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Daniel Ruth: A stickler for propriety and transparency, Jan Platt was more than ‘Commissioner No’

By Daniel Ruth
Jan Platt, doing some last-minute campaigning here in a 1996 run for Hillsborough County Commission, was defined in part by failure: She ran against Dick Greco and some tall odds in 1995 because she didn't think it was right for anyone to get elected mayor without some sort of opposition. [Times file]

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, who died a few days ago at 81, will be remembered for many things, most notably as a principled steadfast guardian of the public trust.

Still, it was one of her greatest political failures that I will always remember and respect the most. But more about that in a moment.

Over her more than 40-year public career, Platt served on both the Tampa City Council and the county commission. She was a fierce protector of the environment and was often the lonely sole voice in opposition to rampant development.

She was the force behind the creation of the county’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program that manages some 61,000 acres of sensitive land. She believed in the power of libraries and led the fight to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The list of her numerous honors and awards and her active participation in all manner of civic boards seems endless.

Perhaps a bit unfairly, Platt was often called "Commissioner No" for her frequent nay votes on development issues. But Platt wasn’t opposed to development. She simply wanted to do it the right way. What a novel approach.

She was a stickler for propriety and government transparency. And in the good-old-boy days of Hillsborough County government that could rub people the wrong way. It still does.

There’s a story. The reason the county commission was expanded to seven members is largely credited to the fact that in 1983, while Platt served on the then five-member commission, three of her colleagues — Jerry Bowmer, Fred Anderson and Joe Kotvas — were led off to the hoosegow on bribery charges, leaving the commission without a quorum to conduct business.

Platt leaves an admirable legacy behind as the role model for what a real public servant ought to be — even it involves a fool’s errand.

In 1995, Platt decided to run for mayor of Tampa against the popular and charismatic Dick Greco. There was never any doubt Greco would cruise to victory to serve a second stint as mayor.

Platt knew it, too. But she still ran simply because she didn’t think it was right for anyone to get elected mayor without some sort of opposition. It was a matter of principle. This was no vanity, symbolic campaign. Platt worked her heart out. Still it was also a forgone conclusion. Platt was crushed by Greco. But this might also have been one of the most courteous, mutually respectful political campaigns in the city’s history.

Jan Platt was something of a throwback to another era, back to a time when some politicians at least ran on their accomplishments and their goals for the future.

In today’s mailbox mudslinging brochure environment, Platt would be unfairly vilified as a dreaded tree-hugging liberal — who liked to read books, no less! How elitist.

She should be remembered as part of a cadre of women — including former Mayor Sandy Freedman, Helen Gordon Davis, Betty Castor, Fran Davin, Sylvia Kimball-Rodriquez, Phyllis Busansky and Pat Frank — who endured sexism and misogyny to pave the way for the next generation of female office holders. She persisted.

Oftentimes, newbie pols enter various elective offices without really understanding what the job actually entails. The life and career of Jan Platt offers an excellent primer on the role of a genuine public servant.

Treat people fairly. Do your homework. Realize that constituent concerns rise above lobbyist special interests. Understand pouring cement is not the same thing as progress. Appreciate the fact that libraries are just as important as stadiums, perhaps more so.

Even more vitally, at the end of the day, it matters little how many votes you won or the offices you held. What matters most is whether you were able to represent the community you loved and served with your reputation still intact.

And that is Jan Platt’s enduring legacy.