Florida Keys News
Monday, December 3, 2012
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Freshman rep focuses on utility board issue
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A priority for recently elected State House Rep. Holly Raschein will be to sponsor legislation changing how the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority board is selected.

An overwhelming majority of voters voted Nov. 6 to go from having the board appointed by the governor to being elected by the public.

"The voters have spoken loud and clear on this issue," said Raschein, who personally feels the board should stay appointed. "Make no mistake, one of the first things I have to do is sponsor this legislation. The voters have overwhelmingly asked for this .... My own feelings on this don't matter."

Raschein will discuss the Aqueduct Authority bill when she holds her first community meeting Dec. 17 at the Marathon Government Center.

She also plans to meet with Aqueduct Authority Executive Director Kirk Zuelch and board Chair Bob Dean about the legislation, she said.

Raschein is no stranger to this subject. She conducted a lot of research on the issue when then-Keys State Rep. Ken Sorensen sponsored similar legislation in 2005, which was designed to take control of wastewater projects from the public utility and place it in the hands of Monroe County and Keys municipalities. Raschein served as an administrative aid for Sorensen.

The bill passed both in the state House and Senate, but was vetoed by then Gov. Jeb Bush. In a letter of veto of Sorensen's bill, Gov. Jeb Bush noted that, under current law, the county and Marathon can play a role in administration of sewer projects with inter-local agreements with the Aqueduct Authority.

"I believe we must move forward with the partnerships and commitments we all have made in order to best address the needs of the citizens of Monroe County and this fragile ecosystem," the governor wrote.

The Monroe County Commission agreed in March to ask the voters if the Aqueduct Authority board should go from a governor-appointed to an elected board. The commission began discussing the referendum question last November after the water utility board accepted Executive Director Jim Reynolds' resignation and immediately promoted General Counsel Zuelch to replace him and rehired Bob Feldman as general counsel.

The decisions were made without public discussion or conducting a local or national search for the two positions.

The abrupt management changes led to speculation about Reynolds' departure and political undercurrents at the utility.

The Aqueduct Authority board was an appointed body when first created in 1938, and remained that way until 1976, utility officials said. From 1976 to 1980 the board was an elected body.

The board changed back to an appointed board under former Gov. Bob Graham as the utility foundered financially. When there was not enough money to repair a Stock Island treatment plant, Monroe County declared a state of emergency and imposed water rationing, according to old news clippings and other historical accounts. The Aqueduct Authority cut the water pressure and requested the governor to issue a tourist advisory. In 1975, the Aqueduct Authority board asked for a Farmers Home Administration (FMHA) loan of $45 million. Investors had to be found for interim funds, because the FMHA monies would not be available until the job was completed. By the time project funding could be approved, all the construction bids had expired and new bids were higher.

The five elected Aqueduct Authority commissioners were having trouble gaining the confidence of the FMHA because of various actions. State personnel sat in on the local board meetings and reported back to Graham. The governor's resolution was to replace the elected FKAA directors with selected members of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). After a pipeline was installed, the SFWMD members were gradually phased out and the governor appointed the directors from Monroe County.

Aqueduct Authority board members represent each of the five County Commission districts, and are appointed from areas corresponding with the districts. The members are appointed for staggered four-year terms. The board makes policy, and its duties include the right to negotiate and establish employee compensation, enter into contracts and defend lawsuits.

Board members are paid $423 per meeting and receive health benefits while serving on the board. They are not entitled to retirement or health benefits after they retire.

The Aqueduct board has been quiet on the elected-versus-appointed issue, not discussing it as a board before or after the election.

"I think we can make it work either way," board chair Dean told The Citizen.

tohara@keysnews.com

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