Thursday, March 09, 2017

Do I follow the law or do I follow the boss? ... by gimleteye

How did we arrive at this desperate state? It is easy enough to see, through the political  life of Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott has systematically eroded environmental rules and regulations in Florida, something no one wants except developers and polluters like Big Sugar. It's all under the catch-phrase of "creating jobs". Scott's ambition is to be the next US senator from Florida -- he will take on incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson.

Bruce Ritchie, for Politico, recently wrote a revealing piece about the wicked decline of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection under Scott. It's well worth your time, reading.

DEP employee suspended in 2012 speaks about her experience — and the future
By BRUCE RITCHIE 03/03/17 05:22 AM EST

TALLAHASSEE — Now that she's retired after 30 years with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Connie Bersok says she can finally talk about her long career — mainly her controversial 2012 suspension after she wrote a critical memo recommending against a development scheme.

And in an interview with POLITICO Florida Thursday, Bersok also spoke about the agency’s future, saying she sees worsening political interference involving development permitting and veteran employees who are fired or who quit because of pressure and harassment.

Bersok was not made available to reporters for interviews in 2012 after she was suspended without pay while being investigated for attendance violations.

She had recommended against a permit for a developer's wetlands mitigation bank in Clay County and eventually testified against DEP — while she still worked there. An administrative law judge sided with Bersok in the case.

Bersok says rank-and-file employees have been pressured to issue permits and transferred or fired for refusing to do so.

"That is sort of consistent with the theme that we don't need institutional knowledge, as evidenced ever since (Gov. Rick) Scott has been governor," she said in an interview Thursday. "Get rid of people. People have been fired who knew too much or didn't agree necessarily. That whole approach is still ongoing."

In addition to Highlands Ranch permit in Clay County as an example of a developer influencing permitting, she points to a mitigation bank recommended for approval in Manatee County for Carlos Beruff, a close donor to Scott who on Wednesday was appointed by the governor to be chairman of the Constitutional Review Commission.

In response, Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said Beruff's development application, which DEP recommended for approval, is facing a pending administrative challenge.

Miller also pointed to a 2012 department statement denying that Bersok was suspended because she refused to issue the permit in the Clay County case. DEP also said then it was not the department's policy to discuss employee personnel matters.

Miller said Thursday that DEP follows the requirements of state administrative rules and Florida law when processing any permit application.

"The department does not issue any permit that does not comply with Florida law," she said.

An administrative law judge in 2012 disagreed with DEP after it issued a notice of intent to permit the Highlands Ranch wetlands mitigation bank in Clay County.

Bersok had written a memo objecting to a draft proposed permit and argued that fewer development credits were deserved.

Shortly thereafter, she was suspended with pay but later was cleared of work violations by a department investigation. An investigator asked Bersok whether she had leaked the story to a reporter, a suggestion she denied.

In his recommended order, administrative law judge Gary Early said Bersok's testimony represented "the most credible and reliable application of reasonable scientific judgment."

He also wrote that a memo describing the department's "performance-driven" approach used in developing the proposed permit represented a rule developed by DEP and Highlands Ranch LLC without public involvement. DEP eventually denied the permit, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

In December, DEP issued a notice of intent to create a 260.8-acre mitigation bank along Sarasota Bay at Beruff's and Larry Lieberman's previously proposed Long Bar Pointe development, according to the Herald-Tribune. The Manatee County Commission in 2013 refused to allow dredging for a marina and channel and prevailed in a lawsuit filed by Beruff, accoding to the Bradenton Herald.

Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash have filed a legal challenge to the new proposed permit.

Bersok said she had issued a memo for the permit application that simply described her review of the proposed mitigation bank site but it was never sent out by her superiors.

"That was the first indication that he (Beruff) was going to control what was done with that project," she said. "That was the clue. And things sort of went downhill from there."

She said after that, she was demoted from environmental administrator, a position she had held since the 1990s, to environmental consultant. In 2013, DEP attorney Christopher Byrd said he was fired for similar reasons.

Bersok joined the department in 1987 shortly after Gov. Bob Martinez was elected and appointed Dale Twachtmann to lead the Department of Environmental Regulation, the predecessor to DEP. For a few years, Bersok was the department's springs program coordinator, a high profile position before the Florida Springs Task Force was disbanded after Scott was elected.

Bersok noted that Twachtmann, who died in 2015 at age 83, started off at DEP by saying that he was cleaning house. But Bersok said Twachtmann changed his tune within a few months.

"By the end of that year he would come to staff first and say, 'I want your opinion before I go and talk about that,'" she said.

But now, Bersok rattles off the names of employees who she says have quit because they had been stifled and others who she said were fired shortly before they could retire.

"I think it's a continuing approach to: Staff are there to do what the boss wants them to do," she said. "That has always been the rule — staff should make the boss look good. But when you run into a conflict, what do I follow, the boss or follow the rules?"


Anonymous said...

Connie Bersok is a consummate professional, incredibly competent and well-respected. Her retirement and the early departure of others like her are blows from which FDEP will likely never recover. This dumbing down of environmental protection agencies is by design. It's a way to maintain the appearance that government and politicians give a damn about protecting our natural resources, but the agencies become staffed only by yes-men and yes-women who are either too timid to speak out and do the right thing or too incompetent to do their jobs well.

Marty Baum said...

Thanks Alan! Suncoast Waterkeeper ROCKS! Thank you Andy Mele, and Justin Bloom!