DeSantis appoints Florida’s environmental secretary; Fried challenges hire

Shawn Hamilton was named the full-time secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection after leading the agency this summer on an interim basis. He is the first Black person to fill the role, said Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The governor announced the appointment Tuesday, saying in a statement that Hamilton “brings a strong, proven record of environmental stewardship and management of award-winning state parks and conservation lands.”

The announcement implied the appointment was a foregone conclusion, but hours later the governor’s authority to make it was challenged by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running against DeSantis in the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Fried repeated an argument she has made before, that the governor must bring Hamilton’s appointment before the Florida Cabinet for unanimous approval. She is the only Democrat on the Cabinet, which also includes the state’s attorney general and chief financial officer.

“I’ve met with Interim Secretary Hamilton, have asked him tough questions and he would break a glass ceiling as the first African-American secretary of the agency — my quarrel is not with him,” she said in a statement late Tuesday. Fried wrote a letter asking DeSantis to bring up the appointment at the next Cabinet meeting.

Related: Florida says Piney Point will be under new management

The debate over the process of naming an environmental secretary first surfaced at a meeting in June. DeSantis said then that it was an executive appointment and he would only need approval from the state Senate.

“That’s our prerogative, and we’ll do it when we want to, and we’ll let folks know about it,” he said in response to Fried at the time.

Fried has cited a state law that says the agency head “shall be appointed by the Governor, with the concurrence of three members of the Cabinet. The secretary shall be confirmed by the Florida Senate. The secretary shall serve at the pleasure of the Governor.” DeSantis said in June that he believes the state Constitution might conflict with that law and it “would be a live issue potentially, if we end up with a conflict.”

Shawn Hamilton, right, wearing a gray short-sleeve shirt, stands behind Gov. Ron DeSantis at a Red Tide press conference held on July 21 in St. Petersburg. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

Hamilton has worked for the Department of Environmental Protection for 13 years and served as deputy secretary over lands and recreation since February 2020. He was appointed the agency’s interim leader in June.

“I have seen first-hand the historic advancements that have been made, and the unprecedented resources that have been secured for the protection of the environment, especially under Governor DeSantis’ leadership,” Hamilton said in a statement issued by the governor’s office. “I look forward to furthering the agency’s mission and advancing the governor’s environmental priorities.”

Florida’s new environmental chief was in Tampa Bay this summer helping coordinate responses to the problems at the Piney Point fertilizer plant property in Manatee County and a toxic Red Tide bloom. This spring, the state allowed the owner of the Piney Point site to release 215 million gallons of wastewater into the bay to avoid a potentially catastrophic spill on land. Scientists say nitrogen from the release could have worsened the Red Tide, which has killed hundreds of tons of sea life.

Related: Florida says another Piney Point wastewater release is possible

The previous environmental secretary, Noah Valenstein, stepped down in early June.

Hamilton oversaw a state park system with a budget of $391 million in his role as deputy secretary, according to the governor’s office. He previously was a superintendent under the Alabama Air National Guard and served in the Iraq War, the state said.He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Troy State University with a business minor, according to his state biography. Hamilton was also the agency’s environmental justice coordinator.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with a statement from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

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