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Environmental watchdogs visit public workers

A national environmental group that provides a confidential outlet for government employees to speak up about problems has paid a quiet visit to several Tampa Bay agencies.

Representatives of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility recently spoke with employees of Pasco and Hillsborough county governments, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Tampa office of the Department of Environmental Protection.

"Our job as watchdogs is to stop employee intimidation and agency collusion with politically connected polluters," PEER director Richard Windsor wrote in a brochure handed to employees.

The group recently spurred a criminal inquiry into practices of the Department of Environmental Protection in Pensacola, but the visit here was designed only to tell employees about PEER, said legal counsel Steve Medina.

"It's a first step," Medina said. "We haven't singled out Pasco County in any way, like we did Pensacola. This was us giving information."

But local environmental activists requested the visit, saying they worry that the Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies fail to enforce environmental laws because of outside political pressures.

"There are public employees who have called me that are afraid to speak out for fear of their job," said Susan Elko, a member of the Environmental Network, a Pasco-based group. "They need a safety net, and this is what PEER is offering."

Windsor and Medina are former DEP lawyers who said they were not allowed to do their jobs.

Medina said he met with a number of people in various Tampa Bay government agencies "that were very glad we were there.

"They seemed to already be experiencing enormous pressures _ they already have been going through lonely battles because of being the sole voice on behalf of the public."

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