Last July, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection hired a Bonita Springs engineer and charter boat captain named Gary Colecchio to take charge of its Tampa district office, even though Colecchio had virtually no experience in dealing with the DEP.
The mission he was handed, Colecchio said this week, was simple: "I was hired to turn around what was probably the most notorious district in the state as far as being difficult (for business) to deal with."
Colecchio said he worked hard to quell the complaints of the businesses regulated by the DEP's largest district office — incinerators, power plants, sewer plants, factories that sometimes leak pollutants. It was what Gov. Rick Scott's administration wanted, he said.
"The present administration is extremely sensitive to anyone in the regulated community who feels put out or put upon or in any way distressed," Colecchio said. "A lot of our time was spent dealing with those issues."
He believes he succeeded — but on May 11 he abruptly resigned the $113,000-a-year job. The reason: Because of what he called "a policy shift," officials in Tallahassee are making decisions that in the past were left to the districts.
DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said the agency is striving for greater consistency among its district offices. "Providing regulatory consistency doesn't mean we're relaxing environmental standards," she said. "It means that our customers shouldn't need an interpreter if they cross our district boundary lines."
However, she said, the DEP has no plans to centralize decisions in Tallahassee: "There is no effort under way to take away the districts' authority to operate their programs."
But Colecchio named two cases where Tallahassee stepped in to deal with problems in his district. One involved the ongoing dispute over whether Caddy's on the Beach owns the beach in front of the Treasure Island restaurant. The other involved a complaint about a fish house allegedly polluting the Homosassa River. In both cases, he said, deputy secretaries traveled down from Tallahassee to deal with the situation rather than leaving it to the district director, as had been done in the past.
He said he complained about the loss of authority in conversations with his boss, Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn, who after hiring him last year called him "an excellent addition" to DEP.
"I think he knew I was growing more and more uncomfortable," Colecchio said. "We had many discussions about the direction the district was going in." When he resigned, he said, Littlejohn, who could not be reached for comment for this story, didn't ask him to stay.
Colecchio's brief stint heading up the Tampa DEP office, supervising a staff of nearly 200 people covering a 12-county area, stands in contrast to the last two people to hold that job. Rick Garrity, a marine biologist, ran the office for 12 years until he was ousted after Jeb Bush became governor. He was replaced by a Tampa development lawyer, Deborah Getzoff, and she served for 11 years and quit after Scott took office.
Colecchio said when he started work last August he was told by Littlejohn — who had himself been appointed to his job in May 2011 — to change the way the Tampa office had been run by Getzoff.
"They had been accused of being heavy-handed so many times," Colecchio said. The businesses regulated by DEP "literally lived in fear of our organization."
Getzoff did not respond to a request for comment. But when St. Petersburg environmental lawyer Tom Reese heard Colecchio's assessment of her, he burst out laughing.
"I never thought of Deborah Getzoff as being aggressive," Reese said when he recovered. "You name it, she was settling it."
However, compared to the other five DEP districts, the Tampa district has been the leader in enforcing pollution rules, according to Jerry Phillips of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental advocacy group. In 2010, for instance, the Tampa office accounted for just over one-third of all enforcement cases statewide, although most of them wound up settling.
Colecchio says that while he knew what he was supposed to change, at first he wasn't sure how his agency worked. "I showed up and I didn't know half the things we did," he said. Still, he set about "turning around that climate of fear" among the businesses being regulated.
It wasn't easy, he said, as he faced crises and complaints galore: "I felt like Fred Astaire dancing in a minefield — and every night when I went to sleep, somebody rearranged the mines."
He said he told his staff that instead of filing cases, they should work with businesses to help them fix their problems and still keep their cash flow going. He said he became impressed with their ability and dedication.
But he said he noticed that "any action we did locally was going to be reviewed on the district level." He said Tallahassee's increasing involvement in overseeing air pollution regulation has led to "a diminishment of responsibility" in the district likely to lead to a reduction in the Tampa staff.
Colecchio said Tallahassee officials expected him to make all the complaints about the Tampa office stop, but no one could do that because of the nature of the job. As a result, he said, when he talked to Littlejohn, "there was a growing uneasiness with the feedback he was getting from the regulated community." Now, he said, "that's going to be the responsibility of all the deputy secretaries."
Colecchio said he had no regrets about his nine-month stint at DEP. "I always knew it was a temporary job," he said. When he started, his staff explained that if Scott were not re-elected he would have to resign anyway, so "I would count down the months to the end of his first term as governor."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com