‘Tea party’ protest against proposed land deal mostly actors

More than 50 actors from a Broward County acting group were paid $75 each to protest outside the South Florida Water Management District on Thursday about a controversial land deal they knew little about.

The protest was called by the Tea Party of Miami and Florida Citizens Against Waste, a recently formed group that has no contact information on its website and is not registered to do business in Florida.

But the vast majority of the people holding signs saying “Stop the land grab” were actors who had responded to a post on the Facebook page of the Broward Acting Group. The March 31 post by Karen Donohue sought 40 protesters to “stand behind a fence, holding banners or signs that will be provided.”

“This couldn’t be any easier … the only down side is an early start for West Palm Beach location,” Donohue wrote. “That is why we are paying so well!! So, if you are casted don’t show up late.”

According to Donohue’s post, the actors would be paid cash and no breakfast would be provided. The protesters gathered outside the district’s headquarters in suburban West Palm Beach just before the 9 a.m. monthly meeting of the Water Resource Advisory Committee.

Some actors did not know who has paying for their services or specifics of the cause. Others declined to comment when asked. None spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Donohue did not return phone calls or messages on her Facebook page.

Also at the protest Thursday was Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, who said he did not know who had hired the protesters.

But he did speak about the issue that the Tea Party of Miami cited as the reason for the protest in an email sent Monday — the purchase of 46,800 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee that environmentalists want the district to make from U.S. Sugar for an estimated $500 million.

“This has basically turned into a billion dollar boondoggle,” Wilkinson said of the land deal. “We’re here to stop wasteful spending.”

Florida Citizens Against Waste also is urging opponents of the deal to sign a petition on its website, www.stopthelandgrab.org. The website was registered on March 14, two days after about 70 environmentalists wearing costumes and carrying signs protested outside the district headquarters. Then more than 100 spoke in favor of the land purchase during the public comment portion of the district’s governing board meeting.

Those supporters said the land could be used for reservoirs to store water from Lake Okeechobee, thereby reducing or even eliminating harmful releases of water from the lake into the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River at the northern end of the lake.

The land is part of a vastly scaled-down deal that began in 2008, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist proposed that the district spend $1.7 billion on 197,000 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp. But as the recession hit and tax revenue dropped, the district cut the plan to 73,000 acres. The sale still seemed stalled until Aug. 3, 2010, when the district announced it had whittled down the plan again — $197 million for about 28,000 acres. That deal went through.

The contract included options that allow the district to purchase additional land, including one for the 46,800 acres that expires Oct. 31. After that, if the district wants the U.S. Sugar land, it would have to meet the conditions of another option that would require it to buy the 46,800 plus another 106,200 at fair market value.

Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli has said he opposes the deal.

Although Florida Gov. Rick Scott and water district board members, all appointed by Scott, have not taken a position on the buy, they have hinted strongly they would prefer to see ongoing projects completed before spending hundreds of millions of dollars on land where no project has been approved.

But with the state’s option to buy the land expiring in October, inaction by the board has the same effect as opposition. Even if the board were to recommend the purchase, state legislators and Scott would also have to agree.

U.S. Sugar, which does not want to sell its land, was not involved in Thursday’s protest, said Judy Sanchez, the company’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications. However, the company is “one of many, along with Tea Party, business and other various groups, that support these issues where taxpayer spending is concerned.”

“After looking at their messages, we agreed that this is a voice that has been lacking in terms of public debate on this issue,” Sanchez said. As for building a 26,000-acre reservoir to solve a 4.5 billion-acre foot water problem, “the numbers simply do not add up to any type of realistic solution.”

Meanwhile, the Everglades Foundation and Everglades Trust have led a campaign to support the purchase, including a “six-figure” commercial the Trust produced for local television. Scientists have signed petitions urging the district to buy the land, and singer Jimmy Buffet will perform a free concert on the Florida Capitol steps on Tuesday in support of the land buy.

After the protest on Thursday, Donohue of the acting group posted again on Facebook.

“Just a Shout Out to the BGs that showed up today in WPB!!” Donohue wrote. “It was the easiest $$ ever, right??”

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