Big Sugar and our water do not mix

Big Sugar and Our Water Do Not Mix, Neither Should Our Lobbyists

The Everglades supplies drinking water to 9 million of us in South Florida, including everyone in the Florida Keys, and countless visitors.

This ecosystem of international importance is also responsible for supplying the freshwater Florida Bay needs to survive.

As the Everglades goes, so goes Islamorada.

Anything that hampers the ability for freshwater to flow south to the Everglades, replenishing the aquifer we pull from, is a big problem for us economically and environmentally. We know it, you know it, and every credible expert knows it.

Hampering the ability to get clean, freshwater to the Everglades for decades is the sugar industry and 800-square miles of sugarcane just south of Lake Okeechobee.

The Florida Senate drops atomic bomb on the Everglades, not a peep from village lobbyists.

A sneak attack earlier this year by Big Sugar on the Everglades and Florida Bay came in the form of a late filed bill, the Senate President’s top priority, Senate Bill 2508. Everyone committed to ensuring the survival of the Everglades scrambled to kill it, including hundreds of fishing guides and residents of Islamorada.

But what did the lobbying firm representing Islamorada do? Absolutely nothing. Well, at least nothing for the client paying them $125,000 to look out for their best interests in Tallahassee – the taxpayers of Islamorada. We think we know why.

“$125,000 a year to a firm that also lobbies for Big Sugar? And the Council doesn’t see a problem with that?,” Captain Steve Friedman asks. “I sure the **** do. Battles lines have been drawn over our water and they ******* know it.”

For that matter, what did our State Senator and State Representative do? They both voted in support of it. That’s quite the stranglehold Big Sugar holds on all of them! We will address our disappointment with State Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez and State Rep. Jim Mooney on this issue later.

Pick a side: Islamorada or Big Sugar.

For the past year and a half, Vice Mayor Henry Rosenthal has been asking for information, detailed and important information, related to the Tallahassee lobbying firms representing our town. His questions and concerns have been fair and in the best interest of the taxpayers (it’s costing us more than $150,000 a year to have lobbyists). But Henry’s questions and concerns have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Two lobbyists flew in for a command performance at the June 23, 2022, village council meeting. In town to defend issues Henry has brought to light – the firm being paid $125,000 for services they could not adequately explain and the fact that the firm is also paid to lobby for Big Sugar.

Though he had a host of questions for them, Henry wanted to grill partner-shareholders Ryan Matthews and Joseph Salzberg specifically about their lack of communication with the village about Senate Bill 2508.

The Reader’s Digest version of their response: These two legislative “experts” had no idea the village would care about SB 2508. And they said this with a straight face.

There was not a soul in the state of Florida who follows the legislature, who wasn’t watching this ugly power move play out. Yet no discussion was had to determine a course of action for handling the obvious conflict.

When questioned through a public records request, the lobbyists claim they didn’t “receive this direction from Roget (then village attorney).” Important to note: Lobbyists have an obligation to reach out to their clients when issues affecting or potentially affecting the clients arise – especially if it results in a conflict with another client.

Henry presses on. The other Council members remain silent.

“We (the village council) got 2508 at the 11th hour from residents,” Henry reminded them. “Not through you.”

When Henry followed up by asking about Kirk Pepper, another Gray Robinson lobbyist and shareholder who is registered to lobby for Big Sugar, once again Salzburg was less than sincere.

“I don’t represent Big Sugar,” he said. “We have 350 professionals, 14 offices in every corner of the state, a federal practice in D.C., and I’m sure there are thousands of clients that I’m not privy to on the legal, licensing, and lobbying side.”

“Nobody in your firm represents Big Sugar?” Henry asked.

That’s not what I said, sir,” Salzburg responded.

Lobbyists spinning like tops.

What Mr. Salzburg failed to mention is the fact that Gray Robinson is first and foremost a law firm. It expanded its business into the lucrative world of lobbying and today has 18 professionals (not 350) registered to lobby for a host of clients (not thousands), including 22 other Florida municipalities and Big Sugar.

What Mr. Salzburg also did not disclose is that he has shareholder-partners who are registered to lobby for U.S. Sugar, South Central Florida Express, Southern Gardens Citrus Groves Corporation, Southern Gardens Citrus Holding Corporation, Southern Gardens Citrus Nursery Corporation, Hendry County (headquarters of US Sugar), and the Hendry County Economic Council (Can you say Big Sugar?!).

So, whether directly through the village’s lobbyists or indirectly through partners, the firm represents the sugar industry. That’s the truth. Anything short of that answer, reasonable people would likely call a lie.

Which leads us to a bigger question of who Gray Robinson’s master really is. Who wins when communities like Islamorada remain in harm’s way because of the sugar industry?

The firm found itself at opposite ends of lobbying efforts for SB 2508 earlier this year. They had a duty to disclose and discuss this honestly and transparently with the village. They didn’t. Instead, we witnessed a dishonest tap-dancing show.

One could argue the lobbyists were either incompetent or willful in their inability to warn the village about the potential effects of the bill – not the other way around. Either way this is a big problem for the taxpayers and residents.

The fact that four of five Councilmembers had no follow up questions to this expensive insanity is a really big problem, as well. Stay tuned. More to come