He took over department in wake of filing of federal Clean Water Act lawsuit regarding illegal county sewage spills
In early 2019, three nonprofit organizations filed notice of their intent to bring suit against Sarasota County over multiple violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act, especially county spills of raw sewage over a period of years.
The primary culprit of those spills was the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF), located at 5550 Lorraine Road, in the eastern part of the county. That site has a pond where the reclaimed water — the liquid remaining after full treatment of sewage — was stored until needed for customers who use it for irrigation in residential developments, for example.
Close to 1 billion gallons had flowed out of that pond between September 2015 and early 2019, the complaint contended. The highest volume recorded over a continuous period was 214,284,000 gallons between Aug. 3, 2017 and Oct. 23, 2017 — 82 days, the lawsuit said.
The Suncoast Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth Foundation and the Ecological Rights Foundation argued in their federal complaint that illegal discharges had flowed into Phillippi Creek, Cowpen Slough, Whitaker Bayou, “and streams and other waters that are tributaries to Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay, Dona/Roberts Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in or adjoining Sarasota County.”
During a June 19, 2019 interview with The Sarasota News Leader, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said he knew nothing about the spills and the problems at the Bee Ridge plant until county staff was notified of the pending litigation in February 2019. (Lewis became the interim administrator in December 2017, before winning full board support in early 2018 to keep the job, minus the “interim” title.) Lewis believed, he added, that staff would have told him about the issues beforehand.
During later discussions, county commissioners indicated that they had had no knowledge whatsoever of the problems that had been occurring.
In April 2019, Scott Schroyer, who had been director of the county’s Public Utilities Department since the early fall of 2014, left that position.
During the June 2019 interview with the News Leader, Lewis declined to comment on Schroyer’s departure. Instead, he said he preferred to talk about current employees, including Mike Mylett who was named interim director of Public Utilities after Schroyer left county employment. Prior to that promotion, Mylett had served as senior manager of the Wastewater Division in the department, county Communications staff told the News Leader.
Later that year, Lewis removed the “interim” from Mylett’s title, with full County Commission support.
Even before he officially was made leader of the department, Mylett began presenting explanations to the commissioners about the steps that would be necessary to eradicate all of the Bee Ridge WRF’s problems. For example, to comply with a Consent Order between the county and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) over some of the same issues described in the federal lawsuit, the Bee Ridge facility would have to be converted to Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) status. That would dramatically lower the amount of nutrients in the water discharged from the plant, Mylett pointed out. Among them, nitrogen has been identified as the major source of food for the red tide algae, Karina brevis.
Emphasizing the importance of water quality in a county where tourism is a significant economic driver, the commissioners agreed that the other two primary county wastewater treatment facilities — the Venice Gardens and Central County plants — would be upgraded, as well.
On June 21 of this year, before Mylett presented his 2024 fiscal year budget proposal to the commissioners during a workshop, County Administrator Lewis took a few minutes not only to express his appreciation for Mylett’s leadership in the Public Utilities Department, but also to note that Mylett had tendered his resignation.
“It is with great sadness from the administrative perspective,” Lewis said in prefacing the announcement.
“Fortunately,” Lewis continued, “he’s giving us a nice little lead,” as Mylett had indicated he would depart in November.
“We really did ask him to step up” three years ago, Lewis pointed out, as Mylett moved up a couple of levels in staffing rank. What Mylett has been able to accomplish, with the board’s support, “really is just absolutely amazing,” Lewis continued.
In conjunction with naming Mylett interim director of Public Utilities in 2019, Lewis said, he also set the expectation that he wanted the county to be recognized within five years as having one of the top utility departments. While Lewis indicated Mylett did not believe that was possible at the time, Lewis added that Mylett “has certainly put us on that path. … He’s done an amazing job.”
As part of his budget presentation that day, Mylett did point out that the Bee Ridge AWT project “is underway and progressing very well.”
Lewis further noted that Mylett had agreed to some flexibility in regard to his final day on county staff, but Lewis also acknowledged, “Sometimes our spouses pull on us a little …”
Commissioner Neil Rainford, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the late Commissioner Nancy Detert’s seat in early June, told Mylett that he was certain Lewis would try to keep Mylett on the job as long as possible.
Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out to Mylett, “You’re really respected” by leaders with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority. The latter organization is the one that supplies the county with most of its drinking water.
Moran also thanked Lewis for taking the time to recognize Mylett’s achievements. Moran added that Mylett always has been able to convey the department’s needs and issues to the commissioners in terms they readily could understand.
“We can’t fix problems we don’t know about,” Moran said.