I’ve been searching around in Jeb Bush’s recently released emails. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff about the Florida Keys sewer projects. During Bush’s term as governor, the Keys were in turmoil over who would control the sewer projects.
In 2005, then Rep. Ken Sorensen introduced a bill calling for an elected board for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA). The bill made it through the House and the Senate before being vetoed by Gov. Bush.
I moved to the Keys in 2004, and began working for the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District) in 2005. The District had been formed a few years before by joint action of the FKAA and the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). It’s hard to believe sometimes given the county’s more recent actions, but it’s true. Here are the documents to prove it. Years later, the county would use the formation of the District as an excuse to short-change Key Largo taxpayers on wastewater funding. That’s pretty messed up, isn’t it?
The conflict over the sewer projects really seemed to heat up in 2004-2005. Around this time, the so-called “Gang of Three” was starting to realize that FKAA projects were awfully pricey. And had the audacity to say so. Even worse, they had the audacity to try to do something about it. The “Gang of Three” lost the battle. The FKAA retained control of the Lower Keys sewer projects and retained an elected rather than an appointed board.
While the “Gang of Three” may have lost the battle, the taxpayers lost the war. Cudjoe Regional is $49 million over budget, and has spawned numerous lawsuits filed by justifiably unhappy customers. Big Coppitt, at $21,000 per EDU, is extremely expensive and has had on-going operational problems. There was also some mysterious activity during the bid process. Richard Toppino serves as an officer in two family businesses that have done at least $19 million dollars worth of work on the Cudjoe Regional and Big Coppitt projects combined, a fact that the FKAA has tried to downplay. Toppino was recently appointed by Governor Scott to serve on the FKAA board.
Sadly, the public never saw any of this coming. In fact, they unwittingly played a role in creating the current situation which is so detrimental to their own best interests. Nobody can see the future. But I would argue that the winning “Gang of Three” – George Neugent/David Rice/FKAA – kicked up enough rhetorical dust to blind people to the emerging truth. I believe that the losing “Gang of Three” – Dixie Spehar/Sonny McCoy/Murray Nelson (later Mario Di Gennaro) – were unfairly demonized when it came to the sewer projects. Subsequent events have proven that their concerns were valid. Unfortunately, too much of the public bought into the character assassination and didn’t look any further. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
I found this 2005 editorial from the KeyNoter about Rep. Sorensen’s bill while I was trolling around in Jeb Bush’s emails. The editorial argues against an elected board. At the time this editorial was written, there were a lot of rhetorical bullets flying around. And few if any were looking into the factual aspect of things. This editorial is no exception.
History has a way of repeating itself.
If so, let’s not make the mistake of repeating the mess we had with water service handled by an elected board full of “good ol boys.”
There’s no question in my mind that the many problems with the current FKAA board are due to the “good ol boy” network. The appointed board certainly does nothing to improve the situation.
Here’s a bit of history conveniently left out of the editorial: The local elected board was replaced with members of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). That is, the appointees were people who had the expertise to deal with the dire issues facing the FKAA at the time. From http://www.keyshistory.org:
The governor’s resolution was to replace the elected FKAA directors with selected members of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). After the 36-inch pipeline was installed, the SFWMD members were gradually phased out and governor appointed the directors from Monroe County. The elected directors never returned to the board.
There’s nothing inherently superior about an appointed board. There’s nothing that makes them any less bubba-ish than an elected board. It’s just that with an appointed board, there is zero accountability to citizens in the local area. Citizens have no voice in the selection of the board members.
Chances are the governor has little knowledge of any of the applicants. The process is far from foolproof. The FKAA hid the extent of its business relationship with Richard Toppino from the public. Do you suppose anyone revealed it to the governor during the selection process? Was the question ever even asked?
From the editorial:
A 1980 state investigation concluded it was “questionable … as to whether FKAA management knew what was going on in regard to operating a pipeline.”
Does the current appointed board know what is going on in regard to Big Coppitt? There’s no evidence to indicate that they have ever been informed of any of the issues. It’s never been included on the agenda, no board member has ever spoken publicly about it.
Now for some political reasons that don’t hold up to the light of day, there’s a move afoot to return the board to an elected body. Imagine, if you will, a repeat of the Mosquito Control Board, but this time in charge of drinking water, and soon the flushing of your toilet.
Here the editorial waves away the “Gang of Three’s” clearly stated concerns over the cost of Little Venice versus the cost of Stock Island. That is a glaring oversight, and it is the biggest problem with this editorial. The cost of FKAA sewer projects have only escalated since that time. What might have happened instead if people paid more attention to that issue back then? Would the Cudjoe Regional project have gone so far out-of-whack?
An elected board is no panacea. It won’t magically make the bubba system go away or curb over-spending. There’s nothing that can do that. But an elected board that is accountable to an informed and inquisitive public can make a big difference. Think about the difference in performance between the District and the FKAA. Or the difference in performance between Marathon and the FKAA.
Seven years after this editorial was written, the public overwhelmingly supported an elected board**. Lesson learned?
**The second time around the public was shot down by Sen. John Thrasher’s rules committee.