BEHIND THE HEADLINES

Water board chair proves deft in role


Ometrias Deon Long, Chairman of the St. Johns Governing Board, poses along the waterfront of the St. John's river in Palatka.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, March 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 1, 2004 at 12:14 a.m.
Ometrias Deon Long may have seemed the least likely candidate for a spot on the St. Johns River Water Management District's governing board.
History and law were his passions, and aside from completing a single college seminar on Western water policy, natural resource management simply wasn't his cup of tea.
"It was something I was taking for my own edification," Long said of the class he took in the early 1990s. "I didn't think I'd ever use it."
But in the five years since joining the board, Long, a Republican and University of Florida graduate, has shaken off his early lack of water-related qualifications.
And in what could be considered confirmation of his rise to prominence on the nine-member panel, he was unanimously voted chairman of the state Senate-confirmed body in November. For the next one to two years he will oversee a board tasked with setting operational policies for the St. Johns district, managers of water in all or part of 18 North Florida counties, including Alachua County.
Learning the ropes Long, 36, admits he didn't know what to make of his initial appointment by Gov. Jeb Bush on March 5, 1999.
"To be honest, when I first got on the water management board, I never knew they existed," Long, an attorney, said during a recent interview at his law offices in Winter Park.
But if he wasn't keyed into the assignment's significance then, board members say he's done a fine job making up for his freshman uncertainties.
"By the time I got there, which will be three years in March, he already seemed well versed on what was going on," said fellow governing board member Ann T. Moore of Bunnell. "I certainly have valued his legal knowledge and background."
Today, Long acknowledges that recent developments on the water front - from supply issues to developing new sources of water - have brought added significance to his post.
A report released last year by the Council of 100, a state business group, has focused attention on the way the state's five water management district conduct business.
The council's report recommended changes to Florida law that could lead to long-distance transfers of water. Since then, some critics of the group's findings have turned toward the water management districts for tighter controls of the state's natural resources.
"I think a lot of people take shots at the district," Long said of the attention, both recent and historic. "Let's face it, we're put on a board where we collect taxes, but we haven't been elected.
"Based on that," he added, noting that neither he nor the district have taken a position on the council's report, "there's a certain vitriol toward water management districts, whether it's the perception of trampling on property rights or the bureaucracy of trying to get stuff done."
Long's starting points The son of a soldier, Long was born in Starke and spent his early years in Marianna. Summers were partially spent in Lawtey at his grandparents' home near Camp Blanding.
And as a young man with an adventurous spirit, Long spent much of his adolescence thinking he would look to a life in the military.
Eventually he changed his mind and in 1990, he graduated from UF, where he studied history and business administration.
He also met his wife, Monique, in Gainesville, and today shares four children with her, aged 8 to 14.
A year after leaving UF, Long headed for Ann Arbor, Mich., where he graduated from the University of Michigan law school in 1993.
Today he runs his own firm, Ometrias D. Long and Associates P.A., specializing in municipal finance, corporate litigation and business transactions.
Political launchpad More than the birthplace of his family and the starting point to a successful law career, UF also served as a political launchpad that eventually paved the way to membership on the St. Johns governing board.
In the mid-1980s, after closely following Jesse Jackson's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Long become interested in history and politics, reading up on Eisenhower and Napoleon, and registering to vote.
But unlike Jackson, Long wasn't looking to fit into the stereotypical mold as a black Democrat living in the South. So when the woman at a Jackson County polling station, where he registered, assumed he was filing as a Democrat, Long asked for a Republican form.
"I was kind of just trying to be contrary, as far as why I first did it," he said.
The rebellious act was more than a one-time statement, and soon Long became active in GOP politics at UF. During a 1994 rally for Republican Jeb Bush, who was making his first bid for governor, Long was approached by Bush and asked to lend a hand.
"He says, 'I want you to get involved with my campaign,' " Long recalled last month. "And I said, well, I don't hold up signs for anybody. So Jeb said, 'Well what do you want to do?' "
What he did was raise money - $8,000, to be precise. And while Bush eventually lost in 1994, Long remained in contact with the candidate, working closely with the Foundation for Florida's Future, a nonprofit organization formed by the soon-to-be governor to impact public policy.
In 1998, during Bush's second bid for the state's highest office, Long was again approached by Bush and asked to work with the campaign, this time focusing on black issues by speaking on behalf of the candidate.
After Bush's victory, the governor offered him a more permanent - albeit volunteer - position, as a sitting member on the water management district's governing board.
"The qualities that the governor looks for when he makes appointments," Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre said Wednesday, "he's looking for high integrity, strong work ethic, high moral character and a willingness to serve the citizens of the state. Mr. Long met all of those criteria and then some."
Counterpositions Even before his climb to chairman, Long worked to champion numerous water-district initiatives, including efforts to improve diversity at the district in hopes of soliciting more contracts from minority-managed firms.
He's also been committed to developing alternative water resources and water supplies, like projects to turn the St. Johns River into drinking water, though he acknowledges that such endeavors are "not an easy thing" and wonders openly who's going to pay for it.
Of course not all of his positions are welcomed with open arms by environmentalists.
On the issue of water district-sanctioned growth curbs, for example, Long said there is no place for top-down mandates on development.
"I think a lot of people jump to conclusions where they want to say they want to have a moratorium on growth, or whatever. Basically, the way I see it, people have property rights."
But even other board members whose backgrounds are greener than the chairman's acknowledge Long's positions aren't completely counter to theirs.
"We probably have more in common than meets the eye," said Moore, who heads the grass-roots Lake Disston Lake Watch in Flagler County.
"I think that we have such a good board with such a strong relationship and respect for each other that all you're going to see is a well functioning board that's going to make good decisions under his leadership," Moore said.
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026 or greg.bruno@gvillesun.com.

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