Though Gov. Rick Scott's office would not confirm it, South Florida Water Management District chief executive Blake Guillory will be out of the job next week, replaced with the governor's former general counsel, Peter Antonacci.
Daniel DeLisi, the district's $135,000-a-year chief of staff, tendered his resignation or was fired this week. DeLisi, remember, a former SFWMD board member, was hired over 53 other candidates in March 2013, five days after he resigned his board seat.
How do I know this? From a whole bunch of unnamed sources, sadly. By Thursday afternoon it had become the worst kept secret in Tallahassee.
Other than Guillory himself, who swore up and down Thursday morning that my phone call was the first he'd heard of his impending dismissal, not a soul would go on the record for this story. Every one of the people I talked to said they feared retribution from the governor's office.
Details nevertheless are consistent to a fault; the story is circulating among the highest level of players in the capital. And as rumors go, consider this the take-it-to-the-bank variety.
Apparently Guillory, 54, is being axed because he failed to sell the governor's tax-cut message to SFWMD board members in July. Members believed in the need for the district's $754 million budget plan.
This is the agency, remember, that collects taxes from 16 counties, guards against South Florida flooding and leads Everglades restoration. It is the largest, busiest and most intricately employed of all five water management districts in Florida. Its budget has been under pressure since 2011, when the district cut nearly 400 employees. And what members did in July is decide they couldn't afford to cut property taxes by 8 percent.
Guillory apparently was supposed to script the July meeting and the vote by preparing board members -- all of them, Scott appointees -- to go the governor's tax-cut way. Only, he didn't do that. Or if he did, it didn't work.
After the vote a Scott office spokesman, sounding a little like Tom Hagen in "The Godfather," told the media, "The governor is very disappointed."
No horse head under the covers for Guillory. But he can expect a pink slip or an invitation to step away of his own volition after a meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
Well, when something like this happens, you like to hope you're going to get an upgrade. But GrayRobinson's Peter Antonacci -- great lawyer maybe, zero water management creds -- is no upgrade.
Though Antonacci has less water management experience than Guillory had coming in, they do have something in common: Both are accomplished hired guns.
In 2013 Guillory was the executive director of the smaller Southwest Florida Water Management District. His claim to fame there was slashing staff. Even before he started at SFWMD, Guillory had sent two of his deputy executive directors and the agency's longtime attorney packing, and then demoted a third deputy director. He went on to dump another 150 employees.
When Melissa Meeker abruptly resigned as chief exec of the SFWMD, Guillory let the governor know he was available, and voila.
In case you haven't noticed, under Scott, water management district directors have been chosen not on their ability as water managers, but on their willingness to slash and burn budgets and staffs and then sweep the resultant problems under the rug. This, of course, is besides agreeing to take directon from the governor and the Department of Environmenal Protection rather than their boards. It's the bond that Guillory and Antonacci share.
Antonacci can claim a very accomplished legal career in the state capital. He served a number of governors starting with Bob Graham. In 2012, Scott appointed him general counsel to the governor, making him Scott’s primary adviser on the appointment of trial and appellate court judges as well as judicial nominating commissioners throughout the state. It's a position he held until earlier this year.
It was Antonacci in the background pulling the strings for the Scott administration, gutting the St. Johns River Water Management District of senior staff, effecting a purge that left the simultaneous and unexplained departures of four executives from the agency that protects Central Florida's wetlands, rivers and aquifer. If you include the executive director, it was five senior St. Johns River WMD people -- all made gone.
Those are Antonacci's water management credentials.
Without a doubt, the moves weakened the St. Johns region's environmental safeguards, but strengthening them was never his mission.
One more problem with Antonacci: His significant other is Anne Longman, of Lewis, Longman & Walker PA. Longman's firm represents the Seminole Tribe of Florida and does environmental and water law work for SFWMD. It will be interesting to hear how he gets around what looks like conflicts of interest the size of a small canyon.
I did try to get this story -- any part of it -- on the record. Here's how my phone calls went: 1) Guillory denied knowing a thing about his tanking job, even though he's been talking around about Antonacci wanting it for the last two weeks; 2) neither Antonacci nor Longman returned my calls, even after I left a detailed message why I was calling; 3) the governor's office first sent me back to the water management district, which didn't call me back; then Communications Director Jackie Schutz emailed me this statement: "We have no announcements on this board and we will definitely keep you posted when we do."
In fairness to everyone involved, a word of explanation:
Water management districts are not state agencies and until 2010 enjoyed autonomy with their governing boards and the Department of Environmental Protection overseeing them. Then along came the Charlie Crist/U.S. Sugar deal, when the SFWMD board members of the day were throwing around land purchase money, proposing expenditures in never-been-heard-of-before amounts. The Legislature and governor panicked. My point is, the state's overreach we see today is a direct outgrowth of that one broken "deal."
But let me make myself clear. Florida's water management districts -- particularly SFWMD, biggest and most complex -- need to be run by real water managers, managers who know how to hire and inspire and keep good staff, who won't "economize away" the brightest and best. It grieves me to see how many outstanding, knowledgeable staff have left SFWMD particularly in the last year.
Meanwhile, those problems getting swept under the rug don't go away. The health and safety of millions of Floridians -- let alone the successful completion of Everglades restoration -- are all at issue.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith