- Aaron Bean
- Dennis Baxley
- Department of Environmental Protection
- Department of Law Enforcement
- Department of Veterans Affairs
- Florida Department of Environmental Protection
- Florida Department of Law Enforcement
- Florida Department of Veterans Affairs
- Nikki Fried
- Ron DeSantis
- SB 1658
- Senate Bill 1658
- Shawn Hamilton
- Tommy Gregory
- Wilton Simpson
Senators have unanimously confirmed Secretary Shawn Hamilton as the state’s top environmental official Friday after nine months of questions over the validity of his appointment.
Until Thursday, state law detailed that the Governor’s pick for Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) required three Cabinet members to approve the nominee before going to the Senate for confirmation. However, the Florida Constitution allows the nomination to go through the Cabinet or the Senate.
With a bill Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Thursday afternoon (SB 1658), DeSantis and lawmakers have conformed state law to match the constitution more closely. After receiving word from the Governor’s Office that DeSantis had chosen the Senate, Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chair Dennis Baxley submitted his committee’s positive recommendation for Hamilton’s nomination to Senate President Wilton Simpson.
Controversy around the DEP Secretary appointment process originated last summer when DeSantis appointed Hamilton as interim DEP Secretary. He later moved to make that appointment permanent. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic member of the Cabinet challenging DeSantis in this year’s gubernatorial contest, contended the Governor lacks the legal authority to appoint Hamilton without the Cabinet’s unanimous support and a public interview.
But during a Cabinet meeting in June, when Fried complained about the Governor’s decision to roll forward with Hamilton’s appointment, the Governor highlighted the conflict between Florida’s statutes and its constitution.
Florida statutes say DEP Secretary appointments require three Cabinet members’ support and the Senate’s confirmation. The constitution, however, outlines that executive department officials require either three Cabinet members’ support or the Senate’s confirmation.
Since the Cabinet was compressed to just three members in 2003, the three-member threshold for the DEP Secretary’s appointment has effectively meant the Secretary needs the Cabinet’s unanimous consent.
Because the bill took effect immediately, DeSantis tapped the Senate, allowing the chamber to confirm Hamilton Friday, the final day of the regular 60-day Legislative Session.
“Unlike Commissioner Fried, Gov. DeSantis believes in the constitution and this commonsense bill squares the appointment for the DEP Secretary with constitutional requirements for executive appointments,” DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said Thursday.
Fried repeatedly has said she supports Hamilton’s appointment. She reiterated that in a statement, in which she lambasted the Governor and the Legislature.
“In a state where our lives and livelihoods depend on the health of our environment, the leader of the Department of Environmental Protection must be held to the highest standards. My qualm is not with the current nominee, but the principle that Gov. DeSantis and his cronies changed the law instead of simply bringing this nomination before the Cabinet. This is yet another power grab by a Governor intent on consolidating power and cracking down on any potential dissent or opposing views,” Fried said.
Senators last month passed the bill, sponsored by Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean, by a 26-12 vote as Democratic Sens. Jason Pizzo, Darryl Rouson and Linda Stewart broke party lines to side with the Republican majority. The House returned the favor Wednesday with a 77-34 vote as Democratic Reps. James Bush, Daryl Campbell, Andrew Learned and Matt Willhite voted with Republicans.
The bill’s opponents wanted to maintain the status quo, stressing the importance of a two-step process with both legislative and Cabinet oversight.
Sarasota Republican Rep. Tommy Gregory carried the bill through the House.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is the front-runner to succeed Fried in the Cabinet as Agriculture Commissioner, told reporters after the Senate vote he agrees completely with the bill. The measure is about the process, and it doesn’t matter who is on the Cabinet.
“If I were to win, in theory, I’m taking away some of the influence I would have over that member,” Simpson said. “I think the Governor should have that bill the way that we got it. I think the state of Florida should have that bill the way it was done today.”
The proposal also drops a similar three-vote threshold from the Cabinet to a majority-vote threshold for the heads of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Senate still would be asked to confirm the appointments.
Additionally, the measure includes a double jeopardy provision for the DEP Secretary. It would prevent, for one year, the Governor from reappointing the same individual to the DEP Secretary position if the person’s appointment went through the Cabinet and the Cabinet failed to approve the Governor’s nominee.
A 2015 settlement agreement dictates nominees must go through a public interview before the Cabinet votes on the nominee. That settlement arose from a legal dispute against DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, demanding more openness for Scott’s appointments.
Although most Democrats opposed the bill, they resoundingly found the Secretary qualified for the position.
A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Hamilton has been with DEP for 13 years. From February 2020 to June 2021, he served as Deputy Secretary of Lands and Recreation, a department with a $391 million budget where he led 1,160 full-time employees overseeing Florida’s 12 million acres of public lands and 175 state parks, trails and historic sites.
Before that, Hamilton ran the DEP’s Northwest District for nine years, leading permitting, compliance and regulations enforcement.
According to his DEP bio, he has also coordinated DEP’s environmental justice efforts and commanded several large-scale natural and industrial emergency relief efforts, including work on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, International Paper Mill explosion, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael.