TARPON SPRINGS — For many years, longer than most city officials have held their positions, Jessie Burke made herself an unforgettable fixture around City Commission chambers. She was always walking in before the opening gavel, in recent years leaning on a cane, ready to speak up about whatever the city ought or ought not to do.
As administrators came and went and commissioners finished their terms and moved on, Mrs. Burke could still be found behind the microphone during the public forum portion of meetings, her frail fingers clinging to the podium with what she semijokingly called a "death grip."
She came prepared, often having dug through records, armed with a detailed knowledge of recent history and a sometimes combative verbal style.
For example, she once compared the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, which had proposed a merger with the city's Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, to a pack of great white sharks; and accused Mayor Beverley Billiris of being a communist sympathizer for having invited a group from China to visit the city.
Mrs. Burke, considered the most vocal citizen watchdog of Tarpon Springs, died Thursday in Hospice House Brookside after a long illness. She was 70.
In recent years, the deaths of local gadflies in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, cities twice and 10 times the size of Tarpon Springs, each inspired stories in the Tampa Bay Times. But Mrs. Burke was more than a frequent sight at City Hall. She was engaged in local issues for more than 25 years, and tried never to miss a commission meeting.
So consistent was her attendance there, Billiris said, that when Mrs. Burke did not appear at a meeting, "You'd look up and go, 'Where's Jessie?' "
She also carried more clout than the average resident.
Lawyer Michael Kouskoutis said he has seen developers looking for a variance or people wanting to tweak a city ordinance call Mrs. Burke before making their case to commissioners.
"They didn't want her arguing against them in meetings," he said. "People would try to get a litmus test: 'Where would Jessie stand on this issue?' "
She championed causes from her desire to replace a particular water fountain in City Hall, which she said produced bad-tasting water, to the ongoing need to clean up the site of a phosphorus-producing plant found to have left 30 toxic substances in the water and soil.
The issue of the former Stauffer Chemical plant, which was closed in 1981 and declared a federal Superfund site in 1994, was a particularly personal one for Mrs. Burke: her husband used to work there. Leonard Burke died in 1994 of lung cancer. Federal authorities finally declared the property safe a year ago.
"She was actively on the phone and writing to congressmen to get anybody to take a hands-on look at the issue," Billiris said. "She deserves a lot of credit because she brought that out into the light."
A self-described "sand spur under their hemorrhoids," Mrs. Burke never had a problem picking up the phone.
"She did not care if you were the king and queen of England," said former Mayor Anita Protos. "If she had something to say, she was going to call you up and tell you about it."
Mrs. Burke was born in North Andover, Mass. She attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and earned an associate's degree at Canaan College in New Hampshire.
She moved to Florida in 1979 and married Leonard the following year. Her husband worked for the city after the Stauffer plant closed. After he died, Mrs. Burke turned Leonard's 10-year service pin from the city into a tag for the collar of a black cat that lived at City Hall. She introduced C.K. ("City Kitty") to commissioners, who passed a resolution adopting the cat.
As her health failed, Mrs. Burke let City Clerk Irene Jacobs know when she would not be attending a meeting. She knew people would ask.
"People would say, 'Did you hear from Jessie?' " Jacobs said. "As an extended city family, everyone would kind of watch out for her."
Mrs. Burke told a newspaper several years ago that she suffered from lymphedema, which caused swelling in her legs, and had a heart pacemaker. In 2008, Billiris proclaimed a Jessie Burke Day, praising her activism on several fronts.
Mrs. Burke had no survivors. In 2004, she said she had left her home to the city of Tarpon Springs.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.