by Pat Dunnigan
Updated 12 months ago
"The slightest disturbance or the slightest screw-up and word is on the street that this project isn't legitimate and that kills us," then-water district engineer Joe Schweigart told Florida Trend ["Fragile," March 2001, FloridaTrend.com].
In the years since, as progress has lagged, some of the "disturbances" feared by Schweigart have emerged.
The Palm Beach Post has published a number of stories and editorials suggesting that the board has represented the interests of the sugar industry more enthusiastically than it has taxpayers. Environmental groups have also criticized board members as secretive and hostile to environmentalists.
Some of the district's decisions haven't helped perceptions. Last year, it joined with the sugar industry in legislation that pushed back enforcement of some clean-up deadlines by a decade. The district then compounded the impression of a backroom deal by hiring state Rep. Joseph Spratt, R-Sebring, who shepherded the legislation. After the Florida Everglades Trust began running a 600-spot television campaign in October characterizing Spratt's $75,000-a-year job as a "reward" for his effort, Spratt abruptly resigned.
Some on the board still view much of the coverage and criticism as unfair. "It's not bad press. It's distortion of facts," fumes district governing board Chairman Nicolas Gutierrez, a Miami lawyer, singling out the Post. "This agency has spent billions of dollars on Everglades restoration yet it's being vilified" as soft on polluters, says Gutierrez, who also serves on the board of the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba.
In response, the district has been trying to burnish its image. In September, the board voted to hire the international public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for up to $2.4 million a year.
The district also has tried to speed up progress on the various projects. In October, with Gov. Jeb Bush, the district announced a $1.5-billion plan to jump-start the restoration -- dubbed Acceler8. The plan would complete eight restoration projects 10 years ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile, however, the deal with Hill & Knowlton became its own issue. The trust began planning a second series of ads critical of the contract. Ultimately, Hill & Knowlton resigned the account.
Eric Draper, an Audubon of Florida lobbyist, says it's important for the district to sell its mission to the public, but it's even more essential for it to improve its relationship with its environmental partners. "We provided a lot of the political advocacy that helped put Everglades restoration on the map," he says. "They are breaking up the partnership."