Water management board loses two members, one remains
Only a single member remains on the board overseeing water management in Collier County after two members’ terms expired in late August.
The Big Cypress Basin, a subset of the South Florida Water Management District, manages about 144 miles of canals in Collier and part of Monroe County, providing flood control and water quality projects for the area.
The basin typically has a six-member board made up of unpaid citizen volunteers who reside in Collier County. Board members set the basin's regional policy, budget and millage rates.
Lisa Koehler, the basin's administrator, said in the past the basin had balanced boards, meaning members come from finance, engineering and environmental fields.
Chairwoman and remaining member of the basin’s board, Charlette Roman, said the departures will not affect progress.
“Staff is going to get the job done no matter what,” she said. “We have some of the best professionals I’ve ever seen in my career. They are dedicated to their job, and the work won’t stop.”
Former board members Marielle Nageon de Lestang and Dan Waters reached the end of their tenure Aug. 27 during the board’s most recent meeting. De Lestang and Waters both stayed on an extra 180 days beyond their official terms, a rule granted by the state Legislature. Board members typically serve three years.
“(The basin) is in dire shape right now and definitely needs some board members,” de Lestang said. “Ultimately, and especially during storm season, it seems like we ought to have some members.”
De Lestang started with the basin in 2013. Appointed by then-governor Rick Scott, she said her proudest moments were working on cost-sharing projects with different municipalities to improve water quality.
"I hope (the basin) continues with some of these local projects that really help flooding issues and water quality issues," she said. "We were constantly working with Collier and the City of Naples to come up with better solutions for both of those. I'd love to see them continue down that road."
Scott also appointed Waters, who began with the board in 2017.
Waters had worked for the water management district for a handful of years and then worked with a private consulting firm before joining the basin board. He said long-term planning and water quality projects drew him to the basin, but the work following Hurricane Irma was the highlight of his time on the board.
“We got slugged from Irma and held our own,” he said. “It’s a testament to the work a lot of the staff did. We got through Hurricane Irma and that entire rainy season, and folks at district really answered the call on that.”
While the amount of vacancies is unusual, Waters said that during a global pandemic he can understand why these appointments haven’t been made yet.
“Because there is so much else going on, I cannot even imagine running the state right now,” he said. “It’s hard enough in normal times, but virtually impossible now. So, I do get it.”
Koehler said in her six years on the job, this is the first time she’s seen such a slim board. Without more members, the board won’t have the minimum number of people required to hold a vote, which is three.
“If we still do not have more members at the next meeting, there will be no other members to vote with Ms. Roman,” Koehler said. “We would only take items to her for something like a workshop; they would be non-voting items.”
Luckily, she said, the board was able to vote on its 2020-21 budget and millage rates, but a preliminary 2022 budget is scheduled for approval in December.
“I’m really hoping the governor makes appointments before then,” she said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed chairwoman Roman but has yet to appoint other board members.
“Governor DeSantis is committed to selecting the most qualified individuals to serve on our state’s important boards and will continue to review applications until he is comfortable making these significant appointments,” press secretary Cody McCloud wrote in an email to the Naples Daily News.
Even as the sole board member on the basin, Roman remains optimistic.
“We’re still planning our October meeting,” she said. “You never know when appointments will be made, so we’re just moving ahead and planning for that meeting.”
The vacancies drew the attention of Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor. She said she wanted to respectfully let the governor know that the basin board is important to the county but understands the “enormous shift” in duties while he handles the state’s coronavirus response.
“Right now, (appointing new members) needs to be a priority,” Taylor said. “I think when you have a water management governing body, they are so critical to managing water and making decisions not just for today, but for tomorrow. It’s critical they can do business.”
The Big Cypress Basin is not the only water management board with vacancies. Each of the five greater districts in the state have vacant seats on the respective boards, for a total of 30 vacancies, which includes five with the Big Cypress Basin.
Spokespeople with each district confirmed the following vacancies: Six vacant seats at the St. Johns River Water Management District, five at the Suwannee River district, six at the Northwest district, six at the Southwest district and two at the South Florida district.
“We’re able to move full steam ahead and nothing is slowing us down, but we’re looking forward to having those filled,” said district spokesman Sean Cooley.
Once the governor appoints new people to the Big Cypress Basin Board, they will go through a state Senate confirmation during the next legislative session. New board members can still join meetings and vote prior to senate confirmation.
Koehler remembers an appointment was once made two days before a board meeting. She was at a soccer game one evening and saw the governor’s press release announcing the appointment.
“I should call that person,” she remembers thinking. “We have a board meeting in two days and I have to get busy getting them oriented.”
The basin board member terms are usually staggered, so even if all five appointments came down from the governor’s office tomorrow, they would not necessarily remain for three years, Koehler said.
For now, Roman and the basin staff will move forward with the capital projects already in motion.
“We have a very important effort underway right now that has to do with looking at the Collier County Sub-Regional Water Quality Feasibility Study,” she said. “It’s a very important effort to take a look at what might be possible south of Picayune Strand restoration project in terms of adding water quality components to that area.”
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @karlstartswithk, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org