Something needs fixing in Florida at two of the most important public agencies in the state, the South Florida Water Management District and the Dept. of Transportation. The former involves an attempt to fend off federal interference in state and regional affairs. The latter concerns an attempt by the state to assert full control over a critical South Florida bridge project.
The water district’s former executive director, Pete Antonacci, had prohibited district staff from working with the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress. The project is a long, costly effort to design and restore the complex Everglades ecosystem so that it maintains itself. Antonacci told the district’s governing board that, in recent years, the science review committee’s comments have “decided to get involved in your business” on budgets, scheduling and policies, so the water-management district stopped cooperating. It seemed not to matter that half the money for the project came from federal funds. Or that the 14-member scientific review committee operates under a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the principal federal agency in the restoration work.
As a result, the state’s half of the state-federal Everglades restoration team did not participate in the recent conference on the restoration in West Palm Beach, Fla., where all other concerned parties showed up.
We urge Antonacci’s recently appointed successor, Ernie Marks, who was the agency’s deputy director, to reconsider the course taken by his predecessor. Science doesn’t operate in a vacuum but in a context in which conditions change, and budgets, schedules and policies affect implementation of scientific conclusions. The science review committee merely offers advice. There is no need to defend the state’s turf against scientific advisers.
FDOT’s handling of the best-value procurement process for Miami’s planned I-395 bridge is more perplexing. After settling in 2015 a lawsuit with a former Miami commissioner over how the bridge design and construction team would be chosen, FDOT seemed to resort to a transparent trick to undermine the spirit of the settlement. Late in the process for evaluating the competitors’ submissions, FDOT substituted five FDOT staff members as voting members of a key aesthetics committee to take the place of one member who was unable to continue. Nothing in FDOT’s settlement specifically ruled out such a maneuver. But think of it as a football game wherein a team takes out one of its players and sends in five substitutes instead of one and then ekes out a victory. Such rushing through a legal loophole looks like bad faith aiming to subvert the spirit of the 2015 settlement. Moreover, it tarnishes the reputation of best-value procurements. We’re eager to hear more from the agency about what FDOT was trying to do, in court, where the matter now will be decided.