Two members of Martin County’s legislative delegation listened for hours last week while more than 30 residents buttered them up, begged for money, griped about the Florida Legislature’s recent bad decisions and brought wish lists for 2016.
Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell of Stuart turned the annual event, held at the Martin Commission headquarters in Stuart, into a bit of a schmooze fest. Her nonstop upbeat comments, an overload of thank-yous to each petitioner, and personal observations cut the public’s speaking time at the end from three to two minutes.
Palm City Republican Sen. Joe Negron, seemingly silenced by Harrell’s persistent perkiness, asked a few questions and occasionally took off on a topic that interested him. Rep. MaryLynn Magar of Tequesta and Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, both Republicans, were no-shows.
Water and sand were two big issues, with about a dozen people complaining about lawmakers’ failure to use Amendment 1 money to buy conservation lands and waters, which a huge majority of Florida residents voted they must. Harrell promised she will introduce new legislation to provide enough money for Everglades restoration.
Both Harrell and Negron said they’re outraged by the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to try to steal sand offshore from Martin and St. Lucie County to nourish beaches in Miami-Dade.
The two are confident they can stop the sand heist. “Miami could buy better and cleaner sand from the Bahamas,” Negron said.
The same battle emerged almost a decade ago and then-Sen. Ken Pruitt of St. Lucie saved the sand. It’s needed to lessen hurricane damage and to protect flora and fauna on the ocean’s bottom.
Florida Oceanographic Society director and Rivers Coalition spokesman Mark Perry warned lawmakers that trouble already is brewing again on Lake Okeechobee. The lake is now at 14 feet, and rising 6 inches a week during recent rains. With an El Niño’s heavy rains predicted for the winter ahead, conditions are similar to those in 1997-98, Perry said.
That winter, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries were devastated by heavy dumping from Lake Okeechobee into east and west coast waters. Fish developed lesions and rotting flesh, pelicans and other seabirds got sick, and Treasure Coast waters weren’t safe for people. Tourists went elsewhere and local businesses suffered.
Edie Widder, director of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, asked for an extra $500,000 in addition to the $2 million spent so far on “Kilroy” devices in Treasure Coast waters to monitor water quality and identify pollutants and their sources.
Several people continued to urge Negron and Harrell to support buying land south of Lake Okeechobee for Everglades restoration, but an Economic Council spokesman, stuck to the script the sugar industry promotes: Complete existing projects before buying more land.
Janine Landolina, organizer of Floridians Against Fracking, said 45 counties and cities have passed local amendments restricting fracking, a controversial method of extracting oil by pumping chemicals underground under high pressure, “because it’s not being done on a state level.” Another speaker urged lawmakers to regulate liquid natural gas being transported by rail and on highways, citing horrific accidents worldwide as a warning.
Off the topic of water woes and environmental problems, Karlette Peck of the Florida Department of Health’s Martin office made a strong plea for help for elementary school children, who are turning up in emergency rooms needing immediate help with painful dental problems.
Those who don’t breathe easy when lawmakers are at work in Tallahassee may wish they could borrow some of Harrell’s optimism to deal with the bad news she revealed as Thursday’s session ended. Legislators reconvene next year on Jan. 11, about a month earlier than usual.
Harrell – and Negron – may need all the perkiness they can muster to deal with that.
Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Column courtesy of Context Florida.