US House passes Water Resources Development Act; makes changes to SWFL water management, Lake O

US_Capitol_west_side 3-2-19

July 31, 2020 by David Silverberg

On Wednesday, July 29, the US House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), House Resolution 7575, by a voice vote.

A version of the bill having already been passed by the Senate, the bill now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature into law. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) was a co-sponsor of the original bill.

The massive bill, which authorizes all water-related projects in the United States, has several sections directly related to Southwest Florida. (For earlier coverage of WRDA, see: “We tested SWFL candidates on their knowledge of a vital congressional issue. Here are the results.”)

In summary, the bill makes reforms to address problems raised by harmful algal blooms of the sort that plagued the area in 2018. At the time there were gaps in understanding and coordination among federal and state agencies; this bill addresses those.

It also tries to minimize the water releases from Lake Okeechobee (Lake O) that have been widely blamed for cyanobacteria blooms.

Lastly, it tries to speed work on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

In particular:

  • The bill orders a study of harmful algal blooms, which have plagued Southwest Florida and were particularly severe in 2018. This will be a demonstration program to study their causes, detection, treatment and prevention. Lake Okeechobee will be a particular focus along with the Great Lakes, New Jersey, Louisiana and California.
  • Projects related to CERP have been dragging on for many years. The bill orders their expedited completion, in particular feasibility studies for the C-43 reservoir. If the Secretary of the Interior determines that a project is justified, he can proceed directly to preconstruction planning, engineering and design. In addition to CERP, the bill expedites projects in Arizona, California and another South Florida project, the C-111 canal, in southern Dade County. It also makes changes to earlier WRDAs to authorize a proposed reservoir south of the Everglades Agricultural Area.
  • When it comes to regulating water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the federal government will finally take into account levels of cyanobacteria and “evaluate the implications” of stopping the releases and “seek to minimize unnecessary releases to coastal estuaries”—which in the case of Southwest Florida means the Caloosahatchee River. The Department of Interior will also coordinate the efforts of federal and state agencies responsible for “monitoring, forecasting, and notification of cyanobacteria levels in Lake Okeechobee.”
  • In addition to minimizing potentially algae-blooming water releases, the Secretary of the Interior is now required to issue a monthly public report about the volumes and statistics of Lake O water releases.

Despite its other changes, the bill is careful to ensure that nothing changes from the current situation around the lake—known as the “savings clause.” As the bill puts it: “nothing shall be construed to authorize any new purpose for the management of Lake Okeechobee or authorize the Secretary to affect any existing authorized purpose, including flood protection and management of Lake Okeechobee to provide water supply for all authorized users.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

FGCU wetlands professor blasts Trump water rules, calls for citizen action

09-27-18 Big CypressA view of the Everglades.                             (Photo: Big Cypress National Preserve)

Jan. 24, 2020 by David Silverberg

President Donald Trump’s rollback of protections for streams and wetlands is “the darkest day for Federal protection of wetlands since it first started 45 years ago,” according to Prof. Bill Mitsch, a globally recognized wetlands expert and eminent scholar and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).

“This is a horrible setback for wetland protection in the USA,” he wrote in a statement posted on LinkedIn.

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Prof. Bill Mitsch, 2019

“I have followed this tug of war for all these years between those who appreciate the many ecosystem services that wetlands provide, including cleaning our waters, sequestering and permanently storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and providing the best habitat for hundreds of threatened and endangered species, and the industrial-scale agricultural, energy, and real estate giants” he wrote. “It has always been a David vs. Goliath [battle].”

Mitsch was writing after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday, Jan. 23, finalized a rule that removed protections for many of the nation’s streams, rivers, wetlands and groundwater.

The rule was part of the “Waters of the United States” rule put in place in 2015 under the administration of President Barack Obama that protected a variety of streams, rivers and wetlands from pollution, in particular those that ran intermittently or underground and served as sources for larger bodies of water.

The Trump rule, called the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” eliminates many of the previous protections, meaning that developers and industries no longer have to get permits under the Clean Water Act before dumping waste and pollutants like pesticides and fertilizers into many waterways. However, it continues regulation of larger, navigable bodies of water.

“I terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all: the last administration’s disastrous Waters of the United States rule,” Trump boasted on Sunday at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Austin, Texas. “That was a rule that basically took your property away from you.”

In Southwest Florida, with the Everglades and badly polluted rivers like the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie rivers flowing out of Lake Okeechobee, the rollback of protections could have a significant impact, especially on future algae blooms.

