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Broward Soil district plan digs up old conflicts: Russell Setti, whose colorful political past

dates to the 1970’s, wants to turn a relic from Broward’s agricultural past into a major
environmental regulatory.

COPYRIGHT 2007 The Miami Herald

Byline: Erika Bolstad

Feb. 18--Russell Setti quietly ran Broward County's least-known environmental agency for more than
a dozen years, with little oversight beyond a wink-and-nod agreement that allowed him to pocket
unspent grant money as his salary.

From 2000 to 2006, the former Cooper City mayor collected a total of $467,561, with limited
documentation of what he did to earn it.

Setti ran the day-to-day affairs of the Broward Soil and Water Conservation District, applying for state
and federal grants and reporting to an elected board of five. He took on small projects, planting sea
oats for Broward County and preaching the evils of pollutants that threaten groundwater quality.

Setti stayed largely out of public view until last fall, when he persuaded his board to ask Broward
voters for more power by changing the agency into a watershed improvement district.

Editorial boards at both The Miami Herald and The Sun-Sentinel endorsed the idea, and voters
responded to the ballot language with a resounding yes.

Suddenly, people in high places started paying attention to Setti and his out-of-nowhere proposal,
which offered to turn a relic from Broward's agricultural past into a major environmental regulatory
agency with the potential to levy taxes.

And old enmities were roused by Setti, whose colorful background in Broward dates to the early 1970s
when he wore his red hair in a ponytail.

One longtime Cooper City resident, Patti Webster, described Setti, 63, as “always turning up, like a
bad penny.”

Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish, whose own political career began in Cooper City when
Setti was mayor, stretched the simile to five cents.
“I wouldn‟t let Russell Setti manage a nickel of my money, and you can quote me on that, “said
Parrish, whose ex-husband once ran for mayor against Setti.

HOSTILE OPPOSITION

Now, Setti‟s proposal faces hostile opposition from all quarters, especially Broward County
government leaders, who see the soil and water district as an archaic agency looking for a mission.
Broward‟s district, one of 63 in Florida, was created in 1964 when the area was more agricultural. A
similar district exists in South Miami-Dade.

“It definitely is a threat to the taxpayers and our programs, our honest, important environmental
programs,” said Webster, who lobbies in Tallahassee for Broward County‟s environmental Interests,
and who recalls Setti from his time as Cooper City mayor. “We did an analysis of the impacts, a white
paper, and it‟s likely he actually believes his district can compete with the federal government in
Everglades restoration and the state and the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Henry Graham, chairman of Setti‟s board and an elected supervisor for nearly two decades, defended
the work of the district, which he said has planted sea oats, has run a mobile irrigation lab to monitor
water usage, and has offered environmental education programs in under served communities. This
month, the district is set to plant sea oats on Hollywood beach. But Graham acknowledged that he
and other board members should have paid more attention to Setti‟s pay.

“We have to more or less look at the fact that there should have been better housekeeping, “Graham
said. “A bit more scrutiny and contracting should have been done with Mr. Setti.”
It was only last year that Setti formalized his role with the district.
The contract, signed Nov. 6, put into writing what “has formerly been verbally agreed upon as a
standard of the district doing business” with him, the document says.

It calls for him to be paid a project administration fee, which is “built into each project when
submitted for funding,” his contract says. He also is paid “the net proceeds (balance of project funds)
from each project upon completion.”

In 2000, Setti was paid $76,698, followed by $82,989 in 2001 and $71,902 in 2002. In 2003, records
show he wasn‟t paid. He received $235,972 from the district in 2004, and then he is shown as being
paid nothing the past two years.

In total, he has been paid $467,561 by the district since 2000, according to information that Setti‟s
assistant provided to The Miami Herald.

Setti, who holds a real-estate license and now lives in Hollywood, said that he makes a living as a
broker, and did not receive retirement benefits or health insurance from the soil and water district.

The district does not have an annual budget. It operates out of U.S. Department of Agriculture offices
in Davie, with Setti and two employees who have contracts for specific jobs.

Setti said much of the money he was paid in 2004 came from grants through federal programs he
oversaw for the South Florida Community Urban Resource Partnership.

The federal program fared poorly across the nation and was abandoned after a U.S. Department of
Agriculture audit in 1999 found that it hadn‟t been properly authorized by Congress. Grants from the
federal program closed out in2005, Setti said. The projects included environmental education
programs aimed at minorities.

“Everything was accounted for. Everything was approved. All the agreements were signed by the
board of supervisors,” Setti said.

LITTLE SUPERVISION

Yet, he acknowledged that the supervisors were not aware of every program he was doing for the
urban resource partnership in the name of the district.

“It was paid through the soil district, as a pass-through agency, but the majority of that money was
federal funds,” Setti said. The soil and water district, he said, “did not have oversight of the projects.
They had no oversight or responsibility. They did not review the projects.”

Setti was angry when the urban resource partnership fell apart, said Terry Mock, a Lake Worth land
developer and conservationist who was involved from the program‟s early stages. The program had a
lot of potential, but it was difficult to work with Setti, Mock said.

“At the end,” Mock said, “it was really nasty. He was trying to manipulate people into following his
dictate.”

Setti‟s political history in Broward County dates to 1973, when he served two terms as mayor of
Cooper City. He made an unsuccessful bid for state House of Representatives, then was reelected
Cooper City mayor for a third term in 1977. He lost a bid for a fourth term in 1979.

ETHICS VIOLATIONS

Twice the Florida Commission on Ethics found Setti guilty of failing to disclose conflicts when voting on
city matters, but he was never penalized.

In 1983, he was fined for letting vines grow all over the home that he and his wife were fighting over
in their divorce. And in 1987, he made another failed bid for Cooper City mayor.

Those who worked with him in Cooper City describe him as an abrasive and unpleasant leader who
bullied people until they capitulated. City meetings would stretch into the wee hours, said Suellen
Fardelmann, a fellow commissioner before she was elected mayor.
“I remember sitting in my driveway, coming in at 6:30 in the morning, and saying to my husband,
„Don‟t ask me –- if you don‟t believe where I was, read the morning paper,‟ ” Fardelmann said.

Setti also was a memorable figure in Lee County, where in 2005, he tried to sell 321 acres of
mangroves and pine flatlands to a land conservation program. Setti had attempted to develop the
land, but it was such an environmentally sensitive parcel that government approval was doubtful, said
Lynda Riley, the program coordinator for Lee County‟s conservation lands.
Riley struggled to be diplomatic about dealing with Setti.

“He was constantly changing his mind, and very pushy about wanting concessions,” she said. “It was
very difficult to work with him, because of changing his mind a lot. You just never knew what to
believe.”

During his time in Lee County, Setti became friendly with Frank Mann, a former state lawmaker who
now serves on the Lee County Commission.

Setti approached Mann for advice on navigating the potential sale. Mann invited Setti to join the choir
at the First Presbyterian Church while he was working in Fort Myers.

“He couldn‟t sing worth a hoot, but he loved it,” said Mann, who described the unlikely choirboy as
“strange but likable.”

Finally, though Mann told Setti to leave him out of the land negotiations.

“Russell never knew what direction he was headed,” Mann said. “He was playing two ends against the
middle and not making any friends in the county offices. We ended up just laughing a lot and singing
in the choir. We‟ve still got his name on a choir robe.

Copyright © 2007, The Miami Herald

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