Why did they lie?
It was a simple matter: Whether Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority board member Melva Wagner was still living in the Keys or whether she had moved out of her house [in foreclosure] on Summerland Key and settled up the coast, in Naples.
What meant so much to FKAA that its attorneys would go along with a deceptively complicated story about a homestead declaration and claim, so recklessly, that Wagner was still a bonafide member of the FKAA Board of Directors?
It has been a grueling year for the Aqueduct Authority. The public has rallied against FKAA’s plan to dump treated sewage into nearshore waters via shallow wells on Cudjoe Key, against suspected bid-rigging for a major sewage grinder pump contract, against blatant nepotism, against the creation of imaginative job titles for old buddies, against the infamous $100K Club, and two weeks ago, we reported that an ex-FBI agent exposed data manipulation in FKAA’s production of water consumption records and called for an independent audit of the agency’s billing practices.
The FKAA board of directors is the final decision maker for the agency. There are five members representing districts that mirror the five Board of County Commissioners’ districts. In theory, under Florida Statute Chapter 76, each board member is chosen by the Governor of Florida. Melva Wagner was appointed by the Governor on August 11, 2011.
“In fact,” jokes one insider, “FKAA is completely controlled by ‘He who shall not be named,’ the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.” That would be Robert Dean, literally Key West’s undertaker, of Dean-Lopez Funeral Home.
As Chairman, Mr. Dean presides over a board that is in charge of administering a $51 Million budget and many more millions in government grants. The sewer project for Cudjoe Regional alone has been estimated at over $180 Million. And, as is the case with all five-member voting boards, all it takes is a “gang of three” to retain absolute control. For the opponents to the “gang of three,” however, all it takes is getting rid of one of them. That is where Melva Wagner’s fate became a multi-million dollar issue.
The financial and political stakes are huge.
In 1999, the state legislature ordered the creation of centralized sewer treatment systems for the entire Florida Keys. The massive project promised to be enormously expensive and it fell under FKAA’S jurisdiction.
But as FKAA’s estimates for regional wastewater infrastructure came to light with staggering price tags, residents began to suspect that FKAA was deliberately over- inflating the costs. The repayment of colossal debt, they feared, would result in astronomical utility bills.
That’s when the war broke out.
A 2005 press release evidences the level of mistrust between residents and their elected officials on the one hand and FKAA on the other.
“Marathon,” wrote the Board of County Commissioners, “is a glaring example of strained partnership, where FKAA’s sewer RFP is over $180,000,000 to sewer Marathon, Marathon’s City RFP comes in at $70,000,000.”
“Little Venice: Originally FKAA estimated this project would cost $6.5 M (…) the cost near completion: $14.6 M.”
Key Largo literally declared independence from FKAA.
“Key Largo revolted against FKAA,” wrote the BOCC, “that culminated in death threats, wasted millions of dollars and time.”
Finally Key Largo lobbied the Florida legislature and obtained the right to form its own sewer board to take control of Key Largo’s wastewater.
What happened next is pretty amazing. In 2005 State Representative Ken Sorenson sponsored a bill that would require board members at FKAA to be elected by Florida Keys voters instead of appointed by the Governor. The bill was readily adopted in both the House and the Senate, but as Keys’ residents celebrated their victory, then Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, vetoed the bill.
Outraged, Sorenson wrote, “The FKAA is deadly afraid of a democratic election which would destroy their obscene personal financial contracts (out of public funds) which would never be tolerated by an elected board.”
Later, new blood on the FKAA board was pushing for reform. Mary Rice and Rose Dell with the support of Executive Director Jim Reynolds began to slash at the $100K club. They pushed for installation of electronic water meters. (The old mechanical ones were reportedly counting a fraction of the water used by some big commercial consumers.) The changes were met with opposition from insiders like Harry Bethel. He got the push and resigned. So did Kathryn Ovide, who was earning more than $100,000 a year overseeing the agency’s secretaries and human resources department. The “reform,” however, was short lived.
By August 2011 Robert Dean had regained control. Rose Dell had been replaced by Melva Wagner; Elena Z. Herrera-George by Brian Barroso. “They began undoing all that Jim Reynolds and the board had accomplished,” said a person in the know, “Jim saw the writing on the wall. He too resigned.”
Renewed Public Outrage
When Reynolds resigned in November of 2011, the new board immediately appointed Kurt Zeulch, the FKAA’s General Counsel, as Executive Director and brought back Bob Feldman as General Counsel. The process caused renewed public outcry. The decision had been taken abruptly without public discussion or a search for the best candidate for the two top positions.
A year later voters overwhelmingly (70%) supported a referendum calling for elections rather than Governor appointments to fill FKAA board positions. But again voters were outmaneuvered: Representative Holly Raschein sponsored a supporting bill in the 2013 legislative session, successfully pushing it to a unanimous vote in the House. In the Senate, however, Dwight Bullard dropped the ball. Bullard apparently stood by while then Senate President Don Gaetz sent his companion bill off to “die” in Senator Thrasher’s Rules Committee. Thrasher never even placed it on the agenda.
When asked this week why Senator Bullard never tried to push the bill, his office simply responded, “It was just one of those bills that died without any action.” [Don Gaetz is the Senator who was accused of Medicare fraud in his management of Vitas Hospice Services, the largest provider of hospice services in the country.]
So keeping Melva Wagner on the board of FKAA may have seemed so important to General Counsel Feldman and Executive Director Krik Zeulch because no one can be sure whether or not the Governor will replace her with someone who will continue to protect the ways of the secretive and top heavy institution.
In February 2015, after board member Brian Barroso withdrew his application for reappointment while the target of a state attorney and ethics commission nepotism probe, 74-year old John Parks, an old friend of FKAA Board Chairman Robert Dean, was the FKAA top officials’ favorite. But on February 17, 2015, Governor Scott appointed Key West attorney, Cara Higgins to the board.
Board meeting minutes reveal that Higgins complained when Zeulch and Feldman recently settled a public records request lawsuit without coming to the board for approval.
Higgins also emailed attorney Feldman with proof that Melva Wagner did in fact appear to be living in Naples, showing that not only had Wagner changed her homestead exemption to the Naples address in January, but she had also changed the address for her two business licenses with the state department of professional regulation, her church affiliation, and her address with the department of corporations. Higgins also found that Wagner had joined various civic groups in the Naples area. All of which was information that was readily available and that clearly contradicted Feldman’s statement to the press:
Feldman claimed: Ms. Wagner’s husband had mistakenly moved the family’s homestead exemption to their investment property in Naples. Ms. Wagner had not been aware of the mistake and the exemptions would soon be reversed and put back in order.
Under FKAA bylaws that require residency in the represented district, Melva Wagner could not legally serve on the board for what, according to public records, may have been a nearly eight month period.
Interestingly enough, Chairman Dean himself, who was appointed as the Key West area district board member, in fact, lives outside his district as well, in Key Haven. Monroe County Property Appraiser records show that Bob Dean claims a homestead exemption on his Key Haven home; however Cara Higgins is the Governor’s appointee for the Key Haven area.
FKAA’s apparent lack of transparency may well have turned the agency into its own worst enemy. In 2012, not long after his controversial hiring as the Executive Director, Zeulch rehired Kathy Ovide, making her once again a member of the $100K club earning $120,723 a year as the manager of customer service.
The board also created a new auditing position that paid $49,816 a year plus benefits and hired board member Barosso’s sister Christy Martin for the job. Martin, with only one year of community college education, has since been promoted to assistant customer service director and earns $91,104 a year plus benefits.
Similar shady hiring practices brought in Randy Acevedo, the disgraced former Monroe County School Superintendent.
Recently the agency spent nearly $24,000 on outside counsel to defend against a public records request lawsuit filed by a Keys fisherman who is opposing the shallow injection well permit for the Cudjoe Regional wastewater plant.
FKAA published the public notice announcing the issuance of the DEP’s initial Cudjoe Regional construction permit in a Broward County newspaper instead of in a Monroe County publication as required by law. (A judicial hearing on whether that move renders the permit void is scheduled for later this month.)
FKAA was caught using an Army Corp of Engineers logo on an informal in-house environmental impact assessment and pretending it had been issued by the ACOE for the Cudjoe Regional project.
And this week FKAA’s lead counsel pretended board member Melva Wagner still lived on Summerland Key even though the claim could not have resisted a ten-minute “google investigation.”
The race is now on for the seat left open by Ms. Wagner resignation.