Collins won't resign from SFWMD
Highlands Today – September 29, 2011
SEBRING – The South Florida Water Management District is sticking to its $21 million decision to store 34,000 acre-feet of water on Lykes Brothers land in Glades County, despite a controversy about the board’s chairman being a Lykes employee.
As vice president of Lykes’ ranching division, Joe Collins manages the 337,000-acre spread, including the land where the water will be stored.
Collins, of Sebring, did not vote on the 10-year deal, said Carolyn Ansay, SFWMD’s attorney.
Collins was appointed to the district’s governing board in 2009.
“Because Mr. Collins is an employee of the ranch where the Nicodemus Slough project is located, the Florida Commission on Ethics was asked for a legal opinion before the district entered into a project agreement,” Ansay said.
“The commission’s official opinion, CEO 11-02, stated that ‘a prohibited conflict of interest would not be created.’”
Even so, Ansay said, “Mr. Collins abstained from each and every decision and formal vote associated with this project.”
The award to Lykes has caused controversy, though.
The Southwest Florida News-Press in Fort Myers wrote in an editorial last week: “Even if the Lykes contract is a good one, this is a blatant conflict of interest. The public ought to question the board’s decision. The board should vote anew without Collins.
“He must resign if Lykes is going to get $2.1 million per year.”
The News-Press editorial insinuates wrongdoing on behalf of Collins, Ansay said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The newspaper didn’t question the purpose of the contract, however.
“Holding water on distant ranches during the rainy season, rather than draining it as fast as possible, will help … by reducing agricultural and other pollution in the lake,” the editorial stated.
Ansay agreed: “The Nicodemus Slough project in Glades County is an innovative public-private partnership that will bring significant environmental benefits to Lake Okeechobee, Fisheating Creek and the Caloosahatchee Estuary at a low cost to taxpayers.
“The 15,000-acre project will store water on private ranchlands during high flows to Lake Okeechobee and deliver much needed water to the estuary during dry times, while also providing water quality benefits.”
At $95 per acre-foot of storage, it’s also a cheap solution, she said.
An acre-foot is the volume of water that will cover one acre of surface area to a depth of one foot.
Gov. Rick Scott has been critical of conflicts of interest on workforce boards and asked several members to resign.
John Payne, a Highlands Workforce board member, did quit in August after a controversial lease with Heartland Workforce paid his family $1.7 million over 10 years.
Communications Director Brian Burgess did not respond to a telephone call and an email by deadline for this story.
The deal was also questioned by Pam Fentress of 4-D Citrus & Sod, Inc.
In an email to Highlands Soil and Water Conservation District chair Jimmy Wohl about a different subject, she also wrote: “As a past (Southwest Florida Water Management District) Governing Board member, I’m embarrassed at not only chair Collins, but also past (governing) board members that rubber-stamped Lykes’ (Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project) project.
“If Gov. Scott wants waste in water management districts cut further,” Fentress wrote, “he should start right here, right now; cut any and all Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services projects.
“When does an organization step back and consider conflicts of interests — whether apparent or real?” Fentress asked.
“How much Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency, SFWMD, etc. funds are funneled through the Highlands Soil and Water Conservation District (and various other institutions) only to end up in the feeding troughs of Lykes Brothers?”
The ethics commission clearly said Collins could vote, Fentress noted.
“Would I do it? No, I would never do that,” she wrote in the email.
“You’re supposed to do it so that nobody can question you.”
Collins agreed: “Public officials should be held to a higher standard.”
That’s why, in addition to asking the state ethics commission whether there was a conflict of interest, he also abstained from voting.
“I take that kind of stuff very seriously, as the Lykes brothers do as well,” Collins said.
Collins said he has no plans to resign from his post with the water district board.