Treasure Coast Republicans Face a Choice: Water or Sugar

The ugliest threat to SB 10, Senate President Joe Negron’s bill to cut toxic discharges to the Treasure Coast, may come from mercenary community leaders in his home district. While Martin county’s elected officials, led by Negron, have championed a solution to the crisis, local organizations with ties to Flint, Michigan-based US Sugar are scrambling to undermine the plan.

This week, the Republican Club of Martin County invited an outside critic of the proposal, Dan Peterson, to a local event where he campaigned against SB 10. Club President Darlene Fuggetta said that she recruited Peterson to speak against the bill because his opposition was objective compared to county residents who become emotional about toxic discharges. On top of being openly defiant to Negron and unsympathetic to a community that just spent 242 days under a state of emergency because of toxic algae blooms, Fuggetta’s choice of Peterson as a supposed “free-market” voice was bizarre.

Peterson represents the James Madison Institute, a self-described free market think tank best known for boasting about its “political jiu-jitsu” in support of last year’s ballot amendment to block solar energy competition — essentially the opposite of a free-market initiative. Peterson’s endorsement of US Sugar’s position, opposing a discharge-reducing reservoir below Lake Okeechobee, also contradicts free-market ideals, supporting one of the state’s most big-government-dependent industries.

Contrast JMI’s pro-sugar position to that of Grover Norquist’s and the Heritage Foundation, a legitimate free-market think tank, calling Florida’s sugar industry and its market-distorting government support “cronyism in its undiluted, inexcusable majesty.”

Nevertheless Peterson took the stage on Tuesday to lobby on behalf of US Sugar and its cohorts against legislation proposed by republican officials to save local businesses, shore up a $9.7 billion fishing economy, and avert a catastrophically costly human health crisis. Fuggetta said that Peterson’s criticism of the bill was based in part on his grasp of the science, aided by extensive discussions with local expert Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society and a former South Florida Water Management District’s Water Resource Advisory Commission member. Perry has no recollection of ever speaking to Peterson.

As a scientist with 50 years of experience with this issue, Perry is familiar with Peterson’s and US Sugar’s position against water storage in the EAA. Until being removed from the WRAC when SFWMD stepped up its replacement of scientists with political supporters of Rick Scott, Perry was a vocal proponent of the solution to cut toxic discharges. His replacement, Nyla Pipes, is not. Pipes is the nominal head of One Florida Foundation, which was recently exposed in the media as a paid mouthpiece for the industry’s positions, backed by US Sugar’s Robert Coker and Thomas McNicholas, whose PR firm does work for the company.

Coker sits on the Republican Party of Florida’s finance committee, the Economic Council of Martin County, and serves as a  trustee of the Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce. He also sits on the Florida Land Council, a Tallahassee-based lobby dedicated to maintaining large property owners’ (i.e., sugar growers) land values. McNicholas also represents the South Florida Water Management District, an outspoken opponent of SB 10, and sits on the Economic Council with Coker. The council’s website includes graphics from a 2016 US Sugar media blitz that TCPalm called inaccurate and misleading for deflecting blame for the discharges.

Coker and McNicholas have used their positions in community institutions to push an out-of-state agenda against a viable solution that can stop toxic discharges from destroying the economy and causing a public health crisis. Their “company town” tactics betray not only Martin County’s elected leaders–virtually every one of whom has signed the Now Or Neverglades Declaration to stop the discharges–but the members of chambers of commerce they represent, charities they join, Republican Club members and voters, their friends and neighbors, and the future of the entire Treasure Coast’s economy and wellbeing.

Meanwhile Joe Negron’s leadership on our water crisis has been heroic. The bill he delivered may represent our best chance in decades to fix Florida’s broken plumbing, to rehydrate the River of Grass and restore Florida Bay, and to cut the toxic discharges and algae blooms that sabotaged our economy in 2016. But it also forces Martin County residents to make two important choices. Do we support our elected officials in their effort to save our waterways, or US Sugar’s bid to stop them? And do we continue to support the organizations that Fuggetta and Coker and McNicholas and others are coopting as platforms to betray their communities?

People in other communities whose estuaries suffer from sugar-friendly water management practices have already made their choice. On the west coast, where discharges to the Caloosahatchee have closed beaches and crashed local fisheries, the Sanibel Chamber of Commerce joined area guides at the senate hearing to fight for the solution. In the Keys where the collapse of Florida Bay’s seagrass meadows is already weakening Monroe county’s vital fishing economy, the Islamorada chamber openly backs local politicians who support SB 10.

Now it’s the Treasure Coast’s turn, starting in Martin County. The scientific community is virtually unanimous on the solution, our elected leaders are committed to action, and we have a real opportunity to secure clean water for the future. We need to choose between Stuart and Flint. Between water and sugar.