by SC Staff Writer Barbara Linstrom
Driving back from West Palm Beach after a 7-hour briefing, Chauncey Goss reflected on his first insider view since he was appointed to represent Lee, Collier, Hendry and Charlotte counties on the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) board of governors.
“Today was good. It opened my eyes to the size of the operation. I knew it covered an enormous land mass, but I didn’t realize it took an army of people to get the job done,” he said on Feb. 8. “It’s a really big operation.”
After meeting with all the senior management at headquarters, he then visited a state-of-the-art lab nearby.
“I was really impressed with the staff I talked to and met. They’re really dedicated to their mission,” he said. “And, the lab is really nice. There are hundreds of scientists working on monitoring and water quality research.”
Surprised by the volume of scientific research taking place, he said he also got a message across to the PR department — get the word out.
“There are some really good stories there that people don’t know about,” he added.
A clean sweep of the board
On Jan. 10, two days after being sworn in as Florida’s fourth Republican leader in a row, Gov. Ron DeSantis made a shocking announcement by asking all nine governing board members of the SFWMD to step down. The governing board sets policy for the district, which serves 8 million people from Orlando to the Keys.
“The governor has made it crystal clear that he wants to see real progress. To replace a whole board is very unusual,” said Goss, also a member of the GOP. “I went to his inaugural address, and in the first paragraph he was talking about water quality. For a Republican that’s pretty unusual.”
Goss recalls how some people suggested he throw his hat in the ring.
“I never had talks with the governor about being on the board before,” says Goss. “But, during the campaign, I talked to him about the issue and found him to be incredibly open and knowledgeable.”
Goss was especially eager to become part of the solution after this past summer’s Armageddon-like onslaught of more than a half a million pounds of dead fish were washed up on Sanibel’s beaches over 30 long, hot, horribly-smelling days due to a prolonged, toxic red tide.
It was a red tide that was especially exacerbated off Sanibel’s iconic Lighthouse Beach, just off the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, where billions of tons of untreated, polluted freshwater from Lake Okeechobee, regional storm water, fertilizer runoff and aging septic system outflows had been flushed into the estuary, turning the water a dirty brown.
“Southwest Florida had a really acute onset of red tide. We’re going to make sure we get people who understand what that meant; what the discharges meant in the Caloosahatchee that affected that coast,” DeSantis said.
What Goss brings to the governing board
Goss is confident that his budget and policy experience working at various levels of government will serve the region well. Created in 1949, the SFWMD’s mandate is daunting: to manage and protect water resources of South Florida by balancing and improving flood control, water supply, water quality and natural systems.
On July 21, 2017, about a year to the day before a 26-foot whale shark washed up on Sanibel serving as a harbinger of immense Goliath grouper, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and millions of other heart-breaking losses of marine life due to red tide, Goss wrote an op-ed for the Santiva Chronicle.
“As a resident of Sanibel, I have no say in choosing the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District, yet the Governing Board can, and does, levy a tax on my property,” he wrote, calling for constitutional revision due to lack of taxpayer accountability on the board.
The primary funding for the district is through ad valorem taxes on property owners in 16 counties. It’s the oldest and largest of the state’s five water management districts and the most complex in terms of varying interests that are being served – from the sugar industry and flood control in communities south of Lake O, to the ecological health of the St. Lucie estuary, the Caloosahatchee estuary, the Everglades and Florida Bay.
On Jan. 29, it would turn out that Goss was given some say over who sits on the board by throwing his hat in the ring. At a press conference in Naples, DeSantis announced Goss as his lead appointment.
“I use the analogy that the voters hired a new coach in DeSantis and he said, ‘I want my own team.’ It’s not to say anything was wrong with the people who were on the board,” says Goss.
From one volunteer gig to the next
As a brazen advocate of water quality, Goss will wrap up his 4-year term on the city council after the March 5th meeting, with his final day on March 18. His term on the water management board is for the next four years. Neither position earns him a paycheck.
“I seem to be good at finding those,” joked Goss, founder and managing partner of Goss Practical Solutions – a firm that provides federal fiscal policy analysis and budget forecasting in D.C. He points out that some past board members of the SFWMD sought out the appointments to benefit their business.
“I don’t work in this world. I volunteered to do this because my community has really been hit hard,” he said.
Bruce Neill, executive director of the Sanibel Sea School, is very grateful for Goss’s appointment.
“People don’t realize what a huge sacrifice Chauncey is making. This is going to take a lot of time and hard work to bring about the changes we need to see,” he said.
In announcing his bold move to replace the entire board, DeSantis called for “a fresh start so we can move forward.”
“People from all political persuasions understand the importance of our water resources to Florida’s beauty, our way of life but also on our economic future,” said DeSantis.
Goss considers the issue to have impacts on many facets of life.
“Some people were pushing for him to have a scientist in this role, but I also understand the human impact. By being on the board of United Way and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, I saw the tremendous impact of people being laid off and of service people who live paycheck to paycheck,” said Goss, adding that public health is also a concern.
He takes the complexity of managing the water quality issue and the mega bucks involved in stride. His time working with the Office of Budget and Management (OMB) in D.C., has him prepped to make policy decisions based on SFWMD’s budget of nearly $1 billion.
“Theirs is a tiny budget compared to what I’ve dealt with,” he says. “It’s all about figuring out priorities and making sure the resources are there to take care of them. It doesn’t matter how many zeroes fall behind a number,” he says.
He also believes that working well with other governmental entities is key to solving the water quality crisis.
“I don’t think all of our water problems that we have in southwest Florida have necessarily come from the water management district, but I do know that without the water management district we aren’t going to fix all the problems,” he said.
Goss touted his experience in D.C. as key to pushing fast forward on getting the reservoirs and water treatment facilities needed to stop polluting the coasts and to restore flow south to the Everglades as planned in the Central Everglades Restoration Project (CERP).
Passed in 2000, the $8 billion CERP was intended as a 50-50 partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Florida, with the SFWMD acting as the local sponsor on behalf of the state.
“At the OMB, where I used to work, many former colleagues of mine are managing this project. So, I look forward to working with them again,” he said.
Carrying out a family legacy
He also gave a shout out to his mother and father, part-time Sanibel residents Porter and Mariel Goss who were in Naples to see him accept the board position. His dad was a C.I.A. operative who became Sanibel’s first mayor in 1974. He went on to serve on the county commission, in the U.S. House from 1989 to 2004, and ultimately to be appointed director of the C.I.A. until he resigned in 2006.
“My father Porter Goss actually helped work on CERP back in 2000 — without you, we wouldn’t be doing this. So thank you,” he said.
Goss will drive across the state two more times to complete his briefing before his first board meeting on Feb. 14. Believing deeply in DeSantis’s promise to future generations to “leave Florida to God better than we found it,” he takes on his new post in earnest.
“I really think we can fix it. I wouldn’t have taken the position if I didn’t think so,” he said. “Can we fix it within my 4-year-term? No. But, can we make progress? Absolutely. Let’s get this done.”
To ensure your taxpayer accountability, let Goss know what priorities you think the water management district should focus on. His new email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.