not a politician. I’m not worried that somebody is not going to vote for me. I’m not worried about it, because no matter what I do, somebody is going to get upset. I knew that when I took this position. I don’t get paid to do it. To resign, my life was good before this, it’ll be good after it. But I really believe in what I’m doing here. And I believe I’m doing it for the people and I’m doing it for the right reasons to get our environment right. We have one shot at this.”

And if Governor-elect DeSantis asks for his resignation?

“I would respectfully ask that he let me continue my two and a half years left on this board,” he said. “And I think once he sits down with me and he hears my heart and he hears my sincerity that I want to do what’s right for the people. I want to work with him to see this reservoir built. I want to work with him to get the Herbert Hoover dike finished, I want to work with him to save Lake Okeechobee and get nutrient loading on the north end reduced. I think once he and I sit down, one on one when we meet, I think he would think twice about asking for my resignation.”

Jim DeFede

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