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Politics

Commissioner criticized for EPC letter

Brian Blair says, "You don't go against your fellow board members."

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published April 20, 2007


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TAMPA - Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair said colleague Rose Ferlita was way out of line.

"That was insubordination for Rose to do that," he said.

What set Blair off was a letter Ferlita sent to members of the state Legislature on April 11.

In it, she took the opposite stance from one he and a majority of the commission took last week. At issue: the county Environmental Protection Commission's legal power to protect wetlands from development.

In her letter, Ferlita opposed House Bill 957, which would wipe out that authority. She urged state lawmakers to preserve the county's ability to protect wetlands.

This action offended Blair.

"You take the vote and live with it," he said. "You don't go against your fellow board members."

He referred to a 5-2 vote last week that prohibited the EPC staff from contacting legislators about the bill.

Ferlita and Commissioner Mark Sharpe voted to let the agency fight to preserve its authority. Blair and four other board members voted to silence it.

Ferlita laughed when told Blair had accused her of insubordination.

Then, more sternly, she said: "Well, when he becomes my superior, he might determine that this was insubordination. For me to even respond ... would take attention away from an issue that I consider to be important."

Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee said it was fully within Ferlita's rights as a commissioner to do what she did. She, too, chuckled when told that Blair called it "insubordinate."

"Commissioners are individually elected," Lee said. "They're elected on different platforms and issues. This is not group-think. They don't work for each other."

Ferlita was objecting to an 18-word amendment added to a bill so that it would take away local control over wetland development in 20 counties, including Hillsborough. State rules don't protect wetlands that are smaller than a half-acre, while county rules do.

Ferlita and Sharpe dissented from the majority vote, saying it was the duty of the county to fight the bill and support regulations that help protect habitat, water quality and prevent flooding.

"We are the EPC," Ferlita said last week. "It's absolutely our responsibility to take a position."

But Blair and the other commissioners said the EPC's regulations duplicate what the state and federal government already do, an argument also made by some developers who say there is too much waste. Blair said it wasn't even clear that wetlands had been lost to development.

"We have no evidence that our wetlands are declining, none," Blair said. "That's been stated by scientists."

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of satellite imagery found that about 84,000 acres of wetlands have been wiped out in Florida since 1990, which Sharpe cited as the evidence he needed to support the tougher local rules.

After last week's vote, Ferlita vowed she would fight against the bill if the EPC wouldn't. She sent the letters that night and said she paid the $400 postage out of her own pocket. She then convinced her former board, the Tampa City Council, to write its own letter opposing the bill.

"It turned out to be an incredible group effort," Ferlita said.

She said she would have gone to Tallahassee to fight the bill, but it has recently stalled. Even Blair said it doesn't stand much chance of passing.

On Thursday, commissioners agreed by a 7-0 vote to study how the EPC and the county's planning and growth management employees can work together and replace state oversight of wetlands and stormwater regulation to avoid the "duplication" that the majority of the commissioners have criticized.

The EPC's executive director, Richard Garrity, said it would take a "matter of months" to study how much this new streamlined process would cost. Broward County is one place that already does this.

But if the EPC and county were to replace state oversight of wetlands, it won't come cheap, said Robin Hainke, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which currently reviews wetlands as regulators of stormwater.

"That requires engineering expertise," Hainke said. "Hillsborough would have to have an extensive engineering department to do that."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 20, 2007, 06:46:20]


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