Board members implore staff to bring them information about problems and let them decide how to respond
Sarasota County commissioners made it very clear to senior staff this week that, no matter the severity of the issue or the cost to resolve it, they want all the relevant information.
Their focus was the continuing spills from the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, which were the focus of a lawsuit filed against the county this spring in federal court.
Additionally, county staff has been working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) since late January on measures to remediate the problems.
A proposed FDEP Consent Order with the county, which the commission is scheduled to address on Aug. 27, says the county has had 83 “unauthorized discharges” of more than 630 million gallons of treated and untreated wastewater since May 2018. The majority was from the Bee Ridge facility, FDEP documents show.
During the board’s Aug. 21 budget workshop, as members again voiced full support for upgrading the Bee Ridge facility to an advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) complex, Commissioner Nancy Detert said she remembered telling department directors in a budget workshop last year that they are responsible for letting the board members know when need for action arises. “I don’t remember any screaming emergencies at that time,” she added. Perhaps staff was afraid to tell the commission about the situation with the Bee Ridge facility, she said.
Addressing Mike Mylett, interim director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, Detert asked, “Did you just fail to warn us or did we just fail to listen?”
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis immediately interjected a question to Mylett: “What month did I make you the interim director?”
“April,” Mylett replied.
(Lewis began serving as interim county administrator in December 2017 and became county administrator in January 2018.)
His department, Mylett told Detert, “has been actively working to resolve a lot of the foreseeable issues that we’ve encountered.” In fact, he added, those efforts have been going on for years, in consultation with FDEP. “Water quality has always been a concern. … It’s becoming more of a concern, and nutrients are more of an issue.”
He was referring to research showing that the greater the nutrient load in county waterways, the greater the potential for algae blooms.
Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “The move to [AWT for the Bee Ridge facility] was not considered last year.”
In the wake of economic devastation associated with a months-long red tide bloom that did not fully subside until early this year, the commission made water quality improvements one of their top priorities for 2019. The nitrogen load flowing into the county’s waterways from the county wastewater treatment plants needs to be reduced significantly, they agreed in early May.
A decade ago, Detert pointed out on Aug. 21, “Nobody much cared” about the nutrients entering Sarasota Bay after the wastewater treatment processes.
During a June interview with The Sarasota News Leader, County Administrator Lewis said he was not aware of the millions of gallons of spills from the county’s wastewater system — especially the Bee Ridge facility’s problems — until the county was notified early this year that three nonprofit environmental organizations planned to file suit over the discharges. His initial reaction, he indicated, was that staff “would have told us by now” if the situation were that bad.
Subsequently, Public Utilities Director Scott Schroyer left the county’s employment.
Lewis would not comment to the News Leader on the specifics of Schroyer’s departure, which the News Leaderreported on in early May. Schroyer had been with the county since early fall of 2014.
‘All of us are frustrated’
The Aug. 21 budget workshop was the first time since Mike Mylett became interim Public Utilities Department director that commissioners commented at length on their frustrations with past staff actions related to the spills.
“Were we asleep at the wheel?” Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked, referencing Detert’s earlier remarks. (Ziegler is the newest member of the board, having been elected in November 2018.)
He remembered asking Lewis, Ziegler continued, about comments he had heard in the community about wastewater spills. Lewis’ response, Ziegler said, was that the county generally had no problems except during hurricanes and other heavy rain periods.
Then just a few days later, Ziegler added, he heard about the federal lawsuit.
“I talked to previous commissioners,” asking if they were aware of the problems, Ziegler pointed out. “Nobody had any idea, I think.”
“I’m going to take the opportunity to pile on,” Commissioner Michael Moran told Lewis and Mylett. Moran said he wanted to send “a clear board message” that staff members never should hesitate to bring a matter to the commission, regardless of how much they think the solution might cost. The reason the commissioners were told nothing about the water treatment plant problems, Moran indicated — based on what he had heard — was that previous staff members felt the commissioners never would consider paying a high price to resolve the issues.
“That is not staff’s job to speculate how this board’s going to vote, or any future board’s going to vote.” Moran stressed that he wants all the facts, “so we can make sound business decisions for this community. … Tough decisions need to be made with a lot of political courage.”
“I don’t know if I should say this or not,” Chair Charles Hines began. “The only way this commission, or any commission, can do its job is to be provided with information …”
Hines also talked of staff members’ reluctance to bring bad news to the board. “That’s wrong. … I think all of us are frustrated.”
Then Hines pointed out that he is the longest serving member of the current commission. He represented the county for four years on the board of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, he added, and he served in the same capacity on the board of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program. Yet, during all that time, he said, no one mentioned to him any of the water quality problems that began to be aired after red tide started plaguing the county’s shoreline last summer.
“I can’t remember anybody ever coming to me, privately or publicly,” he added, to suggest the need for the upgrade of the Bee Ridge facility.
The information the members of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and Charlotte Harbor boards were getting, he said, was that “the water quality in Sarasota Bay is improving. … Seagrasses are growing.”
Moran served for a couple of years on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Hines continued. He felt sure, Hines added, that Moran would have brought up the issues about the county’s wastewater problems after his election, if Moran had known about them from attending SWFWMD meetings.
“This is an entire community issue,” Hines stressed. “It’s hit us all at once.”
“I understand chain of command,” Hines told Lewis, “but we’ve got to break down some of the old barriers.” The county motto may be “One Team,” Hines added, but “we can’t be ‘One Team’ if we’re not getting information.”
“Let us make the tough decisions,” Commissioner Ziegler told the staff. “We’re the ones that have to answer to the public.”