Watershed Moment

After years of butting heads with St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon, a JEA executive couldn’t resist the chance to take one last dig. Acknowledging the longtime Riverkeeper’s imminent departure at the group’s annual Christmas party, the official joked, “Maybe now JEA and the Riverkeeper can work together.”

The comment, recalled last week by the nonprofit group’s Executive Director Jimmy Orth, was an insult, but one that speaks to a fundamental truth. Armingeon’s attitude toward both polluters (like JEA) and regulators (like the state Department of Environmental P rotection) was uncompromising. Not that he was confrontational; the Alabama native is a peaceable dude by nature, not given to ugly words or regrettable comments. But Armingeon saw his role as a representative for the river, first and last. And for that, he regarded polluters and the regulators who often forgive them as natural enemies.

He sued to force DEP to enforce water quality laws. He coined the name “Condom Creek” to describe the condition of a waterway soiled by a years-long sewage leak, and harangued both DEP and JEA for negotiating fines down to a slap on the wrist. “The more JEA violated the law, the lower the fines became,” Armingeon said at the time. “It would be laughable if it wasn’t so goddamn sickening.”

That posture is likely to change with the arrival of the new St. Johns Riverkeeper, Lisa Rinaman. The announcement, made on Jan. 6, a sunny Friday morning on Northbank Riverwalk, marked the end of an era and a likely shift in the timbre of the organization. Armingeon was an outsider who moved here from New Orleans, armed with a degree in biology, years of experience fighting to protect water resources and a wicked critical intelligence. He talked with a bluntness people in Jacksonville weren’t accustomed to hearing, wasn’t beholden to anyone, and — with his gray goatee and geek-rimmed glasses — didn’t look like anybody the local powers-that-be usually dealt with.

By contrast, Rinaman, 42, comes to the job from the center of Jacksonville’s circles of power. She worked in the Delaney Administration as communications director for the Better Jacksonville Plan. She served as policy director under Mayor John Peyton and was his liaison with the City Council. She’s served as president of the Downtown Council of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, on the board of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville and is currently president of the Jacksonville Historical Society. Her skill set includes negotiation, education and persuasion.

The transition she brings to the Riverkeeper organization could fairly be characterized as a shift from “fighter” to “fixer.”

Standing before the media in a trim black pantsuit, with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair and wearing fashionable oval eyeglasses, Rinaman pledged to carry forth the mission of the group, which she has served for the past two years as a member of its Water Policy Group. “I’m up to the challenge,” she said.

Rinaman does not have the technical or scientific expertise that Armingeon brought to the job, and while the Riverkeeper plans to assemble a board of technical experts that will be available to her, that could be a critical knowledge gap. One of Armingeon’s primary skills was being able to decipher the esoteric language of marine biology, and spot flaws in the arguments or reasoning of regulators. But Riverkeeper Board Member John Ragsdale, who headed up the search committee, says Rinaman won a unanimous approval from the board.

“Lisa stood out at every phase of our search,” he says. “We are extremely lucky to have someone who has a great depth of experience in public policy and who has the relationships she’s formed on the local, state and national levels, who has a real passion for the river and for the environment and the skills needed to address the kinds of problems we’ve got to solve to make our river a cleaner and a better place.”

Ragsdale says that the goals of the Riverkeeper organization remain the same — stricter pollution standards for the St. Johns River, additional testing of the wastewater from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill, preventing drinking water withdrawals from the river. He acknowledges there will be a difference in the ways Rinaman and Armingeon approach those issues, but says the change won’t affect the group’s mission.

“I think Lisa can be tough, if she needs to be,” he says. “I think she will be just as tough as Neil, but she will go about it in a different way.”

Rinaman herself acknowledges her leadership style won’t look like that of her predecessor, but she insists she won’t back from the challenge. One of her first missions will be to meet with DEP in Tallahassee to seek additional testing of the wastewater from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill. She also plans to meet with all the river’s stakeholders to “understand their needs and desires.”

Rinaman believes she can make things happen by building consensus and working behind the scenes. “I know what has to be done on the front end to get things done,” she says. Riverkeeper supporter and Jacksonville City Councilmember Jim Love welcomes Rinaman’s ability to bring different sides together. “Part of the Riverkeeper’s job is to be the public relations person for the river, and she will do a fabulous job at that,” he says. “This is a long battle. You don’t need to make enemies right away. In the long run, you need a diplomat, and she is very diplomatic.”

Balancing confrontation and cooperation has long been at the core of the Waterkeeper Alliance, the umbrella group that oversees all 190 local Riverkeeper groups internationally. The first such group was formed by commercial and recreational fishermen to save the Hudson River in the 1960s, in the belief that it would take an outspoken, citizen-led effort in order to win against well-financed industrial polluters.

Tom Larson, the co-chairman of the Sierra Club Northeast Florida Group, describes Rinaman as someone who knows what levers to pull and how to get things accomplished. He suggests the role of Riverkeeper will be a different one for her. “Maybe the Riverkeeper board thinks they have to move in a different mode to advance their initiatives,” he says. “Neil is a more colorful person, but, who knows? Lisa might be kind of the steel fish in the velvet glove.”