Last week, Martin County commissioners were given the opportunity to advocate for our human health and safety. Spoiler alert: they didn’t take it.
The back story.
In February, a familiar lineup of out-of-town naysayers came to a Martin County Commission meeting to advocate against operational solutions that could spare local residents from another devastating summer of discharges. Branding Congressman Mast’s support for lowering lake levels to 10 ½ ft. in the dry season--a critical step towards protecting coastal communities from toxins and sending life-giving freshwater south where it’s desperately needed--as “dangerous rhetoric” and imploring the commissioners to think beyond the county they represent, an invitation was extended (twice) to Martin County Commissioners to come out for a visit south of the lake.
“Follow the science, not the rhetoric...It’s time to start working together,” former Pahokee Mayor JP Sasser pleaded.
“We sympathize with the problems you have. But our problems are greater than yours because our problems are people,” Glades Lives Matter spokeswoman and former Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor said.
(Somehow exposing a million people to toxins linked to liver failure, cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases isn’t a “people problem” in this view.)
Acting Chairman Commissioner Ciampi leaped at the opportunity and accepted on behalf of Martin County--with eager support from Commissioners Doug Smith and Stacey Hetherington--offering to coordinate a joint meeting. Were they in on a move coordinated by the sugarcane industry, or just painfully naive about the ruse they were signing up for? We have our own suspicions.
You might be thinking this doesn’t sound so bad, right? After all, there’s not a person in this fight that wouldn’t advocate for a solution that benefits the entire region (with perhaps one sweet exception that currently claims all the benefit and zero risk from the current water operating system). But then JP Sasser hosted a press conference later that same day. The man who called for a united front towards a common interest just hours earlier turned right around and berated Rep. Mast for his advocacy for a solution that would protect his constituents from being poisoned and pointed fingers at what he referred to as “the common enemy” of the communities south of the lake and on the Treasure Coast: “fake environmentalists.” If Ciampi et al. didn’t realize they had walked into a trap before, they certainly should have then.
Fast forward to last Tuesday, May 7th.
Martin County commissioners, with the exception of Sarah Heard, accepted the invitation and joined Okeechobee, Glades, Palm Beach, and Hendry counties for a visit. Noticeably missing was any representative from Lee County, our west coast neighbors similarly plagued by toxic Lake Okeechobee discharges. Why weren’t they invited?
At the door, representatives of Glades Lives Matter handed out flyers accusing Congressman Mast of intentionally “starving their communities of water, bullying water managers, intimidating public servants and rigging the water supply for the wealthy coastal elites” of District 18. That’s you, Martin County. The ones invited to this meeting out of sympathy for common problems and desire for shared solutions. Toxic algae and links to neurological disease be damned. Before the meeting even began, the rhetoric they warned us against took on an unapologetic target. Surely Martin County commissioners would speak up in their constituents' defense now.
But they didn’t. Two commissioners (Jenkins and Hetherington) remained completely silent. The other two (Smith and Ciampi) seemed to be enjoying the show. One after another, they praised the unity of the meeting. They shared jokes at the microphone. They lamented the shared adversity of the farmers in the EAA and the residents on the coast. Not one of them mentioned the human health crisis unfolding under their very noses at home. Not one of them made a stand for the community that they represent or for the Congressman who has actively championed the call for their safety.
But we’ve covered this story before. Doug Smith, the Benedict Arnold of county commissioners, signed the Now or Neverglades Declaration during his race in 2016 but was the only commissioner to vote against a resolution to sign the declaration later. Doug Smith has a long record of being part of the problem.
Our interests do differ from county to county. But the science shows that we could all benefit, right now, from more flexibility in the operating system. An operational change could have taken advantage of unused system capacity to stabilize salinity levels in Florida Bay AND protect communities south of Lake Okeechobee AND reduce discharges and toxic blooms on the coasts. While we continue to search for solutions that work for everyone, it would be nice to see some locally elected officials with the integrity to advocate for the best interests of the people whose votes put them into office.
So what should Martin County voters learn from this? The majority of this commission has either proven to be too ineffective to speak up, or to be actively working on behalf of a more sinister interest to undermine this community. Either way, they don’t deserve your vote when re-election time comes. Voters across Florida should be giving the same hard look at their own local representatives. You voted for them, you put them into office. Are they doing right by you?