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Leaving on his terms

Roger Stewart has ruffled a few feathers over the decades in his crusade to clean up Hillsborough starting in the late 1960s.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


TAMPA -- On his last day of work, Roger Stewart drove to the office in silence.

As he wound down the rural roads of Thonotosassa heading to Tampa, he wanted some peace. He was thinking things over.

For half his life, the trim former Air Force pilot personified the fight to clean up Hillsborough County. He started his crusade in the late 1960s as a 39-year-old freshman studying biology at the University of South Florida, just as people began to understand the importance of protecting the environment.

By 1970, he had taken over Hillsborough's fledgling pollution control department and immediately began shaming Tampa's establishment into changing its ways. Through the force of his personality, he led the cleanup of Tampa Bay, championed rules to protect wetlands, and forced powerful companies like Tampa Electric to reduce air pollution.

"Roger is a legend," said Betty Castor, the former USF president and ex-county commissioner who supported Stewart during some turbulent times in the 1970s.

Business leaders once compared him to Hitler. County commissioners tried to fire him, over and over again. Toward the end of the career, people whispered that he had lost his edge.

Stewart, now 74, outlasted them all. He reigned over the county's Environmental Protection Commission as its executive director for 30 years.

Until he decided recently to let go.

Friday, as Stewart pulled into the EPC headquarters in Ybor City after his 30-minute drive from home, the name on his parking space was gone. It had been replaced with his successor's: "R. Garrity."

"Well, that's the way it goes," he grumbled as he opened his office's door. "Your term is up."

Stewart's longevity can be traced to the lowest moment of his career: His firing.

It was that event, in 1974, that created Stewart's legend and allowed him for three decades to defy his employer, the Hillsborough County Commission.

The animosity was ignited in February 1974, when CBS News asked Stewart to appear on 60 Minutes.

Millions of Americans watched Stewart, thin and with long sideburns, standing in front of a dirty pond by an apartment construction site, Mike Wallace beside him. He told Wallace how sewage from the apartments would pour into a lake, which residents could see from their windows.

"This is the vista out their picture window," Stewart said, pointing to the sewage.

"I don't believe you," Wallace said, incredulous.

"Well, this is a rather typical case, I think, Mike," Stewart said.

Then the cameras went to Stewart steering a boat down a residential canal. Viewers saw thick brown sludge oozing out a pipe into a canal -- sewage flowing from apartments into the bay.

"When they put bathrooms in these buildings, did they know where their sewage was going to go?" Wallace asked.

"I frankly don't think anyone gave a damn at that point," Stewart told him.

"Can't you lose your job for talking this way?" Wallace asked.

"I think not," Stewart said. "I think any enlightened political body would seek to restrain the kind of growth we are talking about. . . . These are the facts of life. This is the truth."

His bosses, the county commissioners, would never say anything to Stewart about the interview. But the national television broadcast had a powerful effect on them.

They would punish him a month later when he appeared before the state Pollution Control Board to testify about the Hooker's Point sewage treatment plant. Stewart was blunt as usual.

"This system is so marginal it's on the verge of collapse," he said.

The state should stop the city from hooking up new sewage lines to Hooker's Point, he argued. The board gave the city the permit, but with conditions.

City officials were furious. A week later, without warning, commissioners moved to fire Stewart for insubordination over his comments before the state pollution board. "We are probably doing you a favor," Commissioner Rudy Rodriguez said before the board voted 3-2 to dismiss him.

Stewart looked numb. Before getting up and leaving, he asked:

"Will that be all, commissioners?"

The firing lit a fuse under the public, who had come to admire Stewart's outspokenness. Word of the firing spread through downtown. The next day, the commission chamber at the old county courthouse was overflowing. In the back of the room, someone held up a sign: "When is the next election?"

Rodriguez and his colleagues refused to back down. Their stubbornness fueled Stewart's popularity. Hundreds turned out for a party in his honor at the Tampa Garden Club.

Mike Wallace returned to film a show on Stewart's firing. At his home in Thonotosassa, Stewart leaned against a fence as Wallace asked questions.

"Roger," Wallace asked, "why are you so stiff-necked? Why couldn't you compromise?"

"Someone has to be the purist in the environmental business," Stewart replied. "Someone has to preach the pure view."

As much as Stewart believed that, the attacks also hurt him. He had four children to feed and no steady job. He lived in a trailer, afraid to sign a mortgage on a house.

"I can't tell you the emotional turmoil this job brought me," Stewart said recently. "It was endless. I lost sleep. I couldn't eat. I was screwed up tight."

Stewart sued the commission over his firing, citing a little-known paragraph of the 1972 federal Water Pollution Control Act that made it illegal for a government agency to dismiss an employee for testifying before a board about an environmental issue.

The commission hired Paul Antinori, a former state attorney and top-flight criminal defense lawyer, to represent them.

On Aug. 13, Antinori shocked the commission. He said the board could not legally fire Stewart for insubordination since Stewart had previously informed them of his testimony, and they had not objected. The commission had to rehire him and pay lost salary and attorney's fees.

After that, commissioners tried for decades to fire Stewart or strip him of power. At first, the usual enemies took him on -- businessmen and home builders. Later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some environmentalists turned on him, saying Stewart had gone soft.

Commissioners Pam Iorio and Ed Turanchik, both considered environmentally friendly at the time, wanted to replace Stewart.

"I think both Ed and I thought at that time that EPC needed new blood," Iorio said last week. "In hindsight, I was just totally wrong."

In January, 26 years after he was fired, Stewart finally made the decision no one could make for him.

His wife was at home washing dishes when he called her with the news. Stewart was so conflicted he had trouble signing his resignation letter, she said. He looked at it for days before handing it in.

"I really don't want to leave," Stewart explained Friday, "but I have an inner deep-seated feeling that it is time."

Stewart has no certain plans for retirement. He probably will cook, teach a few courses in environmental studies, and look after his children, the youngest of whom is 9.

He said his decision was made easier because the commission had an able replacement, Rick Garrity, former Tampa director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in the wings.

For the past few months, there has been one retirement party after another. His staff took him to Bern's, threw an ice cream social for him, prepared a video of his achievements, published a special newsletter about his career and organized a barbecue in Plant City for 300 guests.

On his way to the barbecue, Stewart looked at his wife. "Why did I do this?" he asked her.

Just before his last lunch, Stewart's longtime attorney handed him his last official document, a memo to commissioners.

Stewart looked at it, then glanced at Garrity.

"I ought to give this to you, I guess," he said.

- Material from the Tampa Times, the Tampa Tribune, Hillsborough County archives, "60 Minutes," and Times files was used in this report.

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