Public paid for her seawall

The lesson here: It's whom you know that counts.

Published July 15, 2007

TAMPA - Project No. 45403 was an urgent matter.

Top priority. Very hot and rush.

That's how a flurry of e-mails between Hillsborough County engineers described how important it was to get 45403 built.

"There will be many people watching this one," a supervisor advised his project manager. "If you need me or Bob to call any agency to expedite things, we will."

As 45403 neared completion this year, an engineer's e-mail sounded relieved: "It appears we survived."

For Hillsborough's Public Works Department, which does hundreds of projects a year, what was the big deal about 45403?

Project 45403 is a 480-foot-wide slope of concrete rubble along the Palm River that county crews completed on March 9.

Called riprap, the ramp of rocks shields three properties from erosion: the back yards of two homes and a county road.

For motorists who see it while driving south on the Maydell Drive bridge, the wall stands as a jagged symbol of how one of the homeowners, a 67-year-old widow named Edna Walters, used connections to get the government to pay for a project of questionable public value.

"We have not been able to find a technical reason to support a public purpose in using public funds to stabilize the shoreline along Ms. Walters' property," wrote public works director Bob Gordon in an e-mail last year.

A few months later, however, county commissioners took the last in a series of votes to spend $220,000 in public money on the wall. The county was to pay half. Later, the total bill dropped to $87,569.

At the time, the project bore a striking resemblance to another one commissioners approved at the same Jan. 4 meeting. Commissioners voted to spend nearly $1-million on a drainage bypass for Noreast Lake, a small, secluded lake where Commissioner Brian Blair lives with about 25 other homeowners.

As with the Palm River erosion control project, commissioners approved the Noreast project after rejecting advice from its staff or consultants who doubted its public merits. Unlike Noreast, 45403 didn't benefit a commissioner. The only one who had asked for it was Walters.

So what was the big deal about Walters?

'A powerful individual'

Walters moved to her Palm River home from North Carolina in 2002 to care for her sister.

She didn't like what she found in the back yard: erosion. She sought county help to build a seawall protecting her property.

But her claim that the county should pay was a tough case to make. For one, the erosion started back in the 1960s. And a different government created the problem.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers widened the Palm River from 50 feet to more than 500, transforming a quiet river into the Tampa Bypass Canal. In the expanded waterway, waves from passing boats and tidal action lapped against the shoreline.

To protect her yard, Walters had a wooden seawall built in 2005 that the county's Environmental Protection Commission flagged for being in wetlands. She was ordered to tear it down.

Jadell Kerr, who resigned July 6 as EPC's wetlands director, wrote in a 2005 memo that Walters boasted good connections.

Walters "was the campaign fundraiser for (Commissioners Ken Hagan, Jim Norman, and Brian Blair)," Kerr wrote. "I told her to please not tell me any more - that she was putting those commissioners in a compromised position."

Walters said last week that's not true, she doesn't know the commissioners, and as former financial director of the American Lung Association of North Carolina she has raised money, but for charities, not politics.

Hagan, Norman and Blair couldn't be reached. But Ben Kelly, Norman's aide, said he recalled that Walters once phoned the office to volunteer her services.

"We didn't have any events for her," Kelly said. "I don't know if she played a role in the campaign directly."

Walters said she understands how to get things done. In North Carolina, Walters said, "I'm a powerful individual." That power is derived from relationships, she said. "When you raise money for charities, you have to know the right people."

As a newcomer to Hillsborough, however, Walters didn't know the right people. That's when someone told her about Roy Davis.

Said Walters, "Somebody just said, 'If you really want to get anything done, get Roy Davis involved.' "

Her personal lobbyist

Davis is a longtime Hillsborough farmer and a powerful advocate for the nursery industry known for his frank talk.

And he has pull with commissioners. Norman appointed him to an environmental advisory committee. Ronda Storms, now a state senator, knew Davis for years. In 2003, commissioners gave him the Moral Courage Award, which goes to residents who stand up to government.

Influential local businessman Ralph Hughes nominated Davis. A board of residents appointed by commissioners recommended Davis for the award.

The member who spoke loudest for Davis was future Commissioner Brian Blair, who received a $200 campaign contribution in 2004 from Davis. Davis said he helped raise about $1,000 from others to support Blair.

"I agree with his politics," said Davis, who says he's a fiscal and social conservative. "I'm determined to stop the county from giving itself away to the people who don't work for it."

Walters didn't know Davis, but she found him through mutual acquaintances. After Davis visited her property, he became her personal lobbyist.

Davis didn't shy away from complaining to commissioners about how the county staff was treating Walters' seawall request.

Gordon, the public works director, sent an e-mail to County Administrator Pat Bean explaining how difficult it was to work with Walters and Davis. "There seems to be no limits to the tactics that she and Mr. Davis will employ to get what they want from the board," said Gordon.

If anyone should pay for it, Gordon argued, it was the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud. The water district, not the county, he noted, was responsible for the canal's maintenance.

The lone dissenter

Commissioners struck a deal with Swiftmud: The two government agencies would split the cost of the $220,000 project. The county would build it.

The district's Hillsborough River Basin Board voted 4-1 to approve the project.

The dissenter was Polk County businessman George Burt. "My concern was if we do it for that property owner, what do we do for other property owners who want it," he said.

Commissioners justified the project on the premise that the county road next to Walters' property, Winham Street, was eroding into the river. At an April 2006 meeting, Ronda Storms said the county was "throwing stuff onto the bank to keep it from falling in, and it's not working."

Yet Gordon described the conditions differently. "I would not say it's not working," Gordon said at the meeting. "I would say there is some mild erosion."

But the project had gained approval from Swiftmud. The urgency? The erosion in Walters' yard had worsened, Gordon said.

How about the erosion to the county's property, Winham Street?

"That was minor," he said last week.

Davis doesn't deny he was instrumental in getting the structure built: "I did have a lot of influence on this," he said.

A question of fairness

David Gay lives next door to Walters. Like her, he's had severe erosion. But unlike Walters, he has no seawall. "If anyone needs a seawall, it's me," Gay said.

He said it's not fair that a woman who knows whom to ask can get public money spent on her private property.

"Her yard is private property, so where's the public benefit?" Gay said. "The county isn't out for the public anymore. They don't handle money well. The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

After some changes that scaled back the project, the county's share wound up at $43,784.

Does Davis think it's fair or efficient that government spends for those who know how to ask?

"I don't think that question deserves an answer," he said. "I did what I was asked to do. I can't save the world."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.