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2 water board members accuse Senate leader of making threats

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Two members of the board of Tampa Bay Water accused state Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala on Monday of using threats, intimidation and foul language to try to stop them from questioning the utility's longstanding plans for developing new sources of drinking water.

"He strode across 30 yards to reach me, his fists clenched," Steve Simon, one of the newer members of the Tampa Bay Water board, said in a trembling voice. "He said, "Who the "f' do you think you are?' I was terrified. My hands were shaking. I didn't know what had set him off. He had no right to use that language in front of my wife and my mother-in-law and my 2-year-old nephew, John-John. My wife was sick for two days. John-John was so frightened he curled into a ball and pulled his (blanket) over him."

Hillsborough Commissioner Ronda Storms, who also sits on the water board, said she had a similar experience with Latvala last year when she was at home in bed with a problem pregnancy.

"He told me I had to become more flexible, or he would "f' every one of our projects," Storms said. "I told him that a man who would try to intimidate a pregnant woman is lacking in some, well, uh, some body parts."

Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, said in a telephone interview later Monday that he had spoken to Simon before a parade in Pasco County over the weekend, but had no recollection of using foul language. He said he had never spoken to Storms in his life.

"I asked (Simon) where he got off, his third meeting at Tampa Bay Water, trying to change plans all six of the member governments voted unanimously to approve two years ago," Latvala said. "But my fists weren't clenched, and I don't remember using any profanity."

Latvala said he is concerned that Simon has turned water issues into personal issues between himself and fellow Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. The two have seemed to be on different pages recently, and Simon has rebuked Hildebrand publicly for her positions.

"Ann is my friend," Latvala said. "I was upset, yes, but I was upset for her."

Latvala is heavily invested, personally and professionally, in Tampa Bay Water and its plans to develop new water resources. He played a major role in getting legislative approval for Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties to work on a regional basis to develop new water supplies and to organize the utility out of the remains of the old West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority.

Simon, who joined the board this year, and Storms, who joined it last year, are among those members who have been most vocal about changing or dropping projects approved by the board before they joined. Both question plans for new well fields in Hillsborough, and both have questioned the wisdom and the safety of building a huge reservoir in southern Hillsborough that would, by Simon's estimation, hold enough water above ground to fill Raymond James Stadium 800 times.

"I told Steve Simon there are people who have been working on these plans for five years, and who was he to try to change everything when he has so little experience," Latvala said. "And if he succeeds, who's going to get hurt? The people of central Pasco because we're not going to be able to cut back (ground water) pumping."

As for Storms, he said, "I've never spoken to the lady, never had a conversation with her. I have had the conversation with other Hillsborough officials, asking them why they're standing in the way of the projects that their commission and Tampa's City Council approved. But I've never talked to her."

Simon said when he first discussed water issues with Latvala over lunch several weeks ago, Latvala had cautioned him, saying, "You're going to have to run again."

"I took that as a moderate threat," the commissioner said.

"My political career is less than 2 years old," he added, then threw up his hand. "What career? I'm scared, but it's not going to change what I want to do. I don't think this master water plan was put together with malice, but it doesn't work. It's being held together by covert confrontation and manipulation. That's not the way government is supposed to run.

"I'm owed an apology. My wife is owed an apology. And a commitment to no further government by intimidation would be nice."

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