Miami Herald: In Florida, the foxes are guarding the henhouse

January 2, 2013 

As states compete for whatever economic growth that they can secure, especially in this slowly recovering economy, Florida is smart to make clear that it is open for business.

However, the Scott administration has been too intent on not just holding open the door for those who come to do business in the state, but also handing over the keys to business interests as it works to loosen regulations on industries that pollute and profit from the state's assets.

That may be good for business -- too good -- while degrading some of the state's most precious resources, including the quality of life for many of its residents.

In the name of reform and governmental oversight, Gov. Rick Scott has been too willing to allow business interests to rewrite the playbook, giving them an outsize role in how they are governed -- if at all. Earlier this year, in the face of horrible deaths at some of the most negligent assisted-living facilities in the state, Scott vowed to improve conditions for seniors and disabled people living in ALFs.

He appointed a task force to come up with recommendations, and immediately overpopulated it with industry insiders. The result? Just about every proposal to punish the most negligent of ALFs went absolutely nowhere.

Was Scott's vow sincere?.

The latest example comes from the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Last month, its leaders decimated the ranks of longtime, experienced -- and apolitical -- employees, 58 in all.

This is the sad, but not surprising, culmination of the slow erosion of the agency's regulatory imperative to ensure that growth and development did not come at the expense of unreplenishable natural resources.

The DEP is charged with protecting the quality of our air, water and land. As its website states, it is "the lead agency for environmental management and stewardship." Regulatory programming and permitting decisions fall under its purview, and therein lies what shouldn't be a problem, but is.

The purge got rid of regulators who had the backbone to say No to politically connected developers and engineers. With them went decades of experience and commitment to DEP's mission, basing their decisions in science and research.

Now, the department is being populated by administrators who come directly from the industries that regularly seek the DEP's favor. It's telling, disturbingly so, that most of the employees dismissed were in the compliance and enforcement divisions.

It's a policy shift that clearly comes from the top. DEP's leader, Herschel Vinyard, is a former Jacksonville businessman whom at least one developer felt very comfortable approaching when, in seeking a permit, he didn't get his way with DEP's wetlands expert.

The way DEP handled the Highlands Ranch permit has been at the center of two inspector general investigations. The first, in June, cleared the agency's top wetlands expert, Connie Bersok, who had refused to approve the permit to build a wetlands mitigation bank. Bosses had accused Bersok of leaking damaging information about the project.

DEP's mission is of critical importance to Florida's long-term economic health. Our beaches and trails and parks and rivers draw visitors from around the world, and businesses prosper because of them.

Gov. Scott and his appointees should abandon their unmitigated zeal for deregulation and instead seek balance. Responsible development and environmental wellbeing can, and do, coexist in Florida.

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