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Editorial: Jan Platt’s legacy in Hillsborough County

Published: November 6, 2017 Updated: December 18, 2017 at 02:10 PM
TP__387878_REPO_ntpDiary100314_jpg.7 AMY SCHERZER | Times photos Jan Platt chats with author Carl Hiaasen at Friends of the Library‚\u0080\u0099s Centennial Author Gala on Sept. 20 at Le Meridien Hotel.

There was never any question of where Jan Platt stood on an issue. Her sense of fair play and accountability, love for the environment and belief in open government defined her more than 40 years in politics. As a member of both the Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission, Platt’s high standards and sharp tongue set a bar for a small, clubby town growing into a major metro area. Her death on Friday at age 81 marks the loss of a true public servant who used her time both in and out of office for the good of this community.

By today’s standards, Platt would seem an ill fit for politics. She wasn’t into slapping backs, shaking special interests down for campaign donations or feigning interest in the personal lives of powerful people she met. As Hillsborough boomed in the 1980s, she voted "no" scores of times on rezonings, earning the nickname "Commissioner No" for her opposition to poorly planned developments. She was standoffish to her colleagues out of an abundance of respect for Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which bar collusion between elected officials. The sight of three of five commissioners hauled away in handcuffs in a corruption scandal in 1983 never left her. She was embarrassed for the county and afraid of the impact it would have on public service. Platt turned the experience into a teachable moment, calling on business and political leaders to grow up and clean up. And to a large degree, that happened.

Platt’s support for libraries, the health of Tampa Bay and smart growth made this region a better place to live and work. She also stood as a role model. Platt did her homework, spoke her mind and paid her own way, and if that rubbed anybody wrong, well — that was tough. She didn’t spare the incompetent, the hucksters or the blowhards who appeared before her. But Platt’s criticism was never personal. She saw it her responsibility to protect the institution of government. And she insisted that her colleagues be serious and prepared.

Platt’s death leaves one less trusted voice for this region to turn toward. Her causes are not the same political pet projects that make the front pages today. But she helped lay a foundation for sustained growth and honesty in government that has fueled civic spirit and confidence in the area. Voters were proud to support her, and she repaid the favor by treating elected office as a sacred trust. She was a Democrat with an independent voice who could work (or not) with anybody. Her passing is a reminder of how far the county has come and how much a single politician with conviction can leave as a legacy.