SWFWMD votes to de-fund Sarasota Bay Estuary Program
By Jack Short
The Sarasota Bay Estuary Program (SBEP) may lose 2017 funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) because of ongoing disagreements about SBEP’s management and finances.
SWFWMD alleges that SBEP failed to report staff issues in a timely manner, overbilled the district for a project and failed to follow proper accounting procedures.
As a result, SWFWMD voted 9-1 to withdraw from its partnership with SBEP in a Sept. 29 meeting.
In September 2014, an employee accused SBEP Executive Director Mark Alderson of creating a hostile work environment through aggressive outbursts.
SWFWMD said SBEP failed to notify the district of the allegations in a timely manner, according to SWFWMD spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh.
SWFWMD also claims SBEP billed legal expenses for the investigation of employee misconduct as a grant-writing line item in its project budget and that Alderson failed to follow procedures related to the investigation.
Additionally, SWFWMD says it was overbilled for expenses from August 2013 to August 2014 for construction-related expenses for the Sarasota Bay Habitat Restoration Project.
SWFWMD paid 100% of the project’s $172,000 cost, however, SBEP was responsible for half those costs. It has agreed to reimburse the water district $86,000.
Alderson said he was unable to comment on the allegations of creating a hostile work environment because the matter is under litigation. But he said the investigation found no violation of employment law.
Alderson called the alleged overbilling a miscommunication and said SWFWMD would be repaid, but stopped short of saying SBEP overbilled the water district.
He also noted, in an email to the Sarasota Observer, that “(SBEP has) a full federal and state audit conducted annually, and the results for the past decade have been clean.”