The Daily Commercial-Jane Hepting: A great loss for conservation in Lake County

Jane Hepting Guest Columnist

Because of a last-minute change in Florida law, none of the current supervisors on the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District Board qualified to run for office again this year. However, a young employee (who turns 20 this year) of Lake Jem Farms LLC is running unopposed. Curiously, the person who started the ball rolling to make that happen is the founder and a manager of Lake Jem Farms LLC: Florida Rep. Keith Truenow.

Florida’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) were created in 1937 to promote the appropriate and efficient use of soil and water resources. Lake County’s SWCD is governed by five elected, but unpaid, board members who are called “supervisors.” Last year, they managed more than $500,000 in revenue. Besides sponsoring educational programs on conservation, they help landowners develop low-volume irrigation systems and secure financial assistance to implement conservation practices.

Last November, Truenow filed House Bill 783 seeking to abolish the SWCDs in 58 Florida counties, including Lake County. After a public outcry, the companion Senate Bill 1078 abolished only two districts, which were inactive. However, that version of the bill, which the Florida Legislature adopted in March, drastically limits who can serve on SWCD boards.

Specifically, to qualify to run for office, all supervisors must own, lease or be actively employed on agricultural land; be employed by an agricultural producer; or be retired after 10 years of being engaged in agriculture. This provision ignores the fact that the SWCDs were created to benefit not only farms, but also forests, green spaces, recreational areas and natural areas. Also, disqualifying experts in other fields, such as engineering, education, recreation, forestry and environmental science, makes no sense. In addition, Senate Bill 1078 states that the terms of all sitting supervisors, including those elected to serve until 2024, must end this year.

Conservation advocates hoped that Gov. Ron DeSantis would veto Senate Bill 1078. Sadly, he signed it into law on June 15 at 9:10 p.m. — less than 40 hours before the qualification deadline for candidates. The new law specified new qualification forms, which had to be filed in person or by mail, and received no later than noon on June 17. Meeting this deadline was nearly impossible for anyone traveling out of state.

Apparently, none of the current Lake County SWCD supervisors own or work on a farm. One has a doctorate degree in the health field, one has a law degree and one is a specialist in storm water pollution prevention. Two were elected to serve until 2024, but the new law abruptly ended their term of office two years early.

Because none of the five current supervisors qualified to run for re-election, Lake County is losing much institutional knowledge. Three people did qualify to run for two of the five seats, but no one filed to run for the other three seats. Weston Jonathan Germeroth, who was born in 2002, is running unopposed. In his qualification papers, he states that he is actively engaged in agriculture and lists Lake Jem Farms as his primary source of income.

In an interview with “Florida Politics” (“From farm to Capitol: Keith Truenow’s political roots run deep in agriculture,” published June 26), Truenow stated that he founded Lake Jem Farms LLC and that he continues to be in charge of business development. In his Statement of Financial Interests filed with the state, he lists more than $183,000 in yearly income from Lake Jem Farms LLC.

Senate Bill 1078 contains an unusual provision for abolishing districts: all five supervisors must meet at least once per year, and if they do not, the district will be automatically dissolved. If Truenow still wants to abolish Lake County’s SWCD, he needs only to persuade Germeroth to skip the meetings. The bill contains no mechanism for replacing a supervisor who fails to attend meetings.

In an article for “The Invading Sea” published on March 18, Palm Beach SWCD Chairman Rob Long warned, “Our state is the front line of climatic disruption. Capriciously destroying a network of institutions that … actually conserve billions of gallons of water every year is a step in the wrong direction.”



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