By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Commissioner Ron Bergeron had a rewarding experience at this month’s Zoom meeting of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. His colleagues voted unanimously to award his company another $9 million to complete construction of a storm water treatment project in Martin County.
Bergeron, himself, abstained from the discussion and vote.
The total amount the water management district has now agreed to pay Bergeron Land Development to complete the project: $48 million.
Still, there’s no telling how high that number could eventually go. That’s because Bergeron’s work is being done under an unusual arrangement known as a “time and materials” contract. There is no fixed, not-to-exceed amount.
The awkward scene of the district’s governing board voting to pay millions of dollars to a company owned and run by one of its members happened five hours into its tedious June 11 meeting. Except for Bergeron’s abstention hours earlier, there was no acknowledgement by the board that one of its own had a possible conflict-of-interest item on the agenda or any discussion of how the matter might be perceived by the public.
“The governing board and district staff need to be very conscious of avoiding perceived conflicts of interest and this $9 million in additional compensation in this contract is a prime example of where they need to talk more about it so that the public is fully aware of what the thinking is,” Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, said in an interview with Florida Bulldog.
In December, with Bergeron also abstaining, the nine-member board approved adding $14 million to the initial $25 million contract “due to the extensive nature of anticipated repairs.” The $9 million extra kicked in this month was “based on the discovery of additional repairs and earthwork required to address the prior contractor’s work.”
The escalating cost of the project was the result of what one staff member called “the sheer number of unknowns” Bergeron faced when assuming a massive, partially complete construction job that required major repairs. Staff decided that a “time and materials” contract, not a contract with a lump sum price, was the only workable way to proceed.
Gov. Ron DeSantis set the stage for what happened not long after he took office with his Jan. 29, 2019 announcement that he intended to appoint Ron Bergeron to the water district’s governing board. Eight days later, and before he joined the board, Bergeron Land inked a $25 million, no-bid construction contract with the district to complete the C-44 Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area project. The project is part of a much larger effort, including construction of a large reservoir, to remove excess water discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the C-44 Canal that would otherwise flow into the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon.
Bergeron stepped into the shoes of original prime contractor Fort Pierce-based Blue Goose Construction. Bergeron was second lowest bidder for the $100-million job in 2014, and on that basis was awarded the work that remained after Blue Goose was fired in November 2018.
While his appointment was pending, Bergeron asked the Florida ethics commission for an opinion on whether the $25-million contract he’d entered into before his appointment created a prohibited conflict of interest. The commission said no on April 12, 2019, and DeSantis appointed Bergeron to a three-year term on the district’s governing board the same day.
“He has devoted his life to the protection the restoration of our Everglades and water resources. I look forward to his leadership and the contributions he will bring to the district,” DeSantis said in a press release.
Bergeron had already brought substantial contributions to DeSantis’s campaign for governor and his political party.
On Sept. 12, 2018, the same day DeSantis took a highly publicized Everglades airboat ride with Bergeron, three companies that list Bergeron as their chief executive contributed $10,000 apiece to Friends of Ron DeSantis. A month later, another of Bergeron’s companies contributed another $10,000 for a total of $40,000.
On Nov. 2, 2018, four days before the election, Bergeron himself contributed $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.
An Everglades advocate
Many people who know Bergeron, including Samples, believe he is a committed Everglades advocate. Still, his large contributions did not hurt his chances of obtaining a gubernatorial appointment to the board at a time when his company was poised to contract with the district.
Bergeron also asked the ethics commission if he’d have a legally prohibited conflict of interest if his companies entered into contracts with the district after his appointment. Yes, the commission replied.
But as a South Florida Water Management District staffer said this month in response to a set-up question by Chair Chauncey Goss, “This is not a new contract and there are zero changes made to this contract.”
No changes in the scope of work, of course. But “zero changes?” The dollar amount of the contract changed from $25 million to $39 million in December and was now jumping $9 million more – nearly doubling the contract’s original cost.
The governing board was apparently reassured by staff’s statements that they’re keeping a close eye on Bergeron’s project. They were informed that special Heavy Construction Systems Specialists Software is being used “to provide highly detailed daily cost tracking to ensure accurate accounting and appropriate expenditures.”
Staff also assured them that should costs go up again they “will be reported to the Governing Board at or before its next scheduled meeting should the need arise.”
The day of the vote, a Miami lawyer, Rick Yabor, filed an ethics complaint against Bergeron, arguing the Davie businessman violated a state law that generally prohibits public officers from doing business with their own agency.