Fight over soil and water district qualification requirements raises constitutional questions

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. — Should there be professional requirements for elected officials?

The only offices that currently have such limits in Florida are the Attorney General and judicial positions, but a bill soon to be on the governor’s desk could block the vast majority of the population from running for another elected position: soil and water conservation districts.

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Ted Clark serves on the Clay County Soil and Water District.

He explained the boards can’t impose taxes or regulations, but they advocate and educate the public to promote sustainable agriculture practices.

“If you’ve ever watched Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson would approve of us,” said Clark.

Under this bill you could only run for one of these positions if you’ve worked 10 years in the agriculture industry, currently work in agriculture or own land classified for agricultural use.

That would exclude the vast majority of Floridians from running.

If the bill were signed by the governor, Clark would still be able to run, but many of his colleagues would be booted out of office.

“You can’t have conservationists on there, you can’t have the civil engineer who is on there, you can’t have a former NRCS employee on there and in my opinion a lot of those folks are qualified,” said Clark.

He’s calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the legislation, arguing that limiting who can run for office is a slippery slope.

“Does that mean that we’re gonna have a requirement where you have to be a police officer to be sheriff? Does it mean that you have to be a lawyer to be governor or in the state legislature?” said Clark.

Aliki Moncrief with Florida Conservation Voters argued there are also environmental concerns with having only agriculture-industry insiders running soil and water boards.

“It’s a little bit of a fox watching the hen-house,” said Moncrief.

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State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, went even further, arguing the bill is blatantly unconstitutional.

“It is one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. Every Floridian should be outraged,” said Brandes.

He was one of just two Republicans who voted with Democrats against the bill in the Florida Senate.

“That is the start of socialism. That is the start of us beginning to pick a defined group of people who can lead the state and everybody else can’t,” said Brandes.

The bill could be sent to the governor any day now.

Once DeSantis receives it, he’ll have 15 days to decide whether to sign it into law, allow it to become law without his signature or kill it with his veto pen.