In response to a question from WINK-TV on the impact of the new rules on Southwest Florida, an EPA spokesperson stated:

“The waterbodies mentioned in your question – the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee River, and Estero Bay – are jurisdictional under the previous regulations and will remain jurisdictional under the new rule. Under the new rule, perennial and intermittent tributaries to these waterbodies would be regulated as ‘waters of the United States.’ In addition, those wetlands that are adjacent (as defined in the new rule) to these waterbodies and their perennial and intermittent tributaries would be ‘waters of the United States’ under the new rule.”

“Jurisdictional” waters are those still regulated under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

As the EPA explained in its statement:

“In the Clean Water Act, Congress explicitly directed the EPA and the Army Corps to protect ‘navigable waters.’ The Navigable Waters Protection Rule regulates these waters and the core tributary systems that provide perennial or intermittent flow into them. The Navigable Waters Protection Rule establishes four clear categories of waters are federally regulated:

  • The territorial seas and traditional navigable waters,
  • Perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters,
  • Certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments, and
  • Wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters.”

However, it follows from the Trump rule that if waterways are not navigable or do not flow into a protected body of water or if wetlands are not immediately adjacent to jurisdictional waters, they’re no longer protected and can be subject to unregulated pollution.

Comment from Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), who has made water purity a centerpiece of his congressional tenure, was unavailable as of this writing. Similarly, there was no comment from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) who has made water quality a priority of his administration. Nor was there any comment on the state water website, Protecting Florida Together.

Mitsch, who has spent his entire career studying wetlands and who has proposed a natural cleaning method he calls “wetlaculture” to clean polluted wetlands like the Everglades, put out a call for action in the wake of the Trump regulatory rollback.

“I am calling for those of us who appreciate some of the good things that nature has provided for us, whether you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, to speak out about the rape of our landscape that will surely follow this action. I especially call upon those who are in the business world to help establish environmental bonds, local and state ordinances, and novel approaches to save our remaining wetlands. I also call upon the children and young adults, who are much more knowledgeable about wetlands than their parents and grandparents, to join the ‘silent majority’ who appreciate the role of wetlands to move forward, with or without our Federal government, to save our planet.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Review: Florida’s new water quality website; the good, the bad and the really ugly

11-7-19 Florida website

Nov. 7, 2019 by David Silverberg

On Monday, Nov. 5, amidst much hooplah, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) unveiled a new state website, https://www.protectingfloridatogether.gov/, designed to inform Floridians of the state of their water quality.

The website has taken criticism for having outdated information but this may simply be a function of its newness.

But how well does it work as a website? The Paradise Progressive did a tour and can report the following:

  1. All non-scientific information functions as a DeSantis propaganda machine.

Here are the top four headlines and excerpts from their lead sentences:

WATER QUALITY IS A TOP PRIORITY FOR FLORIDA

That’s why, less than 48 hours after being sworn in, Governor Ron DeSantis issued an Executive Order outlining his bold vision…

STATEWIDE EFFORTS

Governor DeSantis directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)…

BLUE-GREEN ALGAE TASK FORCE

Governor DeSantis took a major step forward…

RED TIDE TASK FORCE

Under Governor Ron DeSantis’ leadership the Red Tide Task Force…

A subsequent “Timeline” section is similar in tone and focus.

October 25th, 2019

GOVERNOR DESANTIS BREAKS GROUND ON EMBANKMENTS AND CANALS TO COMPLETE THE C-43 RESERVOIR

 

October 23rd, 2019

GOVERNOR DESANTIS ANNOUNCES REMOVAL OF TAMIAMI TRAIL ROADBED

 

October 22nd, 2019

GOVERNOR DESANTIS AND FLORIDA CABINET TAKE ACTION TO EXPEDITE CONSTRUCTION OF EAA RESERVOIR PROJECT

 

C’mon, guys, this is heavy-handed even by Stalinist standards.

If this hagiography is the result of some underling’s over-enthusiastic effort to impress his boss, I would expect even DeSantis to be embarrassed. If it’s a result of just throwing old press releases onto the site, it displays laziness. If this is what DeSantis himself wanted, then he’s clumsily trying to build a cult of personality.

More seriously, what it does is call into question the factual information in the rest of the site. If the introductory articles seem overly propagandistic, a user might reasonably expect the same from the rest. It’s a big turn-off.

We then get to the important stuff: Water Quality Status

  1. Not yet ready for prime time

Water quality status reports are provided for three regions: The Caloosahatchee River, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River. A pop-up announcement tells you that it will be expanded statewide next year.

Click on one of the regions and you have the option of seeing a map with health and algae alerts or a water quality overview. Using an unusual two-step process (control + scroll), a user can zoom in and out of the map, which is useful and shows sampling points and results. Clicking on sampling locations brings up data about that particular location.

Because the website currently shows only the three regions, other than the Caloosahatchee River outlet, there is no data for other Southwest Florida beaches or anywhere else on the Gulf coast. As the pop-up states, data for the rest of the state will be coming in the future.

The website’s navigation is somewhat awkward, particularly the zooming in and out on the maps. Exploring the site is a clunky, step-by-step process that each user needs to conduct individually. Anyone accustomed to intuitive Apple-like navigation is going to be disappointed.

The site reports on the status and activities of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, the Red Tide Task Force and a variety of other Florida environmental projects and programs. They’re useful, although at least on my computer their maps were slow-loading.

One of the most important elements of the website is also one of its least prominent—what individuals can do to help reduce pollution and mitigate water quality problems. There are excellent tips but this function of the site is relatively buried and a user has to hunt for it. Rather than paeans to the governor, this might have been more useful to feature up front.

The bottom line

The website is useful and certainly is light years ahead of anything that previous governor Rick Scott ever did on environmental issues. It is definitely a step in the right direction and it will go some way toward enlightening Floridians about water issues and how they’re being tackled.

This could be a scientific, informative and authoritative site.

However, DeSantis and his people clearly decided to make it a propaganda vehicle. Instead of a dignified and discreet picture of DeSantis and his seal at the top, just to remind you that he’s there, they decided to hit the user over the head with a DeSantis sledgehammer.

The site in its current state is not really ready for prime time and it’s surprising that it was rolled out now. Much is lacking; as it notes, statewide data is unavailable and navigation needs to be improved. The site should be redesigned with the user in mind rather than the governor.

The great thing, though, about websites is that they’re flexible and can always be changed and upgraded.

So far DeSantis has shown a real commitment to environmental protection. We will see in the days ahead whether he has an equally real commitment to objective environmental reporting.

I’d suggest revisiting it in six months to see if there’s any improvement.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 David Silverberg

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Water, wetlands and oil: The Rooney Roundup and Mario Monitor, enviro edition

05-10-19 Rooney Roundtable, facing the press 2 croppedRep. Francis Rooney faces the media on May 10 at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida days after his closed-door meeting on harmful algal blooms.                                   (Photo by the author)

524 days (1 year, 5 months and 9 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has faced constituents in an open, public town hall forum.

July 31, 2019 by David Silverberg

In Southwest Florida the three biggest environmental issues are water, wetlands and oil. Address those and you’re basically covering your environmental bases.

Certainly Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), whose district covers the coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island, was active on this front in the past three months as he aggressively positioned himself as a “green” Republican. He has managed to raise his lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters, the best political barometer of environmental sensitivity, from zero percent at the start of 2018 to 10 percent today.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) has never made much of an effort on the environment even though his district covers much of the Everglades. He has an 11 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters and as long as he keeps his Cuban-American constituency happy in Hialeah, which he does with regular fulminations against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, he doesn’t need to make the effort.

But the 19th Congressional District is extremely environmentally sensitive, as Rooney learned to his pain last year.

Water

Water quality is Rooney’s number one issue, according to his website. But while he campaigned on promoting pure water in his first race in 2016, he was caught completely flatfooted last year when both red tide bloomed in the Gulf of Mexico and blue-green algae filled the canals of Cape Coral and the Caloosahatchee River.

For weeks over the summer, as the blooms gathered strength, nothing was heard from Rooney. It was a serious lapse that his Democratic opponent, David Holden, tried to exploit in the general election. (Full disclosure: this author helped.)

Rooney won his race in the 2018 midterm election, but he’d received a wake-up call. In 2019 he began working to make up this deficit.

On Jan. 10, he introduced the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414). This consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act (The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act), which provides the legal framework for disaster response. The bill would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. The bill was cosponsored by eight Republicans and six Democrats, some members signing on as late as June.

However, after being referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s emergency management subcommittee in February, the bill hasn’t made any further progress in the House.

Rooney had some success in 2018 bringing together federal officials to see local conditions and in May 2019 he tried again. This was to be a grand gathering of Southwest Florida officials like mayors and experts from relevant federal agencies to coordinate their responses to “harmful algal blooms,” as they are now known, or HABs. Rooney’s team over-hyped the gathering but then had to suddenly announce that it was closed to the press and public, causing outrage and charges that the meeting violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

According to Rooney, officials of one federal agency refused to attend the meeting if it was public and that agency was widely believed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was a measure of the Trump administration’s descent into secrecy that this once most public of agencies, whose very mission depends on its relationship with the press and public, has now drawn a curtain over its activities.

If it was, indeed, the CDC that insisted on secrecy, it was an instance of the administration screwing Rooney—and royally. To ensure the meeting proceeded with CDC participation, he bore the brunt of the criticism for closing the meeting, which he did not in fact have the authority to do and which, argued the lawyer for WINK-TV, violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.

But adhering to the spirit and letter of the Florida Sunshine Law has become a lower and lower priority in the great state of Florida. Indeed, the meeting was blessed by the presence of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Rooney tried to make up for the public and media outrage with a subsequent meeting on May 10 that served as a public airing of grievances for conservation groups and environmental activists. They were able to vent and it brought him some favorable press but he was the only elected official present and the auditorium at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida was not exactly “the room where it happened,” as it’s put in the musical Hamilton. There were no elected executives or government experts present and no decisions were made. Still, Rooney had thrown a sop to the press and public.

But whatever good the meeting had done now faced a new threat—the possibility of another government shutdown because of conflict over reaching a budget agreement or raising the federal debt ceiling. In the January 2019 government shutdown essential government operations had been affected; in particular, national weather forecasting, so essential to Southwest Florida, was cut back.

This particularly affected the response to HABs; the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a key player in monitoring their development. A NOAA expert was at the May 7 closed-door meeting and NOAA weather predictions are essential to warning of HABs or red tide so that local officials can prepare. If the government shuts down and NOAA stops working, Southwest Florida will, literally, be at the mercy of the tides.

Accordingly, on June 14 Rooney introduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act (HR 3297), which would exempt NOAA forecasting from any government shutdown. The bill has, as of July 9, nine cosponsors, six Democrats and three Republicans. Ironically, one of the first cosponsors was Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.), a progressive member of the “The Squad” and the target of President Donald Trump’s twitter rage.

The legislation is even more ironic in that Rooney voted repeatedly against bills in January to end the government shutdown and then voted again against a two-year budget deal negotiated between President Trump and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), which will bring stability to the budget and debt ceiling processes. In effect, he was saying it was OK to shut down the government and keep it shut down, just not the agency essential to his district’s health and well-being that he cared about.

All that said, the bill was referred to the House Science, Space, and Technology; Natural Resources Committee’s water subcommittee, where it remains.

Wetlands

The Everglades are the wetlands that dominate Southwest Florida’s existence and restoring and preserving them is part of a half-century continuum of environmentalist activism. However, politically, the nuts and bolts of Everglades restoration come to a matter of dollars and cents—in particular federal versus state dollars and cents.

The US federal government is pledged to provide $200 million per year for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) whose centerpiece is the creation of reservoirs that will clean water from Lake Okeechobee before it’s allowed to flow out the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This is intended to equally match state funds for CERP.

Rooney has been an advocate for the Everglades since his 2016 run and has consistently pursued measures to complete or advance their restoration.

This year in his Fiscal Year 2020 budget, President Trump allocated only $63 million for CERP, setting off howls of protest among Florida lawmakers. Florida’s two senators, along with Rooney and Rep. Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.), sent a letter to Trump protesting the underfunding. Diaz-Balart, notably, did not sign on although his district covers more of the Everglades than Rooney’s.

Trump agreed to come to Florida to see and be seen on the site and on April 29 he toured Lake Okeechobee and the Hoover Dike where he was met by DeSantis and virtually the whole Republican Florida delegation including Diaz-Balart and Rooney. The latter buttonholed him and—as Rooney would put it— “carpet-bombed” him about Lake O and CERP.  Trump subsequently reversed course and asked that the full $200 million be included in the budget request.

Rooney worked hard along with other Florida members to get the money approved by Congress and succeeded. It was included as part of a two-year compromise budget deal reached by Trump and Pelosi. Trump tweeted that it should be passed: “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!”

And then, when the budget deal was placed before the House of Representatives for approval, Rooney voted against it (!), denouncing it as irresponsible.

If ever there was a disconnect between the ideal and the practical, between the ideological and the pragmatic, between sight and blindness, between success and failure, this was it.

Fortunately, the House passed the budget deal. As this is written it is before the Senate and if passed there, it is expected—expected—to be signed by the President.

If it becomes law, that budget will include funding for Everglades restoration, which Rooney worked so hard to obtain and then voted against.

Oil

In a break with conservative anti-taxation orthodoxy, on January 24, Rooney signed on as a co-sponsor of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019, (HR 763), introduced by fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.). Of the original six co-sponsors, Rooney was the only Republican.

Today the bill has 58 co-sponsors—and Rooney remains the only Republican.

The original Deutch bill imposes a fee on the carbon content of fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, coal, or any other fossil fuel product that emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Francis Rooney Endorses Large Tax Increase,” raged the website of Americans for Tax Reform, a fiercely anti-tax group led by lobbyist Grover Norquist. “Rooney claims the bill is ‘revenue neutral’ but this is not a truthful assertion. The bill is a tax increase, a very large tax increase.” The group urged readers to call Rooney and push him to take his name off the bill.

Rooney didn’t and on July 25 he both doubled down on it—and tried to make his support more palatable to conservatives.

Rooney introduced the Stemming Warming and Augmenting Pay Act (SWAP Act) (HR 4058) and he signed on as the only other co-sponsor of HR 3966, sponsored by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3-Ill.), who also co-sponsored Rooney’s bill. Both bills would use taxes taken from fossil fuel polluters and use them to reduce Social Security taxes, increase payouts to Social Security beneficiaries and establish a trust fund that would help low-income people offset energy costs.

Rooney’s bill, however, has a big tradeoff: It would prohibit the federal government from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act for 12 years.

It’s a classic business approach to a problem, using money instead of regulation to get a desired result: if you pollute you pay—but you’re also unregulated. As its acronym implies, it’s a swap.

It joins another Rooney bill introduced on June 21, the Eliminating the RFS and Its Destructive Outcomes Act (HR 3427).

And what is RFS? RFS is the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It requires that transportation fuel sold in the United States have at least a component of renewable fuel. It was put in place in 2005 to reduce pollution and fight climate change.

Science versus Trumpism

The irony of Rooney’s situation is that he’s making more progress on environmental issues in a Democratic House than he did in the Republican-dominated 115th Congress.

This also applies to issues of oil exploration and exploitation. He teamed with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) to oppose oil drilling in Gulf coastal waters. This was a far cry from the previous Congress when his efforts to protect the shore were repeatedly blocked by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the House Majority Whip, who defended the oil and gas industry and its interests.

When Rooney introduced a bill to protect coral reefs from the harmful effects of chemicals in sunscreen (HR 1834), he was joined by three Democratic co-sponsors and only a single Republican.

His position on carbon taxation and his increasing number of breaks with the Trump line are getting him fire on the right and it is possible that he will face a primary challenge—for being a RINO (Republican in Name Only) of all things.

It’s now more difficult to simply label Rooney as a blindly loyal Trumpist as he was when he first took office. Then, he shared the stage and defended his master and railed against socialism, gun control and refused to admit the reality of climate change. He readily sought the media spotlight, held wildly contentious town hall meetings and called for a political purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation so that Trump could fill it with willing hacks and sycophants.

While Rooney’s positions on budgets, social issues, labor and immigration still mark him as a hard right-winger, it’s clear that he’s learning that if he’s going to be effective on the environment, Southwest Florida’s primary, existential issue, he has to both compromise and make common cause with the Democrats, liberals and even—gasp!—progressives he once disparaged so readily.

He also seems to have awakened to the contradictions and absurdities of Trumpism, as shown in his increasing number of votes in 2019 against the President’s line. This is a president who is indifferent toward environmental protection—when he isn’t actively hostile to it. If Southwest Florida is going to remain livable, this president has to be resisted.

Yesterday, July 30, Rooney was named a member of the House Science Committee. Science is supposed to be factual, objective and realistic. That’s tough to pursue with a president who is delusional and even deranged and who dismisses any fact he doesn’t like as “fake.”

When Congress reconvenes in September it will be interesting to see if Rooney can navigate between science and Trumpism and where his true commitment lies—and how that will play at election time.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus in August and September.

 

Closed Rooney Roundtable proceeds despite protests from public and press

439 days (1 year, 2 months, 15 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 7, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated with WGCU/Twitter reporting, May 8, 2019

Despite anguished protests from Floridians affected by impure or polluted water and outraged demands for public and press access, federal, state and local officials held a secret, closed meeting today at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute to discuss harmful algal blooms.

The roundtable was attended by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) as well as a variety of officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. State officials from a variety of agencies attended as well as officials at the county and municipal levels.

Although DeSantis and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) held a press conference after the very brief meeting, the public was kept at a sufficient distance from the lectern and speakers so that they couldn’t be heard. No transcript is expected.

A second, public, streamed event on the topic of harmful algal blooms is scheduled to be held Friday, which will be more of a public airing and include local activist organizations.  However, the press and public will likely never know what decisions were reached at the closed roundtable held today.

Some live clips from the meeting courtesy of WGCU via Twitter:

On the impropriety of closing the meeting: https://twitter.com/wgcu/status/1125802351992897537

On the threat to democracy from improper secrecy: https://twitter.com/wgcu/status/1126156718780637184

05-07-19 Panorama of FGCU-ETI, site of Rooney RoundtableA panoramic view of the site where the Rooney Roundtable was held. The orange cones mark the closest distance that the public was allowed to get to the building.    (All photos by the author.)
05-07-19 Protesters at Rooney roundtableA small but vigorous group of people tried to make their concerns about Southwest Florida water quality heard but were ignored by the officials at the Roundtable. A number were protesting the mining activities of the Mosaic Co., which they say is polluting waters in central Florida.
05-07-19 Protester with taped mouth at Rooney roundtableA protester demands clean water and the chance to speak to government officials and lawmakers.
05-07-19 Darlene Lucas and Jan Fennessy, protesters at Rooney RoundtableDarlene Lucas, a retired nurse, and Jan Fennessy drove to Fort Myers from Venice to try to learn about the health effects of algal blooms. Lucas said she had seen severe impacts from impure water in her practice.
05-07-19 Eric Larson, student at FGCU-ETIEric Larson, a student at the Emergent Technologies Institute. Larson had hoped to show Gov. DeSantis the facility and some of his work but wasn’t permitted in the building and was kept outside on the lawn with other members of the public.
05-07-19 DeSantis press conferenceThe closest the public was allowed to get to the outdoor press conference by DeSantis and Rooney.

The secrecy of the Rooney Roundtable was a violation of the spirit and intent of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which holds that decisions affecting the public should be made in public, WINK-TV lawyer Karen Kammer stated in a May 3 letter to Rooney.

Commentary

Rooney and DeSantis’ ability to exclude the press and public from a forum making decisions critical to Floridians’ health and wellbeing sets a dangerous precedent and is a blow to the rule of law in a state with one of the most comprehensive government transparency laws in the nation.

The secret decisions taken at this meeting will now likely trickle down to the county and municipal levels but in what forms and to what ends the press and public may never know.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Activists show up early at Rooney Roundtable

05-07-19 Tim Ritchie and activists at FGCU ETI

Tim Ritchie (left) and fellow activists Samuel Tarpening and Frank Coz, show up early at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute to press their case for clean water after a drive from Punta Gorda. Ritchie is founder and organizer of March Against Mosaic, which seeks to ban phosphate mining in Florida. The trio was on hand for the opening of a “private” roundtable organized by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) to show their concern to officials discussing harmful algal blooms. Rooney closed the meeting to press and public in possible violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law. Nonetheless, public activists will seek to make their voices heard throughout the day.   (Photo: David Silverberg)

“You’re not invited”—How the Rooney Roundtable went from success to mess, an analysis

04-30-19 Emergent Technologies Institute

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute where a closed discussion on harmful algae blooms is scheduled to take place on May 7.  (Photo: FGCU)

436 days (1 year, 2 months, 12 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 4, 2019 by David Silverberg

It takes special effort to transform an impending success to an ongoing mess.

At the end of April, by all conventional measures, the roundtable discussion of harmful algal blooms organized by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) was looking to be a great success.

He had pulled together all the key players, federal, state and local, who could actually do something about Southwest Florida’s water crisis. They were going to meet each other in the flesh and have a substantive discussion and perhaps reach some decisions. He had commitments that they would show up—no small feat! He had arranged a time and a venue in Southwest Florida. He was burnishing his credentials as a green Republican who cared about his local environment and getting kudos for it. He had the local media playing it up, simply accepting his press release.

But when that media started scheduling their actual coverage of the event, they discovered something startling: they weren’t invited. Neither was the public. For all the promotion, all the preliminary publicity they’d given this event, they were excluded.

Not only that but all the participants were public officials on the public payroll and they were going to conduct public business on vital matters. In a state with perhaps the most sweeping sunshine law in the country, Rooney had simply decided to lock the doors and keep the press and public out—and it seemed that his attendees, all public servants and many in publicly elected offices, were in on the game.

Now coverage of what we’ll call the Rooney Roundtable is a matter of intense public interest and an important point of contention—because if Rooney gets away with closing this matter of vital public importance, it means that the Florida Sunshine Law is a sham and doors will start slamming on the press and public in Southwest Florida and throughout the state in the future. When matters of vital public importance are discussed, no longer will the public know what’s being decided or done in their name or to them. The media, their eyes and ears, will be unconstitutionally blinded and muted.

This comes at a time of heightened awareness of government secretiveness at the national level over topics like the Robert Mueller report, the president’s tax returns and Russian election meddling. Rooney’s promise to hold a press conference after his roundtable smacks suspiciously of what will likely be a local replay of Attorney General William Barr’s deceptive summaries of Mueller’s findings. Rooney may summarize what was said at the roundtable but the public, who pays every attendee’s salary, will not know who said what or which agency each speaker represented. Overall, Rooney is appearing to be cut from the same secretive cloth as his hero and mentor, Donald Trump.

From a political perspective, Rooney’s insistence on secrecy has turned his roundtable from a triumph to a debacle. He now seems to be doing something illicit to the public rather than on their behalf. He has turned what was previously a largely supportive, supine and somnolent local media establishment against himself and the bitterness from this is likely to linger. Whether it will still be remembered next November is questionable. But if Rooney faces a primary challenge, which is likely, it will add fuel to his adversary’s fire.

Rookie mistakes

The most revealing thing about Rooney’s thinking was a statement he made that was quoted by NBC-2’s Dave Elias: “to obtain the participants we have, the forum must be private and technically oriented.”

The statement reveals that Rooney has still not made the mental transition from private businessman to public servant, nor does he understand the nature of public business.

In inviting public officials to his roundtable, Rooney assured some potential attendees—probably all—that their comments would be off the record and shielded from public scrutiny.

First, he did not have the power or authority to do that. There are no “private” government meetings. They’re either open or closed, public or classified. In private life and business he could do whatever he wanted. But every listed participant in Rooney’s Roundtable is a public official doing the public’s business on the public payroll dealing with a matter of vital public interest. As a congressman and public servant, Rooney had no authority to move this off the record and out of public sight. If he was going to do it behind closed doors he needed to declare it a classified meeting and meet all the standards and requirements for classification, which would mean that all participants would be sworn to secrecy and revealing the roundtable’s contents would become a federal crime.

Secondly, Rooney has argued that the roundtable does not violate Florida’s Sunshine Law because no two participating officials are from the same agency. It’s a nice bit of Jesuitical hair-splitting but the intent of the Sunshine Law is to open proceedings affecting the public to public scrutiny and this meeting more than meets the standard. Further, if Rooney is wrong, his attendees from Florida jurisdictions could be guilty of a crime and face a fine. If they’re elected officials they will be giving potential opponents ammunition in their next elections.

As for the contents of the roundtable being too technical for the press and public to understand, that’s just plain arrogance. Every Southwest Floridian has been living with the consequences of harmful algal blooms for over a year. There’s excellent, deep and widespread understanding of the issue, the forces surrounding it and the government mechanisms for dealing with it. If Rooney is saying the press and public are too stupid to understand this topic then he’s also saying they’re too stupid to understand any public issue and ultimately, that they’re too stupid to vote. This is an argument that has no merit whatsoever.

Rooney is accustomed to being the head of a major corporation, to holding board and operational meetings where his word is law and his decisions are final. Like another inexperienced businessman thrust into a high-profile public role, he’s unaccustomed to constitutional and legal restraints on his actions and to meeting public requirements. He’s accustomed to being a ruler, not a servant so he finds the role of serving the public uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

With his roundtable, Rooney is trying to have it both ways. He wants publicity and public credit for organizing it but doesn’t want it to be publicly open and he wants a crisp, decisive meeting that reaches firm decisions without the kind of public sunshine required by law.

What is more, he’s not terribly reflective. As he said in his remarks at The Alamo gun range and store in May 2018, “we need a nation of do-ers, not philosophers.” Well, he didn’t philosophize much or think this through and what he’s doing is putting his foot into a quagmire very, very deeply.

The options

So what can Rooney do now? Options include:

  • The right and best option: Declare the meeting open. Tell his attendees that he made a mistake and that press and public will be in attendance and the meeting is on the record. Those who can’t handle it will simply drop out. Then release an official text of the proceedings.
  • Cancel the whole thing permanently.
  • Cancel this session but regroup and try to do the same thing again, only the right way, perhaps under the auspices of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) or the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, with those institutions setting the groundrules and guidelines and handling invitations. Another alternative is to hold a formal field hearing or a hearing in Washington, DC, following the rules of the House of Representatives. And, of course, keeping everything open to the press and public.
  • Plow ahead as planned and just hold the roundtable as a “private” gathering excluding the press and public. But remember—this is like plowing a field sowed with landmines. You never know which one is going to blow up. Rooney may get his roundtable as originally conceived but he jeopardizes the wellbeing of his participants, whether civil service or elected. Moreover, this course may work to Rooney’s own detriment in unforeseeable ways.

The aim of the Rooney Roundtable is commendable but the process of putting it together as currently planned was ignorant and inept from both procedural and political standpoints. Its execution may actually be illegal.

So far as this author knows the roundtable is still scheduled for Tuesday, May 7 at the Emergent Technologies Institute of FGCU, 16301 Innovation Lane, in Fort Myers, Fla., which is just off Alico Road, east of Route 75. It’s a good guess that invitees will start showing up between 8:00 am and 9:00 am. Whether anyone else gets in will be up to Francis Rooney.

The press and public should be there. Let’s see if there’s still sunshine in the Sunshine State.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

 

 

Pressure ramps up on Rooney to open government roundtable to press and public

04-30-19 Emergent Technologies InstituteFlorida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute where a closed discussion on harmful algae blooms is scheduled to take place on May 7.  (Photo: FGCU)

435 days (1 year, 2 months, 11 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

May 3, 2019 by David Silverberg

Pressure ramped up this week on Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) to open a scheduled roundtable on harmful algal blooms to the press and public.

The roundtable discussion on harmful algal blooms (HABs) is scheduled to take place Tuesday, May 7 at the Emergent Technologies Institute of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) at 16301 Innovation Lane, in Fort Myers, Fla. It is closed to the press and public.

On April 30, NBC-2 News reporter Dave Elias filed a report on the meeting, in which he quoted Southwest Floridians complaining about being shut out. “There’s something that government officials don’t want us to hear, that’s what I get out of it,” said Emanuel Dimare, a Fort Myers realtor quoted by Elias.

On Wednesday, May 2, the Naples Daily News called for Rooney to open the discussion in an editorial, “Congressman Rooney should let public in on toxic algae discussion at FGCU,” written by Brent Batten for both that newspaper and the Fort Myers News-Press.

On Thursday, May 3, in an investigative report, “Officials schedule private meeting for SWFL water crisis,” WINK-TV reporter Lauren Sweeney attempted to contact all the announced attendees.

“Federal, state and local legislators are coming together in Southwest Florida to fight the water crisis, but you’re not invited,” Sweeney reported. She reported that WINK is considering legal action to open the meeting. (Sweeney’s report also contains a complete list of scheduled attendees.)

Also on Thursday the Naples Press Club, a non-profit, non-partisan organization of active and retired journalists and communications professionals, passed a resolution calling on Rooney to open the meeting. “…Organizers of this meeting should immediately open it to full, live coverage by the press and attendance by the public throughout its duration,” stated the resolution, adding “that no future meeting of this sort attended by public officials and of vital interest to the press and public should be closed to the press and public.”

Rooney press secretary Christopher Berardi had stated that a press conference would follow the meeting but has not yet announced a time.

Closing the meeting may violate Florida’s Sunshine Law (Florida Statute 286.011(1)), which states that any government meeting where decisions are made must be open to press and public in its entirety.

According to Sweeney of WINK-TV, in a statement Rooney maintained that since no two officials at the conference were from the same agency, the law did not apply. Elias of NBC-2 quoted a Rooney statement that declared “to obtain the participants we have, the forum must be private and technically oriented.”

The roundtable is intended to compare notes on the kinds of HABs that plagued Southwest Florida last summer. Officials will examine best practices and discuss preventive measures.

The attendees represent a cross section of federal, state and local officials.

Announced attendees include key federal officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Key state officials will come from the Florida departments of Environmental Protection, Economic Opportunity and Emergency Management. Local officials will come from Lee and Collier counties, the cities of Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Bonita Springs and the Village of Estero, as well as representatives of the Lee Health system and FGCU.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg