Monday, July 04, 2022

SJRWMD caught red-handed, trying to get rid of important parkland. (Craig Pittman, Florida Phoenix

Kudos to Chris Farrell and Audubon Florida for exposing this wrongdoing.

Are the State of Florida and some government agencies unjust stewards of our environment?

Oligarchs lust after our conservation lands. 

Their  depredations are a stench in the nostrils of our State and Nation. 

We need a St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore, which would include 140,000 acres of current government owned land, including 70,000 acres in St. Johns and Flagler Counties, which were acquired by then SJRWMD Executive Director I. Henry Dean, now our St. Johns County Commission Chairman. 


Florida water agency caught trying to get rid of important parkland

Hidden item on the agenda makes one wonder if there’s a hidden agenda

JUNE 30, 2022 7:00 AM

 Paynes Prairie Reserve State Park would have lost acreage under a sale contemplated by the St. Johns Water Management Agency. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever misplaced something important? People do this all the time in Florida. They lose track of their money, their pants, their basic dignity — sometimes all in one night.

Four years ago, I was supposed to drive a vanload of smelly Boy Scouts — including my own pair — back home from a very warm week at a summer camp in Georgia. We were packed and ready to hit the road (with all the windows down) when I discovered the van keys had disappeared.

Everyone spent a frantic half an hour searching the grounds. When the keys finally turned up, they weren’t on the ground. They had wound up in the back of the van, under some equipment we’d packed.

I picked up an eerily similar vibe from something that happened recently involving one of Florida’s five water management districts. Those are the folks in charge of protecting the state’s water supply. A key part of that is buying watershed land for conservation purposes.

Yet the St. Johns River Water Management District somehow lost track of what it had done with 18,000 acres.

That’s right, 18,000 acres. The district misplaced 127 parcels scattered from Jacksonville to Orlando, including part of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (where “preserve” is part of the name) and other  properties important to the agency’s water protection efforts.

Worse, the water district very nearly put all that land up for sale.

You know how hot the Florida real estate market is these days. You could stick a “for sale” sign on a cardboard box and you’d be trampled by a horde of investors wanting to buy it, tear it down and build a two-story replacement to sell for $1.3 million.

Fortunately for everyone, a hawk-eyed Audubon Florida employee named Chris Farrell spotted the item on the water board’s agenda. He realized something was amiss and started raising questions.

 Chris Farrell, Audubon Society

Farrell also alerted his boss at Audubon Florida, executive director Julie Wraithmell. Soon, other environmental groups and local government officials who oversee some of this state property were waving red flags as well.

If it hadn’t been for Farrell, said Wraithmell, “it would have passed. Nobody else was watching it.”

Instead, the water agency’s executive director, Mike Register, admitted it was a mistake and pulled the item from the agenda.

What I couldn’t figure out — as with the keys in the van — was how this could have happened.

How to hide a hidden agenda

As a newspaper reporter, I spent nearly four decades covering local government agency meetings. For hours, I numbed my rump sitting through long, dull conversations about millage rates, drainage problems, and sewer hook-ups.

I was there because Florida has a Government in the Sunshine Law that requires records and meetings to be open to the public. That way people know how their tax dollars are being spent, even when their public servants would prefer to keep it a secret.

After a while, I noticed that when government officials wanted to hide something, they had a few tricks for getting around the Sunshine Law. One of them was to stick the item on what was called “the consent agenda.”

That’s the part of the agenda that the public and lazy reporters usually skip over. It’s for unimportant stuff like, say, renting Port-A-Potties for a festival. Instead of taking each item by itself, the board votes for the whole consent agenda all at once.

Sometimes, checking the consent agenda yielded some pretty wild stories.

For instance, the Southwest Florida Water Management District once sued a gun range for pollution violations. In response, the National Rifle Association’s top Tallahassee lobbyist, Marion “I Like Gun Butts and I Cannot Lie” Hammer called for the agency nicknamed “Swiftmud” to be abolished.

Hammer was the most powerful lobbyist in the state, so this was no idle threat. The 4-foot-11 pistol-packing grandma could twitch an eyebrow and make any state agency cry, “Please Hammer, don’t hurt me!”

Swiftmud’s decision to drop the suit was slipped into the consent agenda at the last minute. It passed quietly and when I asked questions, nobody wanted to talk about it.

The consent agenda for the June 14 St. Johns water district governing board meeting is where Farrell found this odd clue about the conservation land. Under Item No. 17, all it said was, “Consideration: Approve the District’s Land Acquisition Plan and the Real Property Surplus List.”

Farrell told me he knew there’d been some discussion about declaring a few parcels of poor quality land to be surplus. Then it could be sold and the money used to buy better land. At least, that was the theory.

The description of what was being put up for sale offered few specifics: “The results of staff’s parcel by parcel evaluation identified 18,637.66 acres, or 127 potential parcels with the greatest marketable value for surplus. These properties will be offered for sale … .”

Such a large amount of land raised Farrell’s eyebrows. When he turned to the list of properties, “all they had was a spreadsheet — no maps,” Farrell said.

The spreadsheet gave property numbers with little further description. It was as if the water board’s staff was doing its darnedest to discourage the public from finding out what properties would wind up on the auction block.

Farrell painstakingly looked up the numbers, he said, and “there were some shocking ones there.”

 Hal Scott Regional Park and Reserve. Credit: SJRWMD

For instance, one parcel contained 1,810 acres of the 8,832-acre Hal Scott Regional Preserve in Orange County, which the water district’s own website calls “an oasis in the rapidly developing Orlando area.”

Some parcels had cryptic notes from the staff, such as this one on a large parcel in Alachua County: “Sell unencumbered. Property suitable for agriculture or residential use.”

It was much more suitable for a park, but the water district staff apparently hadn’t considered that. They had their mind on the money and the money on their mind.

At the behest of Scott-bots

Something similar happened a decade ago when Rick Scott was governor. I refer to that era as “The Mad Slasher Years,” because Scott and his eager-to-please minions treated environmental programs the way a horror movie murderer treats a bunch of teenagers.

For years, through state programs such as Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever, the Legislature invested $300 million a year in buying environmentally sensitive land. The land-buying programs were immensely popular with the public.

They were also part of the reason Florida’s state park system won the National Recreation and Parks Association gold medal for excellence four times — the only state park system in the nation to rack up that many medals. If I were ever named state parks director, I’d strut around with those gold medals around my neck like Flavor Flav with his clock.

 Former governor and current Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. U.S. Senate

But Rapmaster Rick was all about the Benjamins. In response to his demand for massive budget cuts from state agencies, his Department of Environmental Protection proposed closing a third of the state parks. After an outcry, Scott decided against that.

Then came proposals to add things to the parks — golf courses and hotels, R.V. campsites run by private contractors, cattle grazing, timber harvesting, even hunting.

Scott appointees did this because they were trying like obedient robots to carry out a nonsensical assignment: help their boss make good on his campaign promise of creating 700,000 new jobs (even as he laid off hundreds of experienced scientists).

The choice of which parks would get these “supplements” was, according to internal emails, the result of what one official called “a fast assessment done to meet a very short deadline.” Once again, the public screamed bloody murder and put the kibosh on Scott’s effort.

Then came the craziest idea of all: Declaring as surplus enough state land to sell off to raise $50 million to buy better properties.

Nine months of controversy ensued. The state’s initial list of 169 properties covering about 5,000 acres repeatedly ran into opposition from a lot of people who cared a lot about their local state parks.

In the end, not one single parcel was sold. The two state officials in charge resigned. The DEP announced the end of the effort via a press release sent out at 6 p.m. on a Friday — a sure sign of bureaucratic embarrassment.

At the behest of the Scott-bots, the St. Johns water board went through an identical (and identically frustrating) exercise in 2012. The agency’s staff searched for any land that could be declared surplus and sold off. In the end, the agency concluded that it could spare just 1 percent of its conservation land.

The thing those Scott-omatons couldn’t get through their brain circuits was that, in Florida, very little land preserved from development could ever be considered surplus. So much more is being paved over so rapidly that the preserves gain in value.

Plus, there’s something in the state Constitution that limits what can be put on any “surplus” list.

‘Not in any way, shape, manner or form’

Clay Henderson has more than a passing interest in all this. A longtime environmental activist, he’s now writing a history of Florida’s land conservation programs (“Forces of Nature,” out in December).

Henderson served on the Constitutional Revision Commission in 1998. He told me he wrote the line that the group stuck in the Constitution about surplussing land: Before any conservation land is declared surplus, the land first must be declared “no longer needed for conservation purposes.”

That’s a high bar and hard to meet, he said.

Henderson told me he was well aware of the sequence of the St. Johns screw-up, but not its cause.

“What galls me is the audacity of trying to do this on the consent agenda,” Henderson said. “It’s like what Rick Scott tried to do, except they almost pulled it off.”

Henderson said the St. Johns board members began discussing the idea of selling surplus land in January. It came up again in a March workshop, for which the minutes of the meeting are surprisingly scant.

“What’s not clear,” Henderson said, “is why John Miklos was there.”

The Orlando Sentinel thought that curious too, reporting that “it doesn’t help that John Miklos spoke at an unrecorded and minimally documented session of the water district in March when surplus lands was a key topic.”

Miklos, president of an Orlando firm called Bio-Tech Consulting, served on the St. Johns water board for nearly a decade. He never saw a problem with doing that while representing development clients who needed permits from that same board.

He racked up enough ethics complaints to make Richard Nixon envious but emerged unscathed. His presence at the March meeting, though, raised suspicions that he had something to do with the surplus list winding up on the consent agenda.

I called Miklos to ask him about the March workshop. He shot back an email that said his attendance at that meeting “was not in any way, shape, manner, or form related to the district’s surplus lands.” But he didn’t say what he WAS doing there.

He also said he wasn’t giving me permission to quote from or even refer to the email he’d sent me. Y’all just pretend you didn’t read that part of this column, OK?

Trouble with transparency

On Monday morning I requested an interview with someone from the St. Johns water district who could explain how the list was put together, how it wound up on the consent agenda and how — or whether — Miklos was involved.

The water district is apparently still having some trouble with transparency.

Spokeswoman Ashley Evitt waited until Wednesday afternoon to tell me she was “unable to accommodate your interview request at this time.” She emailed me a written statement that said what I already knew: “The list created concern from stakeholders, which is understandable as some of the properties were erroneously included and would not ever [have] been considered for surplus.”

That still didn’t tell me how it happened.

When I talked to Wraithmell, she blamed years of budget cuts and employee turnover at the water agency. That left the staff unaware of the significance of the property they wanted to get rid of, she said. She contended that proper funding from Tallahassee would have avoided this near-disaster.

“They shouldn’t have to have a fire sale to accomplish their mission,” she told me.

 Michael Register. Credit: SJRWMD

She and Farrell both applauded Register for pulling the plug and promising to start over. Farrell said staffers told him that now everyone could just forget it ever happened. He disagreed.

“We shouldn’t forget that this happened,” he said. “We should figure out how this happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I think it happened because, as with the Scott-bots, the water district folks were focused only on the money the agency could make. Those properties, according to the agenda, were the ones with “the greatest marketable value for surplus.”

Instead, government agencies thinking of selling conservation land should pay more attention to the value for Florida’s ecology. They should always include maps. And they should hesitate before ever listing any conservation land as surplus, because so much is being lost every day.

And anyone who forgets those key principles should be locked in a van with a bunch of stinky campers for a few hours — with the windows up.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

Florida nursing home owner to pay $1.75M in vaccine probe. (CBS News Miami)

Good action.  

In the early days of COVID vaccines, the wealthy got preferred access.  

Some Florida non-profits looked guilty, guilty, guilty as they refused to answer questions. 

From CBS News Miami:

Florida nursing home owner to pay $1.75M in vaccine probe. 

CBS News Miami

TALLAHASSEE - The owner of a West Palm Beach nursing home will pay $1.75 million to settle claims that it improperly diverted doses of COVID-19 vaccine to members of its board of directors and donors. 

The settlement stemmed from a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program, known as the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, that was designed to vaccinate nursing-home residents and staff members as vaccines first became available in late 2020. 

MorseLife, which owns a nursing home and an assisted-living facility, was accused of vaccinating hundreds of people ineligible for the program. 

"This specific vaccination program was designed to protect some of the nation's most vulnerable individuals at a critical time when the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating that population," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, said in a prepared statement. 

The settlement resolved allegations that MorseLife "invited and facilitated the vaccination of hundreds of ineligible persons at the clinic by characterizing them as 'staff' and 'volunteers,' many of whom MorseLife targeted for donations," a Justice Department news release said Thursday. 

MorseLife enrolled in the program and scheduled a vaccination clinic Dec. 31, 2020, for residents and staff members of the nursing home, the Joseph L. Morse Health Center. 

But the Justice Department news release said 567 of the 976 people vaccinated were ineligible for the program. 

Prosecutors alleged that donors were listed as "staff" and that MorseLife's fundraising arm was directed to invite donors and potential donors to the vaccination clinic. 

Also, the Justice Department alleged the board's vice chairman and his brother were allowed to invite close to 300 ineligible people to get vaccinated. In January 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state was investigating the nursing home after national reports about the vaccinations. 

The governor's office and the state auditor general did not immediately respond to questions Friday about the investigation.

St. Johns County seeks to buy $2 million Crescent Beach property for parking County plans to raze former restaurant building. (SAR

$2 million to buy and demolish an oceanfront restaurant for parking. 

It's our money. 

St. Johns County Administrator HUNTER SINCLAIR CONRAD did not put this item on the County Commission for discussion, but snuck it on the consent agenda.  No citizen spoke.  No Commissioner spoke.

I question the process.

The last lessee of a popular restaurant ran the business into the ground, amidst allegations of wage theft and dupery.  The owner, a surgeon's widow, was willing to sell the property, and the County was willing to buy it.  There were two appraisals. 

But it seems that the $2 million would've been better spent on conservation land, at a time when our Land Acquisition Management Plan (LAMP) Board, newly recreated, has a $500,000 annual ceiling on what it can recommend for purchase of conservation land.

Meanwhile, this $2 million purchase was not referred to LAMP.

It should have been on the regular agenda, with a presentation, 

There is too much secrecy in St. Johns County government.

As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, "Secrecy is for losers, for people who don't understand the value of the information.,"

We need to stop the train -- this is the second time St. Johns County has acquired a beachfront restaurant, taking business property off the tax rolls, without coming clean about costs and benefits.  The County also acquired Fiddler's Green Restaurant, only to tear it down, with a county park in progress. 

Meanwhile, the idle rich continue buying properties, depriving working people of affordable housing, and erasing oceanfront restaurants where we could enjoy beauty.

Former St. Johns County Commissioner Ben Rich, Sr. told me in 2008 that the Establishment in St. Johns County wanted to erase working people from access to our beaches.  

We, the People, defeated efforts to inflict beach paring meters on county and St. Augustine Beach.  

We should insist that no more tax money be spent on demolishing beachfront restaurants.  

We shield insist on greater transparency -- the consent agenda is systematically abused, year after year, and no one seems to give a fig, least of all the tedious remnant of the St. Augustine Record, which still prints government and corporate press releases, de facto or de jure, without protecting the public interest,

While there may be good reasons to spend $2 million for more beach parking, the amount added is de minimis, if not de micromis.

Land acquisition, like. democracy, is not a spectator sport.

While two County Commissioners once attacked our Mosquito Control District for planning a $3 million mosquito museum without public input, that process was open, publicized and ongoing for several years.  

In contrast, St. Johns County spent $2 million with no public involvement, nothing on the regular agenda, no public input, and no effort to provide for a replacement oceanfront restaurant. 

It's our money.

Read the consent agenda item, resolution and sales contract draft here.

From St. Augustine Record:

St. Johns County seeks to buy $2 million Crescent Beach property for parking

County plans to raze former restaurant building

Sheldon Gardner
St. Augustine Record
The closed South Beach Grill in Crescent Beach shares a parking lot with St. Johns County's Crescent Beach Park.

St. Johns County plans to expand parking at Crescent Beach Park by purchasing adjacent land for $2 million at a former restaurant site. 

St. Johns County commissioners recently approved the expense, but the county is still finalizing the purchase, county spokeswoman Lorena Inclan said. 

Growth and development:Hotel plan for St. Augustine's tallest building will return to board in July

The fall of Roe v. Wade:Five questions about abortion access in Florida

The property, owned by Coquina Beach Holdings in Ponte Vedra Beach, is the former South Beach Grill restaurant site, and the restaurant building is still there.  

A St. Johns County government map shows the location of land that the county plans to buy for $2 million, which will allow the county to add to off-beach parking spaces.

