A strange state-level issue spilled into an awkward mess during a recent Pensacola City Council Meeting, when local officials were asked to back a somewhat odd effort to get legislators to dedicate more conservation funding for north Florida.
Something didn’t feel quite right. And it wasn’t just the dire warning from a local environmental advocate that a “shadowy entity” was about to “dupe” council with a “sham” resolution. It was also the weird phone calls.
“When I started getting calls, the interesting thing that I noticed was that the calls weren’t from here,” noted Councilman P.C. Wu. “I’m thinking, wait a minute, people in south Florida are calling me, telling me they want money up here in north Florida. I’ve never seen — you know, we’re not sitting here saying, ‘We should send more money to south Florida.’ So I thought it was quite puzzling to see people from south Florida calling, telling us they wanted to make sure that we get our fair share.”
The council was being asked to approve a draft resolution urging state legislators to spread conservation funding generated via a 2014 constitutional amendment equally throughout the state. The draft had been provided to the city by an organization called Stand Up North Florida.
Nick Loffer, a representative from Stand Up North Florida, told city council members that legislators were likely to squander Amendment 1 money in South Florida. He implored them to put the pressure on state lawmakers to spend the funds on projects in other areas of the state.
Specifically, Loffer said that money should be diverted from the Lake Okeechobee region, where legislators are considering purchasing property to create a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The reservoir would be designed to divert harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee, which have been blamed for fouling coastal estuaries.
The Stand Up representative described the potential Everglades project as having “limited tangible results.” In addition to being ineffective, he argued, the “longterm, multi-billion dollar project” would monopolize the conservation funds in question — “more money’s out the door” — and that would be “unfair” to the rest of the state.
“We don’t see how any massive water project, that doesn’t clean water, that’s gonna take over a decade to build is gonna solve any problems down there,” Loffer stressed to the city council.
But local environmental advocate Christian Wagley said that council should look carefully at Loffer’s request before jumping on board. He questioned Stand Up’s motivation and said he suspected the newly formed organization was “masqerading as something that it’s not.”
“Let me begin by saying, very simply, that this resolution, and this effort is a sham,” said Wagley, telling council that “this appears to be an attempt to dupe us.”
Wagley pointed to the fact that no one knows who is funding Stand Up North Florida. And cited an article from the online publication “Politico,” which described the organization as a “new mystery entity” and “a shadowy entity” with possible ties to the sugar industry, which opposes the resevoir being considered for South Florida.
“This doesn’t pass the sniff test in any way, whatsoever,” Wagley said.
Wagley went on to deride Stand Up’s lack of transparency — “they will not tell you who their funders are, who their donors are” — and tell the council he believed it was “being used” by a less than straightforward organization with goals beyond equitable conservation.
“This appears to be a front group, funded by the sugar industry to derail a plan that appears to have legitimacy to solve the major environmental issues they’re having in south Florida,” Wagley said.
Loffer bristled at such a notion, writing off Wagley’s concerns as “conspiracy theories.” He described such suspicions as “quite ironic.”
“The individuals levying these conspiracies have anonymous donors,” Loffer said. “And they’re the same groups that want more and more money to go down to one massive project in south Florida.”
Loffer assured council he wasn’t connected to south Florida agricultural interests — “I am not Big Sugar” — while also remaining securely tethered to his bottom line: don’t waste money on the south Florida resevoir project.
“If you start throwing around these big projects that don’t deliver the solution that people in south Florida need, they’re not going to be helped, the rest of the state of Florida is going to be disadvantaged,” he said. “They’re going to be asking for more and more money from this fund, and that’s where we’re going to be at, because that’s how the math adds up.”
But several council members had begun to look at Loffer sideways. And they noted that Wagley — who has sat on Escambia County’s environmental committee, as well as served as the environmental representative on its RESTORE advisory committee — had earned their trust through his “stellar record of being a staunch defender of our environment” and suggested the city heed his call to dig deeper into the resolution request and its origins.
Plus, those phone calls were really creeping council members out.
“I received about five or six phone calls,” relayed Councilwoman Sherri Myers. “It was confusing. I would ask, ‘What are you talking about? Explain it to me.’ They would just hang up. It was so frustrating because they didn’t seem to be really familiar with what they were asking me to do.”
“I too received phone calls that didn’t allow me to ask questions,” added Councilman Brian Spencer. “They didn’t leave return numbers, it was a very unique way in which I was contacted for support.”
Council eventually pulled the resolution off the meeting’s agenda in order to further research the issue. Other local governing bodies, including the High Springs City Commission and Alachua County Commission, have also pulled the resolution request from meeting agendas after concerns were raised.
A phone call to Loffer from SANDSpaper to clarify Stand Up’s position and, more particularly, the group’s backers was not returned. Though Loffer is apparently traveling the state to lobby local governments for support, that basic information has remained illusive.
When asked during a Sept. 19 meeting of the High Springs City Commission who was funding Stand Up North Florida’s efforts, Loffer sidestepped the question: “We would be more than happy to let our donors tell you who our supporters are when they wish to be named.”
The “Politico” article Wagley cited connected Loffer — who is listed as Stand Up’s manager in limited liability corporation paperwork filed in September — to the conservative group Florida for Americans For Prosperity. The group, backed by rightwing mega-donors the Koch brothers, confirmed that the former field director left in early 2015.
Following Loffer’s appearance at the Pensacola meeting, Wagley continued to press for specifics outside of city council’s chambers.
“I followed him outside,” Wagley said. “I asked him probably a half dozen times: ‘Tell me who your donors are.’ He just ignored me, he wouldn’t tell me.”
The environmental advocate said that Stand Up’s efforts amounted to an attempt to draw the rest of the state into “a sugar industry fight in South Florida.” He compared it to efforts this season to pass a solar power-related ballot initiative that environmental organizations have roundly criticized as an energy-industry backed initiative that would negatively impact the growth of the solar industry.
“It’s just like Amendment 1 we’re fighting in November,” he said. “They know how to package something to make you think it’s something good.”
During their discussion outside Pensacola City Hall, Wagley said he let Loffer know he better pedal Stand Up’s resolution elsewhere.
“I was polite,” Wagley recalled, “but I was firm with him. Like, ‘Don’t you come back here with this.’”
[correction: an earlier version of this story stated that Christian Wagley had served on both Pensacola and Escambia’s environmental advisory boards. Wagley actually served on Escambia’s environmental committee, as well as its RESTORE advisory committee.]