18.3 C
Los Angeles
Saturday, February 24, 2024

Brevard County Commission looks at who belongs on a key lagoon advisory board

NewsBrevard County Commission looks at who belongs on a key lagoon advisory board

The Brevard County Commission was minutes away from voting on reappointing 12 members and alternates to the Save Our Indian River Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee on Oct. 25, when Commissioner John Tobia brought up that two of them had environmental-related criminal convictions, and a third had been arrested related to domestic battery, drug possession and driving under the influence.

“This is absolutely embarrassing,” Tobia said, as he detailed the arrests and charges, found by Tobia’s staff during a check of the Brevard County Clerk of Courts’ database of criminal cases.

The discovery was sufficient to nix two of the three lagoon board members.

The County Commission at a subsequent meeting went ahead and appointed to the lagoon committee without any discussion former Commissioner Curt Smith, who once controversially suggested that manatees maybe ought to be “culled” to protect them from suffering from a man-made seagrass famine.

The discovery and appointments were immediately promoted by Tobia and the commissioners as a victory for vigilance, common sense and good governance. Tobia said his only interest has been making sure committees follow their own rules, and that members don’t have criminal backgrounds that could wind up haunting programs in the future.

Brevard County Commissioner John Tobia, pictured here in August 2022, wants more vetting of those appointed to committees that advise the commission.

Tourist panel:Tourist Council members oppose Tobispan idespan of splitting tspanx revenue spanmong hotels

Brevard cuts fluoride in Mims:Following span no notice vote, Brevspanrd County okspanys cutting fluoride from Mims wspanter

But detractors warn of foul play, suggesting that Tobia and others are cherry-picking past transgressions and mistakes by bona fide experts, in order to select appointees more politically aligned with them or who share similar doubts about the programs the county oversees.

For example, one of Tobia’s candidates to the county’s Planning and Zoning Board had a DUI arrest in 2014 and a boating under the influence arrest in 2019. Adjudication was withheld in both arrests, so he was not convicted of any crime. But a limited liability corporation for which his parents are listed as the managers had donated money to Tobia’s 2020 campaign for the District 3 County Commission seat.

Cocoa resident Simon Jefferson was enjoying the beautiful weather of late afternoon, while fishing under the Hubert H. Humphrey Bridge that connects Cocoa to Merritt Island over the Indian River Lagoon. This bridge along State Road 520 opened on March 1,1968.

Tobia defended that appointment and his rejection of the lagoon board members on the grounds that his appointee to the Planning and Zoning Board wasn’t convicted of a crime and the latter were.

The discrepancy might not have garnered much attention, except that, in the last few years, who sits on these committees — in some cases even their very existence and role — has become a larger and more politically charged issue.

Earlier this year, new County Commissioner Tom Goodson said a Brevard County advisory board that focuses on what’s known as environmentally endangered lands should include more representatives from business, a move that sparked concern from one committee member and prompted fellow Commissioner Kristine Zonka to caution that they should be careful about bringing on people who might not understand environmental science.

There’s also been a question of how seriously the County Commission takes committees that don’t toe the line, especially when big money is at stake. In July, for example, the commission approved, with Tobia casting the lone no vote, up to $30 million over the next 30 years to market the planned Westin Cocoa Beach Resort & Spa off State Road A1A, despite the Brevard County Tourist Development Council’s opposition to the proposal from hotel developer Driftwood Capital.

Watching the manatees huddling in the warm canal at Desoto Park in Satellite Beach, like these pictured on Dec. 26, 2022, has become a popular pastime for locals and people visiting from out of town to come see the manatees up close

Tobia’s recent move over the background checks has raised a few eyebrows, given his past stances regarding specific committees and/or their members.

“I have some concerns for why this was all done,” said lagoon committee voting member John Windsor, professor emeritus at Florida Institute of Technology, who has been on the committee since its onset in December 2016. “I know people on the board have been targeted because of comments they’ve made.”

David William Sherrer II, one of the lagoon committee members who was ultimately rejected, issued a passionate defense to FLORIDA TODAY of a fellow member, David Lane, also rejected, suggesting that the estuary may turn out to be the loser in this latest round of appointments.

A flock of birds at Kelly Park on the Banana River Lagoon Aquatic Preserve in this December 2020 photo.

“To date, the appointments have not been political, although I worry that may be changing,” Sherrer wrote in response to FLORIDA TODAY’s questions, noting that Lane had done “more to help promote lagoon awareness than anyone in his five years of volunteer service.”

