Buried on page 3 of today’s Miami Herald business section is: “Ex-PBS&J exec pleads guilty.” If ever Florida’s largest county floated a crime that demonstrates the law of intended consequences as relates to the unsustainable growth, it is the underlying scenario of the guilty plea by a former chairman of the powerful engineering firm, Richard Wickett, the second former chairman to plead guilty “to charges involving a long-running scheme to use campaign contributions to win government contracts.”
The US Department of Justice press release reads, “PBS&J is an employee-owned company based in Florida with approximately 3,900 employees throughout the United States.” PBS&J is a lot more than that.
PBS&J is to the growth complex as arms manufacturers are, to the military industrial complex. That is to say, the company and its large competitors are so thoroughly insinuated in the planning for infrastructure to the state, they are virtually indistinguishable from the civic purposes of government.
The implications range far wider than a federal prosecution of corruption in a Miami courtroom.
Consider, for instance, how Governor Charlie Crist recently outlined his opposition to the ballot referendum proposed by Florida Hometown Democracy. Civic activists propose changing the Florida constitution, to provide for citizens to directly vote on changes to municipal and county master development plans.
“Our government is structured on the notion that local communities and their elected officials can best assess the needs of their residents.” That is not how growth works. To say so, is to perpetuate the growth myth: that sprawl and its spiralling costs is what the market wants, reflected by the decisions of local officials. (No: sprawl is what the market finances because it generates the biggest fees, commissions, and bonuses.)
Most observers of Florida and other fast growing states in the nation wonder how in the world, given laws and regulations meant to protect quality of life, the environment, and sensible growth, that suburban sprawl metastasized to dominate the built landscape.
How it happened, is largely the work of big engineering firms that profit mightily through the proliferation of infrastructure, whether related to water supply, wastewater, roadways, ports, airports, or, all of the above. More is better, because profits are based on volume.
The Herald writes that PBS&J “does business with federal agencies, states and municipalities in Florida and across the country. Its illegal contributions, which went to candidates for federal and state offices, “ranged from between $201,000 to $400,000,” according to a statement by the Miami US Attorney’s office.”
In his jeremiad against Florida Hometown Democracy, Governor Crist writes, “These (local) officials are empowered by their constituents to review changes to local land development regulations and the growth management act, and to make responsible decisions.”
But any citizen who has been involved with local land use regulations knows that this bromide, smooth as the surface of a river rock, quickly dissolves to futility trapping neighbors, communities, and anyone who wants to intervene in local decisions that result in a landscape defined by the steroids of overdevelopment, profits, campaign and the political influence arrayed around Miami developers that propelled George W. Bush to the White House in 2000.
“Governor Crist believes the hometown democracy amendment would limit the ability of local officials to make important decisions for their communities, and would lead to unnecessary delays in permitting for new business opportunities.”
In promoting budgets and plans decades into the future, totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, engineering firms like PBS&J they don’t even have to bribe local officials (although that possibility in Miami-Dade was either not fully explored in the federal investigation or media reports) to make things work the way they want.
In fact, the revolving door between senior agency staff at the local and state and federal level and private industry, as represented by companies like PBS&J, is exactly to the point how government works in the United States today. Don’t imagine for a second, that the Blackwater phenomenon is an exception to the rule.
In Miami-Dade County, PBS&J had and likely still has access to plans, especially in respect to future infrastructure investments far, far before anything materializes in county committees or “public hearings”.
So skewed is the process, that the gauntlet of local comprehensive planning-shaping the future of Florida-has turned into little more than an un-refereed game of cat-and-mouse, with local elected officials toying with the public that dares show its face, demonstrating to big campaign contributors how insulting, derogatory, and vitriolic they can be in defense of the indefensible.
Keeping the spigot of campaign contributions flowing is integral to the work of big engineering firms as it is to petty despots at the county level who use public hearings to throw citiens off-guard, changing agendas at the last minute, holding people who take time off from work to testify-if they are given a chance to speak publicly-for hours and hours.
In most cases, big engineering firms like PBS&J are in the background, watching the proceedings on television, leaving the heavy lifting to the developers and lobbyists.
Governor Crist is mistaken. In Florida, a shadow government controls growth. Between now and the end of the year, the largely volunteer movement to change Florida’s constitution faces enormous hurdles to gain enough signatures to quality for the 2008 state-wide ballot. One of the leaders of the opposition, you guessed it: a senior executive of PBS&J.
I hope Florida Hometown Democracy succeeds, because it shouldn’t take a federal indictment to pull back the corners showing how Florida’s government really works.
ALAN FARAGO of Coral Gables, who writes about the environment and the politics of South Florida, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.