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Pollution education coordinator fired as job is eliminated

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of July 26, 2012)

County Commissioners Bob Solari, Wesley Davis and Peter O’Bryan have been saying for months that public education, not regulation, is the best way to stop fertilizer run-off and other pollution poisoning the Indian River Lagoon, feeding deadly algae blooms and killing fish, dolphins and sea grass beds.

Apparently they didn’t mean it. Last week, they tentatively approved a fiscal 2012-13 budget that eliminated the storm water education coordinator.

Diane Wilson – the staff member who conducted most public education aimed at reducing water pollution and protecting the estuary, whose work was termed “excellent” by Public Works Director Chris Mora – as a result was fired.

“The commissioners talk the talk, but when it comes to really protecting the Lagoon – which is a much larger local and regional economic engine than Piper or Dodgertown or other projects they have spent millions of taxpayer dollars on – they don't walk the walk,” said Vero Beach environmental consultant David Cox, Ph.D.

Vero Beach Mayor Pilar Turner has said the lagoon contributes $800 million annually to the county’s economy and according to St. John’s River Water Management District, the estuary provides a $3.7-billion annual economic benefit along its 150-mile length. Sport and commercial fishing, tourism and property values in The Moorings, Johns Island, Windsor and other communities along the waterway are dependent on a healthy lagoon.

In comparison, fired storm water coordinator Diane Wilson, who put on or participated in more than 100 events last year aimed at reducing lagoon pollution, cost county taxpayers $60,757.00 in salary and benefits, according to county budget director Jason Brown.

“This reduction in public education, or lack of education going forward, is another blow to the lagoon,” said Warren Falls, managing director of ORCA, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association headquartered in the old Coast Guard station in Fort Pierce. “On the one hand, these commissioners talk about the need for more education to protect the lagoon and on the other they fire the person who is doing education for the county. I am actually baffled by their behavior. It makes absolutely no sense.”

County Administrator Joe Baird, who fired Wilson and created the $252-million budget commissioners approved at budget hearings last week, was evasive when asked about Wilson’s duties. He first said that all she did was put out a storm water education newsletter.

Asked again about her workload, he said she also did “some secretarial stuff” in the county’s three-person storm water division.

Asked a third time, he acknowledged she was the person who put on public education events.

“Diane made 57 presentations last year to HOAs, the Kiwanis, the Board of Realtors and other organizations,” said storm water engineer Keith McCully who was Wilson’s boss and who is one of two people remaining in the storm water division.

Those presentations, which sometimes included talks by state and regional water quality experts, were designed to help people understand how their behavior impacts the lagoon and learn ways to reduce pollution caused by excessive fertilizer and other common contaminants.

Wilson also conducted employee training seminars and made presentations at storm water professional education and networking events.

Baird said after the budget hearing that other county employees would pick up Wilson’s workload and commissioners repeated that party line, but the county employees in question had a different take.

“We are going to do the best we can, but it is going to be tough,” said McCully. “Our educational effort is not going to be up to the same level it was with Diane here.”

“We’ll do what we have to,” said Public Works Director Chris Mora, who oversees the storm water division. “Other employees will pick up some of Diane’s workload and we will do as much education as we are required to for compliance with federal regulations but there is no question we are going to take a hit.”

McCully said it was a shock when Wilson was fired. He and Mora were frank about the difficulty they face with a 33-per cent reduction in the storm water division, but neither criticized Baird or the commission.

“We are here to do what they tell us to,” said McCully.

The question of education versus regulation to stop toxic fertilizer runoff damaging the lagoon came up last year after ORCA mapped pollution between the Barber Bridge and 17th Street causeway and found high levels of nitrogen contamination from fertilizer and grass clippings dumped or washed into the estuary.

Researchers found deformed oysters and other evidence of ecological decay between the bridges and the cities of Vero Beach, Sebastian and Indian River Shores passed ordinances regulating fertilizer use.

Led by Solari, who opposes government ordinances as corrosive to the human spirit, the county commission refused to act.

“As far as I am concerned is the best way to deal with fertilizer pollution is to use education,” Solari said in February. “Our storm water department has done a lot. They put out a newsletter and a commercial and do public events.”

Davis and O’Bryan made similar remarks, expressing a preference for education over regulation to deal with the lagoon’s downward trajectory.

Scientists at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute have documented epidemic levels of viral, bacterial, fungal and cancerous diseases among the Lagoon’s resident dolphin population and last year’s algae bloom, fed by excess nutrients from fertilizer runoff, was the worst ever seen.

Algae blooms make water slimy and murky, smothering sea life and emitting toxic gases harmful to people as well as animals.

Admitting the need for additional action, commissioners said in place of regulation they would add more educational programs to supplement the work being done by Wilson.

Instead, they did the opposite.

In February, O’Bryan said, “In the next week, I plan to get in touch with the Environmental Learning Center to see if they can help develop an educational road show to go around to schools and neighborhood associations to teach people what they need to know about correct fertilizer use.”

Solari proposed creating a “one-sheet” summarizing best practices for homeowners applying fertilizers that could be posted on the county websites and distributed with utility bills.

So far, neither of those initiatives has gone into effect.

O’Bryan has met with representatives of the ELC and ORCA, and he said after the budget hearing he has another meeting planned, but no road show has been created.

Solari said earlier this summer he has not prepared the “one sheet” because his time has been occupied with his re-election campaign. He has instructed Utilities Director Eric Olson to determine the cost for sending out a sheet with utility bills and Olson said he is working on that and that it seems feasible.

“The first step is in motion to get some educational information into the utility bills,” Solari said after voting in favor of cutting the storm water education position. “I think that will make up for some of what we are losing.”

Everyone involved agreed Wilson’s work was up to par.

“She was doing an excellent job,” said Mora.

Commissioners justified firing her and cutting the education position on fiscal grounds.

“I don’t know if it was the absolute best thing to do, but when you have a limited amount of resources you have to make cuts,” Davis said.

“That was a tough call the county administrator had to make,” said O’Bryan. “It is like anything else we have had to do over the past four years in reducing the budget. You hate to make some of these cuts but this is where the administrator feels he needs to go.”

Solari joined O’Bryan in passing the buck to Baird. “I don’t think it is our job to micromanage the cuts the county administer has made and I am not going to second guess him on this.”

His words were undercut by the fact he and the commissioners had just overruled Baird on two other cuts, putting $31,000 back into the budget the administrator had taken out.

“They have the power to stop this,” said Falls.