In March, Governor Scott appointed Fort Myers Land planner Mitch Hutchcraft to the district's governing board. Hutchcraft is Vice President of real estate for King Ranch/Consolidated Citrus LP.
Consolidated Citrus has deep connections to GOP politics in Florida and in Texas. A decade ago, the Palm Beach Post published, "NO-Bid Pact for Reservoir has ties to Bush Family" (Dec. 6, 2003 by Robert P. King). Gov. Rick Scott came to Florida politics as an outsider, reviled by GOP party insiders. He quickly aligned with Tea Party outsiders to gain a measure of populist support. Through his actions as first, severely cutting science budgets at the water management district, and hand-picking governing board members who will toe his line, Gov. Scott appears to have figured out in respect to bringing a pro-business bias to regulatory policies, he is not a sole agent but rather a member of a relay team; this is his turn running with the baton. Read on, how it worked according to the Palm Beach Post, a decade ago, with King Ranch/ Consolidated Citrus:
"Water managers are set to OK a $1.5 million no-bid contract that could lead to an unprecedented alliance with an NFL team owner and Florida's largest citrus grower to build a reservoir aimed at helping the St. Lucie River.
The result could be a 10- to 20-year partnership involving the South Florida Water Management District and Martin County landowners including Consolidated Citrus Limited Partnership, a company controlled by Texas businessmen who are strong supporters of President Bush.
The initial $1.5 million contract would kick off a year of study on whether private interests could build, own and operate a reservoir and filter marshes cheaper than the district. If so, water managers would consider a long-term deal in January 2005, district Executive Director Henry Dean said Friday.
The district's board is set to vote Thursday on the $1.5 million deal with a group headed by energy mogul and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair. Dean said he understands that McNair owns a major interest in Consolidated's property, although he didn't know details.
The group's job would include the early plans for the reservoir, as well as studies of whether the land is suitable for water storage.
That contract has to be no-bid because "they own the land," Dean said.
"I don't have any opinion on who owns the land as long as we can do the best deal for the taxpayer," he added. "We have to demonstrate that it's the least-cost alternative and will start the project sooner. I'm not going to be recommending it (in 2005) unless that's the case."
Consolidated CEO Robert Underbrink could not be reached. Attempts to reach a McNair representative visiting West Palm Beach were unsuccessful.
The deal would be the first in a series of "public-private partnerships" that the district says would ease cash and schedule crunches in the $8.4 billion Everglades restoration, including the effort to rescue the St. Lucie from deluges pouring out of Lake Okeechobee.
The district's board endorsed the concept of such partnerships just three weeks ago. All nine board members are appointees of Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.
District managers working on the deal failed to return calls Friday seeking more details, including the exact location of the land. But they gave a detailed briefing to Audubon of Florida and other environmental groups, which have been pressing the district to move faster in building reservoirs.
"I think this is a good test case," said April Gromnicki, Audubon's Everglades policy director, although she couldn't predict whether Audubon will support a longer-term deal a year from now.
"We'd have to see how those agreements were crafted," she said.
The district and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have estimated it would cost them $178 million to $212 million - and take until the end of 2010 - to create 8,700 to 11,000 acres of reservoirs and filter marshes near the St. Lucie Canal. That's assuming the agencies follow their usual methods, in which they buy the land, hire the contractors and operate the resulting reservoir and marshes.
Dean would not estimate how much cheaper a private company could do the project, saying that's something he wants to negotiate. But he said that after 10 to 20 years of running the reservoir, the landowner would eventually hand it over to the district.
$28,000 in contributions
The Treasure Coast portion of the Everglades plan has been snagged for the past year, partly by difficulty getting approval from the corps' bureaucracy in Washington. Meanwhile, some landowners in the project's path have resisted selling to the district.
But Consolidated Citrus Limited Partnership has sought a role in the project since July 2002, according to records of meetings between district and corps staff.
Consolidated runs the Florida operations of King Ranch, a legendary Texas agricultural giant, and is by far the state's biggest citrus grower, according to the Florida Citrus Mutual growers association. It also owns Tesoro Groves Limited Partnership, which has 14,797 acres in Martin County.
King Ranch's board includes former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, a confidant of the Bush family who led Republican efforts during the 2000 presidential recount. President Bush announced Friday that Baker will lead the restructuring of Iraq's foreign debt.
King board members and others in the company have donated at least $28,000 toward George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, as well as $300,000 toward his inaugural fund, according to federal records and the Center for Responsive Politics.
At one corps and district staff meeting in January, Consolidated consultant Paul Whalen told the agencies that "the owner of King Ranch is not a typical farmer, as he operates an international agribusiness and has a great understanding of business," according to a paraphrase in the official minutes.
Whalen would not discuss the deal Friday. Dean said the district is being cautious. "We are a long way from actually making any serious commitments," he said.
Staff researchers Madeline Miller and Lelia Boyd Arnheim contributed to this story.