"This property is ideal for creating additional off-beach parking, as this location is adjacent to Crescent Beach Park, which will allow the county to utilize the existing restrooms, pavilion and beach access, reducing the cost of development," according to the resolution adopted by commissioners. 

The county has 112 parking spaces in Crescent Beach, a popular spot for residents and visitors, according to Inclan. The Crescent Beach Park lot often meets capacity. 


Thanks to Governor DeSANTIS for his latest veto of one of our Florida State Senator TRAVIS HUTSON's monstrous raving looney bills -- S 620. 

DeSANTIS's very first veto in 2019 was of another hare-brained HUTSON bill, which would have banned bans on plastic straws. 

I agree with Miami Beach Mayor Daniel Saul Gelber, former State Senate Democratic Leader, praising DesANTIS for this veto.  

Too bad DeSANTIS did not veto another HUTSON bill, which attacks our right to elect Soil and Conservation District members.

DeSANTIS and HUTSON are political allies, barnacles on the underbelly of the ship of state.

The fact that DeSANTIS has twice vetoed HUTSON's special interest bills speaks volumes.

To Senator HUTSON: Knock it off. The feds indict corrupt Florida public officials who abuse the public trust.  Ask Scott Maddox, Corrine Brown and Andrew Gillum. 

The link to DeSANTIS' veto message is not currently working. 

From Florida Bar Journal:


  Senior Editor Top Stories

Florida CapitolGov. Ron DeSantis has vetoed a measure that would have let businesses sue a local government if a new ordinance reduced profits by 15% or more.

Dubbed the “Local Business Protection Act,” SB 620 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, cleared the Senate 22-14 on January 27. It cleared the House 69-45 on March 9.

The measure would have allowed businesses to sue a city or county that enacted an ordinance or charter amendment that reduced profits by 15% or more, per location, within the jurisdiction.

The bill exempted emergency measures but would have allowed businesses to seek damages for up to seven years of lost profits.

In his veto message, DeSantis said the bill’s language was too broad, and criticized its failure to compensate businesses impacted by emergency ordinances. The latter was a reference to DeSantis’ vehement opposition to federal COVID-19 health mandates.

DeSantis said he agrees with the bill’s premise.

“Local governments do overstep their authority and unreasonably burden businesses through policies that range from the merely misguided to the politically motivated,” he wrote.

However, DeSantis said the bill’s language was “broad and ambiguous” and could lead to “unintended and unforeseen consequences and costly litigation.”

Local governments warned the measure would hamstring their ability to regulate growth and make other tough decisions.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a former House Democratic leader, said he rarely agrees with DeSantis, but praised him for vetoing the bill.

“Some businesses may not like it, but we’re trying to balance the needs of our citizens and protect their quality of life,” Gelber said.

Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, sponsored the companion, HB 569.

From Florida Politics:

Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoes local business ‘protection’ bill

By Gray Rohrer

Florida Politics

June 24, 2022

'The better approach is to enact targeted preemption legislation when local governments act in a way that frustrates state policy and/or undermines the rights of Floridians.'

Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed SB 620 on Friday, a top priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson which sought to punish local governments for passing laws detrimental to local businesses.

Dubbed the “Local Business Protection Act,” SB 620 would have allowed a business to sue a city or county if they pass an ordinance that would reduce their profit by 15% per location within the city or county. The business could’ve been awarded damages for the cost of their lost profits for up to seven years.

In his veto letter, DeSantis said the bill would have had unintended consequences because it was too broad, and noted the measure didn’t apply to emergency orders issued by local governments. DeSantis pushed back against several local governments’ emergency orders related to COVID-19 during the pandemic.

“Incredibly, this bill exempts compensating businesses due to ‘emergency’ orders of local government,” DeSantis wrote. “However, the broad and ambiguous language of the bill will lead to both unintended and unforeseen consequences and costly litigation. Because of this, the better approach is to enact targeted preemption legislation when local governments act in a way that frustrates state policy and/or undermines the rights of Floridians.”

The bill passed 22-14 in the Senate and 69-45 in the House, mostly along party lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. But six House Republicans joined Democrats voting against the measure: Reps. Thad AltmanMelony BellSam KillebrewPatt ManeyJim Mooney, and David Smith. One Senate Republican, Sen. Jeff Brandes, also voted against it.

Environmental groups had pushed for a veto from DeSantis, arguing the bill would make it nearly impossible to enact water quality measures.

“Implementing & enforcing water quality standards are critical steps for protecting our waterways & manatees,” the group Save the Manatees posted on Twitter on Thursday. “Under SB 620, local programs addressing water quality issues are at risk. Urge Gov DeSantis to protect (Florida’s) natural resources by vetoing SB 620.”

The loudest calls for a veto came from animal welfare groups, which are concerned the bill will prevent local governments from passing bans on so-called “puppy mills,” by prohibiting the sale of cats and dogs at retail pet stores.

Groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals argue dogs kept to breed puppies for retail sale are housed in poor conditions without property veterinary care and mostly in cages.

House records show lobbyists for Petland, a retail pet store with 13 locations in Florida, signed up to lobby for the House version of the bill, HB 569.

POLITICO Florida reporter that House bill sponsor Rep. Lawrence McClure, said Friday the solution is to have more targeted preemption legislation when needed.

“It’s not like we’re having philosophical differences here (with the Governor),” the Dover Republican said during an interview. “Conceptually we all agree we don’t want legal Florida businesses being displaced in any way by local governments.”

From Tallahassee Democrat/USA Today Network:

DeSantis vetoes lawsuit measure, siding with local governments over ally Wilton Simpson

John Kennedy
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senate President Wilton Simpson

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a measure that critics warned could have led to scores of costly lawsuits against city and county governments when local regulations hurt a company’s bottom line.

The legislation (SB 620) vetoed Friday marked a rare moment when the Republican governor sided with local governments and environmental groups who had opposed the measure over some of his staunchest allies, including Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and state’s Retail Federation.

DeSantis, though, found a way to needle both sides.

In his veto letter killing the provision set to take effect July 1, DeSantis recalled his hostility to COVID-19 restrictions imposed by cities and counties during what was viewed as the height of the pandemic.

“Local governments do overstep their authority and unreasonably burden businesses through policies that range from the merely misguided to the politically motivated,” DeSantis wrote. “Indeed, this was illustrated by the bizarre and draconian measures adopted by some local governments during COVID 19, necessitating the state to overrule these edicts…”

Critics said it would hurt taxpayers:Businesses gain power to fight local governments under measures passed by Florida Senate

What DeSantis didn't like:Amid rising COVID-19 counts, Florida cities find ways to sidestep Gov. DeSantis’ policies

But DeSantis ultimately agreed with opponents, concluding that, “the broad and ambiguous language of the bill will lead to both unintended and unforeseen consequences and costly litigation.”

A Simpson priority

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, but was a priority of Simpson, now a DeSantis-endorsed Republican candidate for the Cabinet post of Agriculture Commissioner.  It allowed any business operating in Florida for at least three years to claim legal damages if a county or city enacts or amends a provision that causes a reduction of at least 15% of the company’s profits.

The company would have to notify the local government within 180 days of an ordinance’s enactment that it was harmed, submit documents backing the claim, and ask for a settlement offer. Businesses could have legal fees paid by the city or county if they prevail.

During legislative debate, Bob McKee with the Florida Association of Counties called the measure a “tax bill.

“Local governments will have to tax their homeowners and businesses to pay these business damages and attorneys’ fees,” he warned.

Critics: Bill would discourage action

If such a law was already in place, organizations fighting the legislation said the heightened risk of facing lawsuits would have discouraged cities from enacting ordinances that stopped “pill mill” pain clinics which fed the state’s opioid crisis, internet cafes doubling as illegal gambling sites, limits on bar hours and even septic-to-sewer conversions underway in many communities.

“This is a clear victory for local leaders and their constituents,” said 1000 Friends of Florida President Paul Owens, whose organization made fighting SB 620 a top priority.

Florida TaxWatch, the business-backed research group, even put a ballpark estimate of $905 million as the bill’s potential cost to local government, certain to be borne by taxpayers.

“In an already exceptionally litigious state like Florida, it would have resulted in an influx of financially motivated and malicious lawsuits,” said Dominic Calabro, TaxWatch president and CEO.

He added, “Local government’s only response would have been to either increase taxes or reduce services, and in both cases, this bill would have hurt hard-working taxpayers across the state.”

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport