TAMPA — A community activist has filed an ethics complaint against Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair, claiming he improperly interfered in an environmental regulatory issue.
Dover activist George Niemann claims Blair improperly inserted himself into a dispute between the county's Environmental Protection Commission and a Thonotosassa mulching company. He has filed his complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, which has notified Blair of the claim.
The St. Petersburg Times reported in January that Blair showed up at an EPC staff meeting late last year as the commission considered sanctions against Mother's Organics Inc. The yard-waste processing company had fallen under scrutiny for operating without required approval.
Blair complained during the meeting of heavy-handed treatment by EPC staffers. At one point, Blair said he understands why people refer to the agency as the Gestapo.
Mother's Organics was facing more than $60,000 in penalties from the EPC. As a result of the meeting, the company agreed to a settlement, in which it agreed to pay $18,000 in what was called a "benevolent donation."
"What I believe is that as a result of his crashing that meeting and speaking so negatively of the staff, the staff felt compelled to reduce the penalty," said Niemann, a board member of United Citizens Action Network, a consortium of neighborhood groups. "He handcuffed the staff."
EPC general counsel Rick Tschantz has denied that Blair's appearance influenced the outcome of the case. And Blair has said he was responding to a constituent's complaint, and never told EPC staff members how they should resolve the matter.
"I don't have anything different to say now than I did then," Blair said Thursday.
A draft staff summary of the meeting indicates that Blair stated he didn't think Mother's Organics' owners should have to pay any financial penalty. Blair's comments were omitted from a final summary of the meeting.
The owner of the property, Bill Stanton, had claimed the company was not required to get permission from the EPC in order to operate its business.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.