Water district’s Everglades expert retires, hopes for job with ag group


When Ernie Barnett announced at the South Florida Water Management District’s board meeting this month that he would retire in January 2014, one governing board member wondered if the district’s technology staff could “figure out a way to suck all the knowledge out of Ernie’s head.”

Although the suggestion got a laugh, the loss of Barnett’s expertise on the Everglades — acquired over 30 years as a scientist, lobbyist, policy-maker and nature lover devoted to restoring the River of Grass — will be felt.

“There is no replacing you,” board member Glenn Waldman told Barnett, the district’s assistant executive director. “Really, you have to doubly promise us that you will be a resource for us, because we don’t have another resource like you.”

Barnett, 54, said he intends to spend more time with his two adult children and hopes to become the new executive director of the Florida Land Council, a powerful nonprofit organization of 18 of the state’s largest and most influential agricultural companies. The council’s current executive director, lobbyist Chuck Littlejohn, has announced his retirement, Barnett said.

The council does not have a website, but tax records show its mission is “monitoring governmental regulations and judicial activity related to land use.” Its board members include Robert Coker, senior vice president of public affairs at U.S. Sugar, and Tracey Duda Chapman, who leads the real estate development subsidiary of the vegetable grower A. Duda & Sons.

Shortly before Barnett announced his retirement at the Nov. 14 board meeting, the district’s board unanimously approved a land deal crafted by Barnett that enables the district to acquire land from Duda that it needs for restoration.

As part of the deal, Duda will receive 30-year, no-bid lease extensions on state-owned land. Barnett did not participate in the presentation to the board at the meeting.

To avoid conflicts of interests, Barnett said he intends to keep an “arm’s length distance” from Everglades issues and has been “very cautious about talking to anybody and accepting any positions.”

Barnett, who joined the district in 2005 and is paid $145,017 annually as its assistant executive director, lost his bid to become executive director in July. The board, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection backed Blake Guillory, an engineer who led the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Barnett began his career at the now-defunct Florida Department of Natural Resources, now known as the Department of Environmental Protection. Barnett said he was just six months out of graduate school and figured if he could “just make it past my six months probation period, I might have something here.”

“Well, it’s 359 months later and I’m still going strong,” Barnett said at the board meeting, adding that he had worked on water policy issues from Pensacola to Key West and briefed five governors as well as U.S. senators and representatives, and even one president on Everglades issues. “I’ve had a wonderful journey in public service.”

Besides his extensive knowledge of all things Everglades, Barnett is best known for his easy-going manner and ability to explain complex issues.

“He has always acted with the highest level of integrity and honesty on all water related issues,” said Barbara Miedema, vice president of public affairs at the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative.

Still, Barnett’s career has not been without controversy. Environmental advocates say Barnett has a history of saying one thing and either doing another or forgetting details.

“You have to measure Ernie’s tenure as being very effective,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida.

While Draper said he has “not always agreed with his decisions,” Barnett has been key in his role as architect of the state’s water policy, including Scott’s Everglades restoration plan, which resulted in a truce this year in a 25-year-old lawsuit. “He’s leaving his position on top.”


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Gwen and the men: Will year of women candidates boost Graham?
Gwen and the men: Will year of women candidates boost Graham?

The four men seeking the Democratic nomination for Florida governor wore dark suits to a Wednesday night debate in Fort Myers. READ MORE: Rare Democratic campaign photo op from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Gwen Graham wore a pink jacket. “You may notice I look a little different than my other friends up here on stage,” Graham said in...
Trump criticizes Federal Reserve, breaking long-standing practice
Trump criticizes Federal Reserve, breaking long-standing practice

President Donald Trump on Thursday said he's "not thrilled" the U.S. central bank under Fed Chairman Jerome Powell is continuing to raise interest rates, suggesting the Fed may be undercutting his efforts to grow the economy.  "I don't like all of this work that we're putting into the economy and then I see rates going up,"...
Trump says ‘I told you so!’ after Europe fines Google $5 billion
Trump says ‘I told you so!’ after Europe fines Google $5 billion

President Donald Trump on Thursday attacked the European Union over its decision to fine Google $5 billion for harming its competitors, tweeting that the incident proved the regional bloc has "taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!"  To Trump, the fine appeared to be the latest evidence of Europe's exploitation of the United...
Could the Trump hotel lose its liquor license because of the president’s character?
Could the Trump hotel lose its liquor license because of the president’s character?

Last week, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted unanimously to support a petition that seeks to revoke the Trump International Hotel's liquor license on the grounds that its owner - you know, the president of the United States - is not of "good character."  The ANC is not even the one where the luxury hotel is located.  During...
Who heard what Trump said to Putin? Only one other American
Who heard what Trump said to Putin? Only one other American

Marina Gross, the only other American in the room during President Donald Trump’s meeting on Monday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, was the interpreter for Laura Bush at the Russian resort of Sochi in 2008 and interpreted for former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in Moscow in 2017. She appears to live in an apartment in Arlington...
More Stories