1. Archive

Watchdog is looking for trouble

There are times when a problem is so big _ or so small _ that some people in Clearwater feel there's only one person to turn to. Lois Cormier.

People who know her, or know of her, know that when they call Mrs. Cormier, she'll listen. Beyond that, she might complain to the appropriate authorities or take the issue to the top _ the City Commission.

She might even get something done.

"There's reward there when you do something good," Mrs. Cormier said.

During the last 15 years, Mrs. Cormier has become known to everyone inside City Hall and to many outside as a tenacious watchdog.

Her mission often creates extra work for city employees, who must respond to public-records laws by looking up and making copies of the documents she wants.

It also puts her in an adversarial position with many city officials. By now, though, she's comfortable with that role.

"I'm still snooping around at City Hall. I'm still making people mad, and I'm still looking over their shoulder," she said. "People tell me, "You know, Lois, a lot of people don't like you.' I know that, and I don't care."

People don't always appreciate Mrs. Cormier's zeal.

"Deep down inside, she has the interest of our tenants at heart," said Deborah Vincent, director of the Clearwater Housing Authority. "But she immediately thinks there's a problem without knowing all the facts. She's quick to criticize but not quick to be on our side when we need help."

Mrs. Cormier, 59, is not a political creature by nature. She takes a stand and doesn't care whose toes she steps on, she said.

Through the years, she has taken on environmental issues such as saving trees and creeks, social issues such as public housing and financing for welfare programs, and corruption in city government.

She also helped change her South Greenwood neighborhood from an area riddled with crime and drugs to a place where families feel comfortable living.

"Lois really looks out for the interests of Clearwater and her neighbors," said John Jenkins, who patrols with Mrs. Cormier in their Neighborhood Watch program. "I think we need a million more like her."

From time to time, Mrs. Cormier threatens to stop being the city's most stalwart snoop. At times, her aggressive behavior has made her children ask, "Aw, Mom, why did you say that?" and has made her husband shake his head.

Once, while visiting her sister in the hospital, she noticed things she thought were wrong with the facility. Mrs. Cormier planned to talk to administrators, but her brother-in-law told her not to come back if she did.

So she decided to lay low.

"There are times I have conflicts," she said, adding that her family always comes first.

A full-time job for free

Mrs. Cormier's files fill a room. She clips newspaper stories and spends lots of money making copies of memos and documents to back up her complaints.

She prides herself in keeping such complete files that even newspaper reporters have turned to her when they could not get their hands on a document at City Hall.

"I'm a newspaper lover," she said. "I can't count the hours I spend reading and clipping them. They stack up all over my house."

She enjoys her work so much that she doesn't keep track of her hours. Often, she leaves the house in the morning, gets back after 5 p.m. and then goes to a nighttime meeting.

She's had people tell her she could get paid for her work _ that she could try to get a job as a reporter.

"Money doesn't matter to me," she said. "Money isn't power."

She likes the freedom of going after what she wants, not what someone else tells her to get.

For years, Mrs. Cormier has been concerned with public housing conditions and how the residents there are treated. Often, people at Condon Gardens, the city's largest public housing complex, contact Mrs. Cormier when things go wrong.

"A lot of things are puzzling to me. . . . Why does a tenant go to Mrs. Cormier?" asked Howard Groth, chairman of the Housing Authority's board of directors. "We have a good maintenance crew _ but you have to pay for it. If a tenant is not served well, that tenant has alternatives besides Mrs. Cormier."

Groth and Vincent both say Mrs. Cormier could spend her time more constructively volunteering for social programs than snooping into city business.

"I'd love to see her direct her time and energy not only to her investigative work, but to some of our programs, where she could be a big help," Vincent said. "I've asked her, but she's too busy."

Mrs. Cormier said she used to volunteer but decided she could get more done if she stuck to being a full-time watchdog.

"She helps people who may be afraid to speak out for themselves," Clearwater City Commissioner Dick Fitzgerald said. "People like her serve a very valuable purpose in the way a city operates. We don't always agree, but that's part of it. She takes time to be at all the different meetings and to speak her mind, and that's what our system is all about."

Mrs. Cormier has had run-ins with almost every local official but said she never looks back.

"She does cause us a lot of extra work, but an extra pair of eyes and ears never hurt," City Manager Ron Rabun said. "She means well, and she does things with a smile.

"She's dedicated to making sure we have good government over here. And so are we," he said. "We don't mind her coming around, because we have nothing to hide."

Syd Snair, a former building official and part-time watchdog himself, said he wishes more people would take an interest in how their city is managed.

"It's a shame there are not more people like her," he said. "We don't have bad politicians; we have bad citizens. Lois is an excellent citizen because she gets involved when no one seems to give a damn."