State Ombudsman is Fired

In Jeb Bush's 'One Florida,' apparently only one opinion is allowed

click to enlarge Dr. Benji Brumberg - JEFF GLASSBERG
Dr. Benji Brumberg

He saved the Miami Blue butterfly. He saved the world's largest aboriginal canoe site at Newnan's Lake. He saved the Florida Folk Festival and a whole bunch of dolphins and manatees. He saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars by mediating enviro-lawsuits. His "alternate dispute resolution" idea changed forever the way Florida government enters the legal arena.

Dr. Benji Brumberg, Ombudsman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), spent three-and-a-half exemplary years looking over bureaucratic shoulders as the public's chief watchdog over the stewards of the environment. He openly admitted, "I try to pull everything toward the green side, if I can."

Suddenly, without warning, at about the same hour National Public Radio was extolling his virtues across the country, Jeb Bush's "green man" got fired.

The tree fell very quietly. It was two weeks ago, out of the blue. More quickly than the gubernatorial appointee could clean out his desk, all mention of Brumberg's name and accomplishments — including the public "Bible" he had produced, listing ombudsmen and citizen service officers throughout state government — were summarily excised from the state website.

And no one from the Governor on down can give a satisfactory reason why. Brumberg left Tallahassee immediately after the firing and cannot be reached. Neither Bush nor DEP Secretary David Struhs would provide a comment to the Weekly Planet.

The official word, from stern-voiced Deena Wells in the DEP press office: "The ombudsman's office was reorganized and his position was eliminated."

According to Wells, Brumberg's duties have been divvied up among six regional external affairs/citizen's service managers. "It's nice to know it takes six people to take his place," said a disturbed Rep. Richard Machek (R-Delray Beach). Machek expressed shock at the news of Brumberg's dismissal; the two were partners in an ongoing fight to save the Okeechobee Battlefield.

"This man was an excellent state worker. He did his very best in every issue he was associated with. I will continue to seek his expertise and counsel. I'll do everything I can to help this man back on his feet. I am going to look into this."

From New Mexico, Sierra Club national board member Ed Dobson expressed dismay at Brumberg's departure: "Benji Brumberg was one of the best things about Jeb Bush. He seemed to be independent; he could walk through any door without going through bureaucratic channels. He seemed free to operate to solve problems. I think he was probably the only real environmentalist Bush had.

"Somebody didn't want his or her shoulder being looked over. When an ombudsman gets fired, without apparent cause, something is wrong."

Brumberg's personnel file, obtained by the Weekly Planet, adds to the mystery. The file contains not a single letter of complaint, rather, page after page of high evaluations and positive remarks.

In a "Special Recognition/ Accomplishment" memo from Struhs last June, the Secretary wrote: "There is no way to determine the worth of Benji Brumberg in monetary terms. During his 18 months with the Department he has settled disputes that have dragged on for more than a decade. His skill as a mediator has probably saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and, were it quantifiable, generated an equal amount of good will with the public. He is a remarkable individual and the go-to guy to solve the tough problems."

Brumberg's skill in resolving long-standing legal disputes, outlined in a memo he sent to Bush, led to the Governor's Executive Order 0287, requiring legal disputes to go to alternative dispute resolution first before plunging headfirst into the costly courtroom.

A former DEP attorney ties the whole thing to Bush: "The firing of the DEP ombudsman sends a chilling signal to DEP employees that dissent will not be tolerated, even if it is in the interest of the health and safety of Floridians," said Jerry Phillips, now with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

PEER monitors state environmental agencies, while encouraging and protecting whistleblowers. PEER closed its Florida office not long after Brumberg was hired in the fall of 1999.

"It sounds like Governor Bush has shifted his focus from 'One Florida' to 'One Opinion,'" Phillips said. "Weighing differing opinions is absolutely crucial to making sound policy. While firing dissenters may serve to bolster the Governor's efforts to assist corporate polluters, such actions are bad for policy and bad for morale."

Phillips said PEER will reopen its Florida office in May. "This move certainly underscores the need for an organization like PEER to get re-established in Florida. The message being sent is clear: Do not try to interfere with the intentions of this administration to assist its corporate buddies unless you, the state employee, are willing to lose your job."

Brumberg ruffled feathers in other governmental arenas when he found poor performance. At the State Department in particular, he had few friends. He went up against former Secretary of State Katherine Harris in the controversial transfer of the Florida Folk Festival from State (which no longer wanted it) to DEP. In the Newnan's Lake case, where State Department officials signed off on permits that allowed bulldozers in an archaeological site, he brought in the Seminole Indians and had Bush issue a moratorium banning the activity.

"I sure hope he didn't get fired because they thought he was hanging out with me," said deposed Seminole Chief Jim Billie. "He preserved our history on that lake. But we haven't really seen him since."

At the time of his dismissal, Brumberg was putting his final marks on the Miami Blue butterfly case. When the federal government failed to take action to save the last colony of the world's most endangered butterfly at Bahia Honda State Park, Brumberg brought angry lawsuit-toting citizens together with state and federal officials and engineered a first-ever emergency state endangered species listing.

Bob Ballard, a DEP Deputy Secretary, gave Brumberg sole credit for saving the Miami Blue at a recent public gathering. It was a shining moment for the much-beleaguered DEP. In fact, his staff was gathered around a radio listening to an NPR report on Brumberg and the Miami Blue when the axe came down.

"There is not another single person in all of Florida state government who can say they saved an endangered species. Benji Brumberg can say that. He was an example of state government at its best. I am outraged that he is gone," said Dennis Olle, a south Florida attorney who worked on the case for the North American Butterfly Association. "No good deed goes unpunished up there, I guess.

"Brumberg was not a flaming environmentalist. He is conservative, business-like. He went out of his way to make all the bureaucrats look good. ... Now the same crew is doing its best to screw up the Everglades restoration. And they put out their only shining light!"

Peter Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in St. Petersburg.