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.”

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