The emails are puzzling. They are misleading. They are sneaky. The subject lines, in lower case letters, are nondescript, such as “funding” or “need this finished.”
The sender – the Economic Council of Martin County – does not want to explain them.
The emails do not ask readers to back what the Council website lists as its prime objective for waterways and the environment: “Support continued money to store, clean and move more water south from Lake Okeechobee, rather than having it discharged to tide through our estuary.”
Instead, the Economic Council emails tell residents to send the opposite message: DO NOT buy U.S. Sugar land to send Lake O water south. Urge lawmakers to give Amendment 1 money to “existing projects,” even though buying the sugar industry-owned land is vital to protecting east and west coast rivers and the Everglades.
The Economic Council is promoting the sugar industry’s “support existing projects” agenda, which doesn’t include the state buying sugar land south of the lake.
When a new Council email appears, Martin environmental lawyer Ginny Sherlock and others immediately send messages to set the record straight. “Don’t buy what the Economic Council is selling,” Sherlock writes. “Stand up to Big Sugar. Stand up to organizations that claim to care about the environment and our quality of life without acting responsibly to preserve them.”
Sherlock suggests using the links the Economic Council provides in the deceptive emails to “tell your elected representatives to buy the U.S. Sugar land and send the water south.”
The Economic Council seemed to be on a positive track after the disastrous summer of 2013, when prolonged Lake Okeechobee discharges devastated tourism, sent fishermen and boaters away and left residents and businesses staring at health department signs warning them not to touch the water in the St. Lucie River.
The Council produced a series of videos detailing economic impacts of Lake Okeechobee discharges. But one video suggests that things with the Economic Council are not what they seem. Don Voss, who started a group called One Florida that is bankrolled by the sugar industry, stars in it. The sugar industry message – give money to existing projects, not to buying land needed south of Lake Okeechobee – comes through loud and clear in the video.
The emails confused many residents. One who was upset she was misled said on Facebook she tried to send a retraction.
So, take a look at Economic Council members. Chairman is Joseph W. Capra of CAPTEC Engineering Inc. Vice Chairman is Dan Carmody of Olde Florida Realty, treasurer is Alex Beringer of Fair Wind Air Charter, and secretary is Sara Wingfield Lindgren of JP Morgan Chase. Ed Weinberg, an environmental consultant whose past reports failed to favor Martin gopher tortoises or Palm Beach County’s offshore reefs, is past chairman.
At-large members include Tom McNicholas of McNicholas and Associates. His public relations firm often supports growth industry causes and clients. Until I wrote about it in a Jan. 25 column about sugar industry-supported One Florida, his firm’s website touted its success at “marginalizing” environmental groups protesting Florida Power & Light projects. The South Florida Water Management District paid McNicholas’ firm to put a positive spin on Lake Okeechobee dumping in 2005.
Dan Morris of Corsair Capital Group and Robert S. Raynes, a Gunster lawyer who often represents developers trying to win exceptions to Martin’s protective growth plan, are other at-large members. Board members also include another Gunster employee, representatives of a bank, development and construction companies, office supply, accounting and telecommunications firms and two real estate companies.
So, no surprise, the Council has no environmentalists. But why the deceptive emails? Especially when the Council claims to support saving local waterways by sending more Lake O water south?
“We believe completing the existing projects would have the most immediate effect on our local economy and on our waterways,” Council CEO Chuck Gerardi said, after at first asking to speak off the record. “We’re not advocating for the purchase of the sugar land, but we’re not opposed to it.”
A sugar industry spokesperson couldn’t have said it better.
Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.