To those who criticize his recent scrutiny of the lagoon committee, Tobia counters that he has been consistent. His staff checked the criminal records of all 12 applicants for reappointment to the lagoon committee before their reappointments came before the County Commission. Tobia presented commissioners with the findings at the meeting for the three applicants who had past criminal charges.

The dust-up comes as the county updates its annual Save Our Indian River Lagoon plan, which prioritizes some $50 million a year in revenue from a half-percent sales tax passed in 2016 for lagoon cleanups.

Rejected nominees for lagoon committee

One lagoon committee member rejected for reappointment was David Lane, a tourism representative on the committee. He was charged in 2010 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission with having over the bag limit of ducks or waterfowl; taking waterfowl, ducks or coot out of season; and resisting or interfering with a wildlife officer or inspector. All are second-degree misdemeanors. Court records indicate that Lane went through a community diversion program for the first two charges, and that no action was taken on the third charge.

If you’re charged with an offense that directly pertains to the board you’re wanting to sit on, then a special consideration is made, as was done with Mr. Lane,” Tobia said of Lane’s environmental-related violation, which occurred in the Banana River Lagoon, part of the Indian River Lagoon.

Sherrer, who’d been an alternate, non-voting member on the committee since May 2021, also was not reappointed after Tobia brought to the commission’s attention his 2020 arrests for battery/domestic violence, a first-degree misdemeanor; driving under the influence, a second-degree misdemeanor; and three third-degree felony drug charges.

Sherrer pleaded no contest to the DUI, so the charge shows as guilty on the county clerk’s site. The battery/domestic violence charge was dropped because the victim recanted their testimony, and he was given two years’ probation on the other charges, with adjudication withheld, so wasn’t formally convicted of those offenses.

Sherrer was seeking reappointment to the “technology,” non-voting alternate slot on the lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee. His resume includes a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The County Commission let the third nomination go through of alternate, non-voting member David Eric Mannes. Commissioners contended that the 2011 charge by FWC against Mannes of possession of egg-bearing spiny lobster, a second-degree misdemeanor that he pleaded guilty to, should not disqualify him from serving as an alternate member of the lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee, representing the real estate sector.

Mannes and Lane did not return calls seeking comment.

Cocoa resident Simon Jefferson was enjoying the beautiful weather of late afternoon, while fishing under the Hubert H. Humphrey Bridge that connects Cocoa to Merritt Island over the Indian River Lagoon.

Ex-Commissioner Smith joins panel

Separately, the County Commission without discussion on Dec. 6 unanimously approved adding former County Commissioner Curt Smith to the Lagoon Citizen Oversight Committee to fill a vacancy, representing the finance sector, after no one else applied for that position.

“I’m a water guy, and I need to be involved to get things turned around,” Smith said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Proposal to “cull” manatees:Brevspanrd County Commissioner spanrgues Floridspan should kill mspannspantees to sspanve them

Extending the tax:Conservspantionists: It’s time to double down on the sspanles tspanx to help ‘Sspanve Our Lspangoon’

In March ― while he still was a county commissioner — Smith floated a dramatic proposal at the end of a commission meeting. As threatened manatees die in unprecedented numbers throughout Florida, mostly from starvation due to a dearth of seagrass, its staple food, Smith proposed “culling” sea cows, like some states do with excess bear, wolf and deer populations.

“I think the elephant in the room for seagrass is the sea cow, which is called the manatee,” Smith told fellow commissioners at the March 22 meeting. “Nobody’s addressing the fact that we have too many manatees, eating such a small amount of seagrass.”

His suggestion wasn’t meant to be callous, Smith later said, but to start a serious conversation about how manatees have outgrown the capacity of the Florida’s seagrass beds needed to sustain them and how current approaches are failing.

“I didn’t advocate for killing manatees. I just said it was one thing that could be thought of,” Smith said earlier this month. “Is it better to just watch them die?”

Smith emphasized: “There is no one magic bullet that is going to fix this river and the ecosystem that it affects. We have to do it all.”

A crew from Sea & Shoreline Aquatic Restoration and Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, seen here in mid November 2022, were at Goode Park on Turkey Creek in Palm Bay. They are working on a series of projects in the Indian River Lagoon tributaries, to restore meadows of seagrass and submerged aquatic vegetation. They put more than 100 temporary cages over the plants so they can grow stronger

Smith’s appointment was a subject of discussion at the Jan. 10 County Commission meeting, as County Commission Chair Rita Pritchett defended the appointment, after Rick Heffelfinger, a resident of unincorporated Brevard near Cocoa, raised questions about it during public comment.

