Figuring a puzzle piece by piece
By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- There was a time in his life when Jerry Maxwell thought his first, best calling was to become a teacher. Through a good chunk of the '60s, Maxwell and his wife, Karen, chased degrees through the halls of Southern Illinois University toward this common goal.
Then poverty happened.
"Karen and I were foundering, we were starving," Maxwell recalls. "I actually went hunting for Thanksgiving dinner with some other struggling, starving graduate students."
One of them was his best friend, Sam Heard, who announced that he had applied for the job of assistant to the city manager of Carbondale, Ill.
"Sam was confident that he would get the job," Maxwell says. "But I kept walking around out there in these fields thinking, that's really what I ought to do. I really needed to take care of my family, and Sam was hopelessly inappropriate for the job."
So Maxwell cut his hair and shaved his beard, marched down to City Hall, applied for the job himself and blew his best friend out of the water.
Today, a half-dozen government jobs later, Maxwell is general manager of Tampa Bay Water, this region's principal water supplier.
He has overseen the transformation of the widely distrusted West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority into the water wholesaler that is about to provide 100-million gallons of new water supply. It's the area's first major new supply of water in 14 years.
To get this far, Maxwell has had to negotiate parochial political squabbles, overcome the residue of decades of distrust among local governments and tiptoe among public-interest groups with widely disparate demands.
And just to keep things interesting, nature threw in a three-year drought, because life can never have too many complications.
Jerry Maxwell, 58, runner, kayaker, civil rights activist, stone mason, husband of 35 years, father of three grown children is a man who, when asked if has a big ego, replies, "Yes. I'm sure I do."
He works, often 60 hours a week in a nondescript building in central Pinellas County. He's paid $142,680 a year. Over his desk hangs a framed photo of Albert Einstein bearing this quote: "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."
"He is . . . extremely articulate and intelligent -- and as with many markedly articulate people, he possesses a certain slickness. His reasoning is always too good, his arguments too rarely fail to hold water -- and for many people that comes across as slick. (There is an) illusion of guile." -- Columnist Brad Pokorny, Claremont, N.H., Eagle Times, 1978, on City Manager Jerry Maxwell.
Some of Maxwell's critics today use the same word to describe him, as if that one word can explain why they admire the man's accomplishments at the same time they don't quite trust him.
"People think he's slick because Jerry keeps his own counsel," said Honey Rand, a private consultant on water issues. "Most people involved in public policy issues have a handful of people they talk to that will keep their confidence. But the only way to keep a secret is to not tell anyone. Jerry does that, so no one ever knows where he's going.
"But the bottom line on Jerry is that he delivered water supplies. So whether you agree with the way he's gone about doing it, or with what's been done, he's the guy who got the job done."
Maxwell hasn't been afraid to butt heads with the establishment in getting it done, either.
There was, for example, his very first meeting in 1995 with the executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly called Swiftmud, the agency that regulates water use in west central Florida.
At the time, Swiftmud and the old water supply authority that served Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough were on such strained terms that Swiftmud had helped put together an unsanctioned board it could deal with instead of the authority.
"The first time I ever met Jerry face-to-face, he told me in no uncertain terms that the arrangement wouldn't work," said Pete Hubbell, former executive director of Swiftmud. "He was very blunt about the fact that he didn't much appreciate the forum."
Maxwell shrugs off the incident.
"You can't usurp the responsibility of an organization duly authorized by the state," he says. "I told them that. That's all."
The incident left the impression with some that Maxwell was channeling Pinellas County Commissioner Chuck Rainey, who had ruled water policy in the region for years to the benefit of his constituents and very much to the consternation of Hillsborough and Pasco counties -- and Swiftmud.
But if the men were joined at the hip, it didn't show in public.
During one tediously long public meeting, local officials including Rainey were asked to compile water policy wish lists. Large sheets of paper were hung on the meeting room wall, and the officials were asked to post yellow dots next to the options they preferred.
Rainey posted each dot with the middle finger of his right hand and then turned to the audience to display the finger to Maxwell.
"He was never my boy," Rainey says. "That was something people said when something didn't go their way. Jerry works hard and tries to please everybody. I commend him, but my assessment of what he's done is none too good. All these projects, they're going to make our water way more expensive . . . . But it's done now. We have to live with it."
Maxwell just smiles when the subject of Rainey comes up, the way a man smiles when he remembers a small kidney stone (Yeah, it hurt, but at least I didn't need surgery).
