A spat over the appointment of a new Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary broke out during Tuesday’s meeting of the Florida Cabinet.
The tussle occurred between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s only statewide-elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
Underlying Tuesday’s tension is the 2022 Governor’s race. Fried announced earlier this month she is running for Governor in the Democratic Primary, hoping to oust DeSantis from his post.
During testimony for the Board of Trustees’ Internal Improvement Trust Fund about aquaculture lease renewal authority, Fried switched the conversation to the Piney Point Reservoir and asked DeSantis for an update on when he would put forth a nominee for a new DEP Secretary.
“I had issues with the OFR (Office of Financial Regulation). We need to make sure someone is appointed and accountable to all of us in the Cabinet,” Fried said. “Just wondering where we are in getting a nominee in front of us to confirm or deny?” Fried asked.
“It’s an executive appointment, and so that’s our prerogative, and we will do it when we want to, and we’ll let folks know about it,” DeSantis fired back.
Fried pointed out the nominee must be approved by the Cabinet, but DeSantis said his interpretation of the law is that approval could come from either the Senate or the Cabinet.
“I think if you actually look at the Constitution, it says either the Cabinet or the Legislature, the Senate,” DeSantis said. “The statute said both, but there’s an argument that it conflicts and that it would be one or the other. My sense would be the Legislature would retain their authority rather than give the Cabinet authority, so that would be a live issue potentially, if we end up with a conflict.”
The Florida Constitution states three members of the Cabinet must approve the DEP Secretary nominee who will then face confirmation by the Senate.
“The head of the Department of Environmental Protection shall be a secretary, who shall be appointed by the Governor, with the concurrence of three members of the Cabinet. The secretary shall be confirmed by the Florida Senate,” the provision reads.
When the last DEP Secretary, Noah Valenstein, was approved in 2017, the Cabinet gave its approval.
But DeSantis indicated he might try to move forward with a different interpretation of the law for this most recent appointment.
“My sense is that the Legislature will retain their authority. But that will be a live issue if we end up with a conflict,” DeSantis said.
During a break from the meeting, Fried told reporters that “he is going to have to deal with me, in order for it to be approved.”
“The Department of Environmental Protection is one of the most essential elements here in state government,” Fried said. “It protects our wetlands, our waterways, our natural resources. This is fundamental to who we are as Floridians, is the job of the Department of Environmental Protection.”
She issued a statement reiterating her disagreement over the interpretation.
“When I asked the Governor today for an update on a new Secretary of Environmental Protection for consideration by the Cabinet, he chose to instead defensively misquote state law. The law is very clear – three Cabinet members must agree with the Governor’s appointment, in addition to confirmation by the Florida Senate,” Fried said in a written statement.
In an email after the meeting, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said DeSantis based his comment on part of the state constitution dealing with executive departments. That part of the constitution says: “When provided by law, confirmation by the Senate or the approval of three members of the Cabinet shall be required for appointment to or removal from any designated statutory office.”
Valenstein announced May 8 he was stepping down after four years running the environmental agency. The resignation took effect June 4.
Valenstein, who was initially appointed to the $155,530-a-year job by former Gov. Rick Scott in May 2017, was reappointed two years later by DeSantis. Both appointments received the support of the Cabinet, currently made up of Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Fried.
Valenstein was the only one of 140 applicants to be interviewed for the job by Scott and the prior Cabinet lineup — former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, former Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — in 2017.
Shawn Hamilton, DEP’s Deputy Secretary for Land and Recreation, is the Interim Secretary.
The disaster at the Piney Point Reservoir that Fried referred to happened in April, but the DEP and other government agencies are still working out how exactly to deal with the private land that became a danger to the surrounding community. The danger reached a peak when a significant leak at the large pond of wastewater resulted in a declared emergency. If the pond’s walls had collapsed, polluted water threatened to flood roads and homes. Instead, hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater were pumped into Tampa Bay.
The cleanup for the private reservoir is costing the state millions.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.