The agency that guards South Florida against flooding and leads Everglades restoration on Thursday got its second new leader in two years.
The South Florida Water Management District’s board looked within and made Ernie Barnett the interim executive director of the agency that oversees water supplies from Orlando to the Keys.
Barnett, one of the district’s assistant executive directors, temporarily fills the vacancy left by former executive director Melissa Meeker. She resigned in May to take a private sector job with a Stuart-based environmental consulting firm.
Barnett pledged to provide a “sense of continuity” while the district board considers permanently filling the agency’s top job.
Barnett, at the district since 2005, oversees Everglades restoration and in the past has been the district’s main point-person when dealing with the Florida Legislature. Prior to joining the district, Barnett worked for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for 22 years.
“I am buoyed by the confidence the board has placed in me,” Barnett said at Thursday’s board meeting, held in Key Biscayne.
District board members said they want to move quickly to choose the next executive director, potentially as soon as next month. That could mean keeping Barnett or choosing another current district administrator as executive director.
The start of hurricane season as well as efforts to get more federal funding for Everglades restoration make this a difficult for the district’s leadership to be in question.
Several board members on Thursday said they want the new executive director to try to keep the district leadership in place.
“The organization needs some stability at the top,” Board Member Juan Portuondo said.
The South Florida Water Management District, based in West Palm Beach, has about 1,600 employees and a $600 million budget fueled in part by South Florida property taxes. The district owns more than 1 million acres of land and oversees water issues in a 16-county region stretching from Orlando to the Keys.
The governor appoints the district's nine board members, subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate, and the board picks the agency’s executive director.
Meeker, a former district board member, became the district’s executive director in May 2011, after the resignation of previous executive director Carol Wehle.
Meeker led the district through a difficult period that included leadership shake-ups and a $100 million state-imposed budget cut that led to 134 layoffs.
Meeker also helped shepherd through a new $880 million state Everglades restoration plan, intended to cleanup Everglades water pollution and resolve an ongoing legal fight over Florida's failure to meet federal water quality standards.
Meeker was paid about $165,000 per year as the district’s executive director.
Meeker says she was not asked to step aside from the district’s top post, but that her new job was too good not to take.
Meeker became a vice president at CSA Ocean Sciences, an environmental consulting firm with domestic and international clients, ranging from oil companies to South Florida utilities and counties.