On-the-road Board meetings improving agency access in Florida

Several times a year, a long-standing practice at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) sends its monthly Governing Board meetings out of agency headquarters in West Palm Beach and into South Florida's local communities. The District today announced that it will hold four of its twelve 2008 Governing Board meetings off-site to bring the agency's policy-setting forums into South Florida communities and improve access for constituents across the District's 16 county region...

Nov 27th, 2007

• South Florida Water Management District brings government to the people

WEST PALM BEACH, FL, Nov. 21, 2007 -- Several times a year, a long-standing practice at the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) sends its monthly Governing Board meetings out of agency headquarters in West Palm Beach and into South Florida's local communities. The District today announced that it will hold four of its twelve 2008 Governing Board meetings off-site to bring the agency's policy-setting forums into South Florida communities and improve access for constituents across the District's 16 county region.

"An agency that covers 18,000 square miles has a fundamental responsibility to meet with the citizens it serves," said Eric Buermann, SFWMD Governing Board Chairman. "Like other state boards and commissions, as well as the Governor's Office, we periodically hold meetings throughout the state. I'm proud of this approach, because it all adds up to good government."

During calendar year 2008, off-site meetings are currently scheduled for Miami in January, Lee County in June, the Florida Keys in Nov. and a workshop day in Highlands County this spring. The 2008 budget allocated $40,000 for the meetings, a fraction (0.003 percent) of the agency's annual $1.283 billion budget. The Grand Bay Miami and Miami City Hall will host the two-day Governing Board meeting in Miami, which will take place on January 8 and 9.

This year, the Governing Board held its monthly meetings in four off-site locations: Naples, Okeechobee, Orlando and Key Largo, in addition to eight monthly meetings at agency headquarters and a strategic planning workshop in Palm Beach Gardens. All are open to the public and broadcast on the web to reach a wider audience and improve accessibility for constituents.

"We welcome an opportunity to host a local meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board," said Rob Teegarden, Vice President of the Water Business Unit of the Orlando Utilities Commission. "The diverse nature of Florida's water resources requires that the Governing Board members become familiar with a variety of issues. In Central Florida, the overarching issue is the need for us all to work together across community and water management district boundaries for the benefit of the region."

Last week the Board held its Nov. meeting in Key Largo, where agency-wide business also included in-depth discussion of local issues: funding for Florida Keys water quality improvement projects, a complex water use permit for Miami-Dade County and the status of environmental restoration in Florida Bay.

"These on-the-road meetings noticeably increase public involvement with water resource issues and vastly improve access to the workings of government," said Governing Board Vice-Chairman Nicolás Gutiérrez, who presided over the Nov. session during Buermann's medical-leave absence. "The meetings also allow our Board members to better understand regional concerns and to hear what is on the minds of the citizens we serve in distant communities. That wouldn't happen if we never left West Palm Beach."

Close to 100 people attended the Key Largo meeting, including local dignitaries from the Florida Keys and Miami-Dade as well as Florida Representative Ron Saunders, a resident of Key West. Many expressed appreciation for the opportunity to attend policy-making meetings in their local community.

"I want to thank you very much for being here in the Florida Keys," said Debbie Harrison, a Keys resident and South Florida Regional Director of the World Wildlife Fund. Harrison spoke to the Board during public comment about Florida Bay water quality and the importance of ecosystem restoration projects in the southern Everglades.

The District's Nov. Governing Board meeting in Key Largo coincided with an Executive Order last week from Governor Charlie Crist citing that "an open and accessible government is the key to establishing and maintaining its people's trust and confidence in their government and its ability to effectively serve its citizens."

Each two-day monthly meeting is comprised of a workshop day, where Governing Board members hear staff reports, review issues and hear public comment, and a meeting day, where discussion and voting takes place, along with additional public comment. Agendas for both days are posted in advance on the District's website, www.sfwmd.gov

Each of the District's nine Governing Board members is appointed by Florida's governor to a four-year term and serves on the Board without pay. Travel and expenses while on agency business are covered by the District, at the same mileage and per diem rates as agency employees. Hours spent attending meetings, speaking with stakeholders and District staff and researching complex water management issues are voluntary. Monthly voting by the nine-member Board sets policies for the entire agency, with actions pertaining to water permits and orders, rulemaking, environmental restoration projects, land acquisition and management, budgetary items and other topics.

The South Florida Water Management District is a regional, governmental agency that oversees the water resources in the southern half of the state -- 16 counties from Orlando to the Keys. It is the oldest and largest of the state's five water management districts. The agency mission is to manage and protect water resources of the region by balancing and improving water quality, flood control, natural systems and water supply. A key initiative is cleanup and restoration of the Everglades.

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