“I thought that was an interesting choice, considering he wanted to do away with the manatees,” said Heffelfinger, who lives in Pritchett’s County Commission District 1.

Brevard County Natural Resources Management Department Director Virginia Barker said Smith was the only applicant for the finance vacancy. And County Attorney Morris Richardson said the county went through the proper procedures in filling the appointment.

Pritchett said that, even if there were other applicants, she likely would have voted for Smith.

“I’ve never seen more passion for the lagoon” than from Smith, Pritchett said.

“Yeah,” Heffelfinger replied. “He’s passionate about the manatees.”

“Well, he’s passionate about the lagoon,” Pritchett said. “He makes a lot of good choices.”

Oversight committee’s structure

The Citizen Oversight Committee makes recommendations to the County Commission regarding annual updates tothe Save Our Indian River Lagoon Project Plan that is funded by the half-percent Save Our Indian River Lagoonsales tax that was approved by Brevard County voters in 2016.

The committee structure consists of seven members and seven alternates representing seven fields of expertise:science, technology, economics/finance, real estate, education/outreach, tourism and lagoon advocacy.Terms are for two years, after which members and alternates can be reappointed or replaced.

Half of the committee is nominated by the Space Coast League of Cities and half of the committee is selectedby the County Commission, with all seats appointed by the County Commission.

Mannes and Sherrer’s nominations were put forward by the League of Cities. Lane had been a County Commission appointee.

A dolphin passes by the area where seagrass restoration is in progress. A crew from Sea & Shoreline Aquatic Restoration and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida were at Goode Park on Turkey Creek in Palm Bay in November 2022, planting seagrass. They put more than hundred temporary cages over the plants so they can grow stronger.

In discussing how he vets candidates, Tobia said he does that not only for the lagoon committee, but also for other volunteer boards when appointments come before the County Commission for a vote.

Now, Tobia says, he will be doing a more extensive background check on applicants for appointment to volunteer boards through a new database his office is getting. That would include searching for criminal charges in other counties and states, rather than what Tobia had been doing, which would find only cases in Brevard County.

It’s not the first time Tobia has taken issue with the lagoon committee, or advisory panels in general.

Shortly after the discovery of a missing audit report, lagoon committee member Susan Hodgers made her concerns about her questions and records requests to the county public in a FLORIDA TODAY op-ed, published Feb. 21.

At the Feb. 22 commission meeting, the day after her opinion piece ran, Tobia tried to have her removed from the SOIRL oversight committee. Tobia said the reason was her real estate license, which Hodgers — who was appointed to represent real estate interests on the board — had allowed to become inactive.

“Here I was trying to promote oversight, and here they are making all these wild accusations,” Hodgers said.

Meanwhile, one of Tobia’s appointments to another board, Ben Glover, 30, had a DUI arrest in 2014 and a boating under the influence arrest in 2019, before Tobia appointed him to the Planning and Zoning Board/Local Planning Agency.

Ben Glover declined comment.

His parents gave $1,000 to Tobia’s campaign in 2020, via a limited liability corporation they manage, called Dougie and Piper’s Place, which in the county’s elections contributions database lists its occupation as “real estate.”

Tobia said he approved that appointment because, in that instance, there was no conviction of a crime.

“I treated him under the same rubric under how I look at everyone that pops up under those searches,” Tobia said of Ben Glover’s appointment.

Tobia, a Republican who lives in Palm Bay, is serving his second four-year term as county commissioner, and recently announced his candidacy for Brevard County supervisor of elections in 2024. Tobia’s term ends in 2024, and he could not seek reelection as a commissioner because of term limits. He was elected to the County Commission in 2016 and reelected in 2020, and served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2008 to 2016.

In June, under Tobia’s direction, the Brevard County Commission voted to consolidate several non-mandated library and parks and recreation advisory boards into a handful of larger ones, while also passing an ordinance placing all advisory boards under greater oversight.

The new policy regulates attendance of advisory board members, places a cap on the meetings allowed in a year, and restricts the amount of time they can request of staff for support.

The changes are expected to shave $25,000 of the country’s $1.85 billion budget.

During an early February commission meeting last year, Tobia provided commissioners with a list of 69 advisory boards established by the county, 40 of which were not mandated either by state law or intergovernmental agreement, seeking to decommission nonmandated ones.

They cost Brevard more than $500,000 annually to maintain, he said at the time.

At Tobia’s initiative, the County Commission is continuing discussion this month of eliminating more advisory boards.

More:Lspangoon progrspanm wspantchdogs cry foul on missing 2020 spanudit spanmid ‘bizspanrre’ pushbspanck

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles