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South Florida water district to re-think policies that skirt state law on influence-peddling

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

SFWMD Executive Director Melissa L. Meeker

South Florida Water Management District will reconsider its policies on influence-peddling after news reports about how it does not follow state laws on insider dealing and requiring lobbyists to register.

Two Broward Bulldog reports this year pointed to how loopholes in the law allowed lobbyists at the district to avoid any public disclosure and let a former district board chairman sidestep state conflict-of-interest rules.

“The general counsel will be asked to review the agency’s current policies and procedures related to lobbying and post-employment restrictions and to make recommendations for revisions, if necessary,” said Melissa L. Meeker, the district’s new executive director.

The district, which levies property taxes in Broward and 15 other South Florida counties, spends tens of millions of dollars in public funds every year and is charged with protecting drainage and drinking water.

The district’s nine-member governing board hired Meeker in May after the abrupt departure of former district boss Carole Wehle following a wave of embarrassing news articles about waste and alleged favoritism.

Any policy changes would be decided by the board.

As Broward Bulldog reported in April, lobbyists at the district skirt state disclosure laws that require lobbyists before state agencies to register and disclose who they are working for and how much they are being paid. None of Florida’s five regional water management districts require lobbyists to register.

Broward Bulldog also reported in June how a loophole quietly inserted into Water District’s rules more than a decade ago has undermined another state law that bars appointed state officers and others from returning to lobby their former agency for two years after leaving office.

Meeker’s statement in an email to Broward Bulldog was in response to recent questions about her thoughts on the district’s lobbying practices and whether she would seek change.

Meeker did not say whether she favors or opposes registration. She did, however, reiterate the district’s previous position that, as an independent taxing authority, it does not have the statutory authority to require lobbyists to register.

In a July 29 email, Meeker also sought to justify the district’s no-registration stance stating, “Other state agencies such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation also do not require lobbyists to register.”

State law, however, says that all lobbyists seeking to influence “any department, division, bureau, board, commission or authority of the executive branch” must register and make disclosure before they can begin lobbying.

New district General Counsel Carolyn S. Ansay, who started Aug. 1, will conduct the review of the district’s lobbying policies. No timetable was set for completion.

Ansay, who joined the district after 14 years as a private practice lawyer specializing in water, environmental, land use and local government law, succeeds longtime counsel Sheryl Wood.

Wood took a buyout on July 1 and now works as the $180,000-a-year general counsel to the Palm Beach School Board.

Besides the registration issue, Ansay will review the district’s restrictions on post-employment lobbying.

Florida law prevents appointed state officers like members of the district’s governing board from returning to lobby for two years after their departure. The idea is to prevent them from cashing in at the public’s expense on their inside knowledge and personal influence with ex-colleagues.

But 15 years ago, the district watered down the state’s flat two-year prohibition by adding language to its rules. The extra language narrowed the application of the ban to persons who represent clients in matters in which they “participated personally and substantially” while in office.

Former Water District board chairman Nicolas Gutierrez, a three-time appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, told Broward Bulldog he relied on that language when he returned seven times to the district to lobby its purchasing director and others within two years of his departure from the board in April 2008.

“Obviously this benefited me,” Gutierrez said. “But this is the way things have evolved.”

Critics, including Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis and Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, have said the district’s lobbying rules are troubling and need to be changed.

“The district’s rules make it too easy for influence-peddling by former board members,” Jarvis said.

Draper called on the Legislature to “set statewide [lobbying] rules for all taxing districts.”

 

 

 

 

 

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