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County wetlands official sent to sideline
A posting on a blog leads to the EPC director's suspension.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published June 27, 2007
TAMPA -- The director of Hillsborough County's embattled wetlands regulation office was suspended for two weeks on Tuesday, four days after posting critical comments about county commissioners on a blog.
"These arrogant commissioners have to go, they are not listening to us," Jadell Kerr wrote on the local blog, SticksofFire.com, last week. The day before, a majority of commissioners voted to eliminate the $2-million wetlands division that Kerr oversees at the Environmental Protection Commission.
On Tuesday, the EPC's executive director, Richard Garrity, said he suspended Kerr with pay because of "management issues," one of which included what she wrote on the blog.
"It's a number of things," Garrity said. "She and I need some time to sort through them."
Garrity said none of the commissioners asked him to take action against Kerr, but he did inform them after making his decision. Kerr earns $115,814 a year and oversees 28 employees at the EPC.
Her division has come under fire from developers, especially Stephen Dibbs, who complain the EPC's efforts to protect wetlands only duplicate what the state already does. Supporters say developers resent the EPC because it has higher protection standards than the state.
Kerr mentioned Dibbs in her blog post, saying "Dibbs has had it out for EPC for quite a while. ... He has some huge controversial development plans in the pipelines and without the EPC, those plans are likely to be a slam dunk." Kerr could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Her suspension comes during a hectic week at the EPC, as officials scramble to figure out what do next after the commission's 4-3 vote Thursday to eliminate Kerr's division.
In the same motion that four commissioners helped shape, they also agreed to consider a "parallel action." The motion doesn't explain what this action is, but refers to a proposal that the agency's executive director, Richard Garrity, didn't get a chance to present.
"Quite a bit," Garrity said. "We've read it and reread it. What I've concluded is that they are talking about looking at the hybrid option."
The "hybrid" is what Garrity calls his last-ditch effort to stave off elimination of the wetlands division by "streamlining" the permitting, review and enforcement with other agencies. For the past 22 years, the EPC has imposed stricter rules on development than the state to safeguard wetlands.
Garrity said his new approach has never been done in Florida. It would combine different county and state agencies so developers would submit project plans for only one wetlands review. Garrity calls it "one-stop" permitting.
The EPC could save "substantial" money by adopting this approach, Garrity said, but he needs another two weeks to work out the details. He said the review must still be diligent enough to warrant a wetlands division at the EPC.
"I'm not interested is doing something just to keep jobs," Garrity said. "I think you can come up with a bona fide and valuable option for the wetlands division, it just won't be the same."
Supporters of EPC's wetlands regulation said they had many concerns about Garrity's new proposal. If the EPC combines its review of development with the state, does that mean it would adopt the more lax state standards? If it does, than why keep the wetlands division around?
"What's the point?" said Terry Flott, a Seffner resident. "If the EPC gives up the permitting to the state, then it won't be the same review. The permitting is the key. We shouldn't give that up."
Before her suspension, Kerr said she had similar concerns about the hybrid. Kerr said oversight of permitting gives the EPC an opportunity to negotiate wetlands protection with developers during the proposal period. If the EPC doesn't participate in this phase, it might be difficult to enforce or monitor the project later, she said.
"If you want to have an impact on development, you really need to get in on the front end," Kerr said. "With compliance, you're getting in on the rear, and by then it's too late."
Originally, Garrity was to brief commissioners about his hybrid plan at last week's meeting. But Commissioner Brian Blair told him before the meeting that commissioners would discuss the wetlands division first. As that discussion progressed and commissioners got ready to vote on elimination, Garrity interrupted to remind them that he hadn't made his presentation yet.
Blair, who chairs the EPC, responded: "It's getting late. Okay. Three minutes. Go ahead."
Garrity said after the meeting that he didn't have enough time to present his concept, but said this week he was glad commissioners decided to include it in their final motion. Now it's just a matter of time in getting it ready for one last presentation to commissioners, though it's unclear when that will be.
FAST FACTS: Wetlands vote Officials at Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission say they are still trying to understand the motion made last week by Commissioner Kevin White -- with some help from Brian Blair, Ken Hagan and Jim Norman -- that would eliminate the agency's wetlands division. Here's what they passed:
White: My motion was to begin the elimination process of -- the duties of the EPC regarding the wetlands and to develop a code -- I'm sorry -- and amending the code, land development code, and the comp plan to mirror the Swiftmud regulations.
Norman: Are you going to add in the parallel process that commissioner mentioned that --
Blair: Please. Because if that comes to fruition, then I'm not going to support this.
Norman: Commissioner Blair's actions about a parallel action?
Hagan: I have one comment. I just want the costs associated with both proposals to come forward. If we --
Hagan: -- Ultimately go forward with Commissioner White's original motion, I want the $2,080,000 included in that as far as a reduction. If the second area goes forward with the one-stop shop, I want to know the cost of the savings associated with that as well.
Norman: You want to see both bottom lines.
Blair: Right. Exactly. And we look forward to that. Please press your buttons.