Blair actions at EPC still raise red flags

He used the word "Gestapo" for the staff while crashing a meeting.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008

TAMPA - As chairman of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, Brian Blair tried last year to end the agency's regulation of construction around wetlands.

The dispute ended in compromise, and Blair has since relinquished his chairmanship. But last month, Blair crashed talks between EPC employees and owners of a yard-waste processing company accused of breaking county rules.

He said he was angry the company was facing fines and likened the EPC staff to the Gestapo, according to people who attended the meeting.

"Mr. Blair then thanked us, told us he was sick to his stomach, that we haven't heard the end of this, then left the meeting," according to a draft summary of the meeting.

Critics of the board say Blair's actions are just the latest example of commissioners trying to keep the EPC from protecting the environment. They say his comments at the meeting narrowly skirt rules passed by commissioners themselves that prohibit them from telling county employees how to do their jobs.

"His role is not to protect the violator; it's to protect the environment," said Terry Flott, who chairs the group United Citizens' Action Network, which sparred with Blair and the commission last year over the wetlands issue. "It's obvious what's going on here."

The company in question, Mother's Organics Inc., later agreed to pay a $18,000 "benevolent donation" rather than a "penalty" originally calculated at nearly quadruple that amount. The company is free to pursue its goal of turning yard waste to humus, a natural soil supplement used in gardening.

Blair's comments were scrubbed from a final version of the summary, when EPC supervisors decided they were not germane.

The EPC's general counsel, Rick Tschantz, who was at the Dec. 20 meeting, acknowledged that a commissioner's presence at the meeting was unusual. But he said it did not violate county policy or affect the outcome of the dispute.

Blair, now vice chairman of the EPC, said he was simply responding to concerns brought to him by constituents. The owners of Mother's Organics, located off County Road 579 in Thonotosassa, claim they were wrongly forced to get EPC permission to run their business after winning approval from the state.

They turned to Blair for help, and the commissioner said he attended the meeting to get to the truth of the matter.

"I wanted to see how they handle a case like this," Blair said. "This is a company that creates a product that's good for the environment. You would think that staff would be trying to help their business rather than hinder it."

While he was not pleased with what he saw at the meeting, he said he used the word "Gestapo" in saying how others describe the agency. He also denied saying employees "haven't heard the end of this," instead indicating he would follow up on the issue.

"I said, 'We'll talk more about this,'" Blair said, "Because I didn't think it was appropriate to carry out a conversation then with the customers and staff in the same room."

'A climate of fear'

Danny Alberdi, former assistant director of the EPC wetlands division, said the description he has heard of the meeting fits a pattern. He said it was not uncommon for commissioners' aides to attend staff-level meetings.

And with budget cuts looming, he said employees are less likely than ever to raise questions about political interference.

"It's really a climate of fear," Alberdi said. "People are afraid to speak their minds."

The EPC is the county's main environmental regulatory agency. It enforces additional protections the county has enacted to thwart environmental degradation.

Hillsborough County commissioners serve as its board of directors.

Tschantz, the general counsel, described the dispute with Mother's Organics as "cut and dried." Supervisors at the agency say Mother's Organics is accepting yard waste, and, as such, must receive authorization from the EPC.

Levying punishment

Agency records show EPC officials informed Bill Stanton, owner of a former borrow pit where the business is housed, of the requirement in 2005. The business started operating anyway in August 2007, without the commission's authorization.

Soon, the county was receiving complaints from a nearby civic association and from a manager of a competing business.

EPC inspectors warned Stanton and the owners of Mother's Organics repeatedly before issuing a cease-and-desist order Oct. 26.

The company filed its application three days later.

"It's a very simple matter. We told them they needed to have a permit to operate a facility like that," said EPC executive director Richard Garrity. "Until the very end, they refused to do that."

Garrity said an original financial penalty of more than $60,000 was based on the number of days the company operated without authorization. He said the staff agreed on an amount it would accept to settle the matter before the meeting Blair attended.

He said the settlement decision largely took into account the fact that there was no environmental harm caused. But he said he still wanted an amount that served as a deterrent to others inclined to break the rules.

Glad for the help

EPC officials say the point of local authorization is, in part, to ensure the company has a plan in place should its business fail. The buildup of tree limbs and other yard waste poses a fire hazard.

Stanton, the property owner, said Mother's Organics is not like most mulching companies. Turning tree limbs into humus is more like a farming operation.

He said he asked questions of the EPC months before opening about what he needed to provide in order to win approval. He said agency workers wouldn't give him answers and eventually stopped taking his phone calls.

Mother's Organics won approval to do business two weeks ago.

From his standpoint, Stanton said he's happy Blair attended the meeting.

"He should be able to see how some of those interactions work," Stanton said. "If they're professionals, it shouldn't sway the way they work."

Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or 813 226-3387.