"If he does (have a weakness), it's perhaps because he comes on too strong for a conservative Maine community . . . . Nobody feels he's asking. They think they're being told." Bath, Maine, City Councilor Lucy Stinson, a strong supporter of City Manager Jerry Maxwell, as quoted in the Bath-Brunswick Times Record, 1975.
When Sylvia Young was a Pasco County commissioner and a member of the Tampa Bay Water board, she often pounded the table in real or feigned fury with Maxwell. She publicly gave him the lowest score possible on his annual evaluation and felt moved to expound at length on what she perceived as his endless failings.
Hillsborough commissioners Ronda Storms and Pat Frank used to become angry to the point of near speechlessness when dealing with Maxwell. Their colleague, Chris Hart, has been known to get crimson-faced, vein-popping furious with Maxwell.
Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, chairwoman of the TBW board, dismisses most of the angst as issue rhetoric.
"There are more people who think he's doing a fine job," Hildebrand said. "He's the glue that holds the agency together."
Rainey thinks there is more to it.
"Jerry is a magnet for abuse," Rainey said. "He brings it on himself. He doesn't talk in sentences; he talks in pages. You talk that much, you're going to say something that gets you in trouble. He needs to learn to talk in bullet points."
Maxwell says abuse has been a part of the career.
"It's part of why I feel compelled to make sure the positions we take are thoroughly examined and buttressed by science and engineering," he says. "You can withstand public criticism if you haven't made a recommendation you can't deliver on."
Criticism is one thing, humiliation quite another.
"It's a subject of domestic stress," Maxwell says. "I've been doing this work for 35 years, and Karen has never attended a meeting. It's not because she doesn't want to. It's because I would not be able to perform . . . if she were present. I would not let them do that to me in front of the person who means the most to me."
One cannot talk long to Maxwell without gaining a sense that his family is the center of his life.
Karen is a retired teacher of challenged children.
"She's a wonderful person," Maxwell says. "A teacher. A companion. She means everything to me. I can't even imagine life without her."
The Maxwells have three grown children, but their first-born, a boy named Lee, died of a heart virus when he was 9. Maxwell still cannot talk about him unemotionally.
"I carried that kid everywhere with me," he says. "I backpacked with him on my back." He pauses, then waves the discussion closed.
The Maxwells live on what he describes as "the smallest lot on the water in existence in Pinellas County." Its key attribute is that he and Karen can haul their kayaks to the gulf right out the front door.
"Both Karen and I spend a lot of time out there," he says. "It's a great stress reliever. We've lived together so long we don't even have to talk to each other to commune in that space."
While his public face is that of a policy wonk, there are private faces he rarely shares. One of them is the spiritual Jerry Maxwell.
One week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as many Americans resolved not to board an airplane again, the Maxwells flew to New Mexico. It was something they wanted to do, something they felt they needed to do.
"We spent time living in several pueblos," Maxwell recalled. "We needed a reaffirmation of life and our existence. And we needed a renewal of our belief in family traditions, the traditions you find among native peoples. We had to get to a place where the earth still vibrated a little bit."
And there is the old protester Jerry Maxwell. Every so often someone from his past will show up at his office, an old friend from his days as a civil rights activist. ("We sat in, we marched, we did everything.") Sometimes, these friends are still looking over their shoulders for the law.
"When they leave, people here will ask who that was, and I'll have to say, "Oh, never mind,' " Maxwell says. "The last few months, I've had calls from some of them. They worry that the stuff the Justice Department is doing to make it easier to track terrorists will be used to track them after all these years. I'm not sure they're wrong."
Asked if he is wanted, Maxwell laughs.
"No," he says. "At least I don't think so."
When he retires, Maxwell says, he and Karen will split their time between the small house on the gulf and an equally small house on the coast of Maine. But retirement isn't on his mind yet.
"The nature of what we're doing is so important and so rewarding," he says. "There are a lot of things you can work at where it's not clear that what you're doing is making a difference. It's entirely clear that what we're doing makes a difference."
After 35 years of carrying out the wishes of others, does Maxwell ever get the urge to become one of the policymakers?
"Every once in a while I do, yes," he says. "But I don't know that I would make a good elected official. It would be hard not to be engaged in the doing."
In other words, he says, he would rather be the guy who figures out where all the pieces go than the man who decides what the jigsaw puzzle will look like when it's done.
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