Things get stormy in Florida.
Photo: Ali Nishan

It’s got all the signs of a bad breakup: anger, recriminations, and friends taking sides. But this rift doesn’t involve bitter former sweeties; it’s between members of one of the nation’s largest and most influential environmental groups. And it’s happening in a high-profile, wealthy state with complex environmental problems, where the stakes are much higher than who gets the DVD collection.

On March 25, the national board of directors of the Sierra Club voted to suspend its Florida chapter for four years — an unprecedented move for an organization with a long tradition of democratic management from the grassroots up. The move meant the immediate ouster of the state chapter’s 27-member executive committee — which had been elected by Florida Sierra Club members to oversee statewide activist efforts and manage paid staff — plus the suspension of other state-level committees.

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The Florida chapter will not be able to elect state-level leaders for the duration of the suspension. It’s a partial disenfranchisement of 35,000 members, around 5 percent of the Sierra Club’s national membership, who contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the group in annual dues alone — and likely a whole lot more, considering that the state has many wealthy and environmentally concerned residents. During the suspension, the Florida chapter’s statewide conservation agenda will be in the hands of an interim steering committee, which is being drawn from the Florida membership by a selection committee hand-picked by the Club’s national board.

The situation could be seen as just another ugly falling-out within a green group were it not for Florida’s prominence in the environmental movement and in the Electoral College. The state has a wealth of mediagenic conservation causes: protecting the habitat of the critically endangered Florida panther (charismatic megafauna); fighting oil drilling off the popular beaches of the Gulf coast (charismatic human cuties in bikinis and Speedos); and, of course, restoring the Everglades (charismatic swampland). Add in the fact that Florida is once again poised to play a controversial role in a presidential contest, and you’ve got a lot of eyeballs on the state.

Are Not!

The Sierra Club’s national board says the suspension was necessary because years of infighting debilitated Florida’s executive committee and spilled over into local groups across the state, hampering the chapter’s conservation work and alienating many of the members. The ousted leaders, of course, have a different perspective.

Karen Orr, the Florida chapter’s former political chair, says the charges of factionalism and divisiveness within the executive committee were “completely fabricated.” She calls the national board’s review process “real star chamber proceedings.”

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Orr claims the chapter’s leadership has been punished because it took positions counter to those of the national Sierra Club, including the national organization’s pro-biofuels stance. “[Biofuels] would be a disaster in Florida,” says Orr. “We have extreme drought, and extreme pressures on us in Florida from development and agriculture.”

Both Orr and Joy Ezell, the chapter’s former conservation chair, say the Florida chapter was also targeted for opposing the national board’s endorsement of a new line of home cleaning products from the Clorox Company. The Sierra Club is allowing Clorox to use the Club’s logo on its “Green Works” line, and it’s getting an undisclosed amount of funding from Clorox as part of the deal. The Florida chapter denounced the partnership in a formal resolution in January, noting that Clorox has a history of violating environmental laws and producing damaging chemical products.

“I guess they saw us as a rogue group who were running amok and making stands stronger than the national positions,” Ezell says.

Former chapter secretary Pedro Monteiro also disputes the allegation that infighting on the executive committee was paralyzing the Florida chapter. In an email sent to the national Sierra Club before the suspension was finalized, he tallied up the committee’s recent votes and reported that “95 percent of over 220 motions voted on in 2006-2007 were decided by at least a 2:1 margin,” and 63 percent were unanimous. “For a 27-member committee, that’s impressive. It certainly is not indicative of ‘deep divisions.'”

These former leaders are furious about the national board’s move, and they’re not mincing words. Writing on the website CounterPunch, Orr and former chapter chair Betsy Roberts call the suspension “the March 25th Massacre” and accuse Sierra Club’s “national bureaucracy” of removing the state leadership in order to take direct control of the chapter’s funds and programs.

Monteiro’s rhetoric is even more heated. “This suspension process is rife with the same problems that plagued the misguided invasion of Iraq and Panama, and the illegal holding of citizens in Guantanamo Bay,” he wrote in his email, comparing the board’s actions to “the crimes of the Bush Administration.” He continued, “If there really are problems in the Florida Chapter, allow the voters to express their will and elect a new leadership at the next regularly held election.” In a follow-up email, Monteiro called the chapter’s new interim steering committee “a national staff-appointed junta.”

Robert Cox.

Are Too!

“The Florida situation has been terribly unprecedented,” says Robert Cox, chair of the Sierra Club’s national board, which is elected by all of the club’s members. “It’s the first time in our 116-year history that we’ve suspended a chapter. A few of the ousted leaders have been quite angry and taken their case to the media. But I can’t emphasize enough that a majority of Florida members were saying [that] things are bad enough to suspend the chapter.”

Cox says the suspension was unrelated to the Florida chapter’s positions on biofuels, Clorox Green Works, or any other issue. He notes that the national board’s investigation into tensions within the Florida chapter began in 2006, long before the Club began discussing a partnership with Clorox. The investigation went on for more than a year and included attempts at mediated conflict resolution and a 60-day comment period during which Florida members were invited to offer their opinions via phone, email, and postal mail. To avert fears of retaliation, members were assured that their comments would be kept private.

According to Cox, Floridians reported that factionalism among state leaders had led to secret meetings, fixed elections, and retribution against local leaders who disagreed with members of the executive committee. “There seemed to be a group of leaders who could not get along,” says Cox. “Chapters routinely have debates and disagreements, which are normally settled within the chapters. Here it seemed more embittered, and threatened the chapter’s ability to function in any effective way.”

The majority of Florida members who expressed a preferred course of action supported the suspension, Cox says.

What’s Clorox Got to Do With It?

Despite Cox’s denial, a number of activists still maintain that the chapter’s suspension was retaliation for the anti-Clorox resolution. This view was publicized in an essay about the situation by Sierra Club member Peter Montague, published in the March 27 edition of the online newsletter “Rachel’s Democracy and Health News” and linked to or reprinted by many blogs and websites, including Grist’s own Gristmill.

But Club members in Florida certainly aren’t the only ones speaking out against putting the Sierra Club logo on Clorox Green Works products. “There was a lot of grassroots dissatisfaction over [the Clorox deal],” says James Lane, secretary of the New York City Group of Sierra Club, who opposes the endorsement. “I don’t think it’s credible that [the national leadership would] suspend a chapter for speaking out against it.”

Lane speaks as someone who has his own contentious history with the national board. In the early 1990s, Lane and other leaders of the New York City Group of the Sierra Club took the Club to court — and won — after it supported their suspension by the New York State chapter. Although he discounts the Clorox angle, Lane is critical of the Florida suspension, especially its four-year duration. The New York City Group was suspended for one year, he notes. Many of the former leaders waited out the year and were eventually re-elected to their positions. Is the national board trying to avoid a similar scenario in Florida?

Says Cox, “If we are succeeding in rebuilding the [Florida] chapter [and] people are getting along, we could end the suspension much sooner. Also, quite frankly, New York City … taught us something: that the leaders need a little longer period of cooling off.”

Take a Deep Breath, Everybody

Alan Farago, a newspaper columnist and former chair of the Club’s Miami Group, doesn’t believe the suspension of the Florida chapter was a coup by national leaders. “There’s a lot of mischaracterizing … that national is trying to step on the grassroots,” he says.

Farago doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other of the suspension, but suggests that Florida’s complex political and environmental situation contributed to problems in the state’s Sierra Club chapter. “Everything is more aggravated in Florida: wilderness, water quality, suburban sprawl, marine ecosystems, wetlands, and the whole host of battles with regulatory agencies,” he says.

“Florida was very much the test tube for the Bush White House in terms of developing strategies to lower regulatory thresholds, to diminish citizen involvement, and to promote this kind of laissez-faire so-called free-market capitalism that is such a complete disaster in terms of the housing boom,” Farago continues. “Over quite a long period of time, the grassroots part of the environmental movement in Florida has been marginalized, by pressures both internal and external.” These pressures created what he terms a “very unhealthy insularity” in the Florida chapter’s leadership.

Craig Diamond of Tallahassee is one Floridian who attests to being squeezed out by the now-former leaders — in his case, from a long-held Sierra Club seat on a state research board. “If you weren’t a loyal member of the team and didn’t pass some sort of litmus test, you were going to be cast off,” he says. He claims the infighting damaged the Club’s standing with other eco-activists in the state. “I know for a fact that the chapter became disinvited from a number of efforts on various conservation fronts.”

Diamond points out that even with the Sierra Club’s grassroots democratic tradition and nonprofit status, the national board has both the right and the legal responsibility to step in if it uncovers mismanagement. “The stakes were too high here to let this persist the way it had been for much longer,” he says.

Diamond believes there are many Sierra Club members in Florida who will become more active now that “the tenor of the chapter” is changing. “There are still people who would like to contribute, who’ll come back to try and right the ship.”

The Florida chapter now has four years to kiss and make up. If the suspension lasts its full duration, the chapter’s members will next mark their ballots for state leaders in 2012 — just as the nation’s attention again turns to Florida’s electoral votes during a presidential election year.