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Lawyer relishes his role as advocate

Douglas Jones has taken a course in life even he would have considered unimaginable a decade ago.

The 44-year-old Largo resident was recently named chairman of the statewide Human Rights Advocacy Committee, a group of residents that monitors the state's Department of Children and Families, Department of Health, Agency for Health Care Administration and Department of Elder Affairs.

"If you would have asked me 10 years ago would I being doing this type of work, I would have said "No way,' " mused Jones, a partner in the Holland & Knight law firm, which has offices in Tampa and St. Petersburg. "I'm a business and tax attorney."

This is not to say Jones doesn't like his added duties. He began working for a local version of the committee in 1991 before moving to the state level. He proudly has taken to the phrase "watchdog" that he and other members of the committee are often referred to by reporters.

During a recent interview, Jones presented a four-page sheet with the committee's accomplishments over the past fiscal year. Earlier in the interview, he boasted of the committee's cooperation with a pair of Times reporters on a series of articles called "A Dangerous Age" that led to changes in the state's psychiatric laws. The series detailed recruitment practices at some mental health hospitals targeting elderly people.

"We're advocating change and sometimes that change is not very well received," he said.

Critics charge Jones and his fellow committee members sometimes overstep their bounds and, in the case of "A Dangerous Age," did not respect patient confidentiality rights.

But Jones, who is married with two children, argues that they are defending the defenseless. Every family, Jones says, will encounter a time when they will be faced with the prospect of finding care for someone who cannot care for themselves.

The committee, he argues, is one of the few eyes and ears out there watching to make sure those who are caring for loved ones are not overstepping their bounds.

"We're the safety net for Florida's most vulnerable citizens," said Jones, whose term as chairman will expire in the fall.

In 1991, Jones noticed an application for membership to the committee in his law firm's office. He had worked on the behalf of a mentally ill woman to help her get Social Security benefits and thought the experience might make him useful on such a committee.

"I felt like I had this insight into mental illness," he said. "I felt like I had something to contribute."

He first served on the Pasco-Pinellas committee and then on the statewide committee. Jones has become known as a consensus builder who has been looked upon as a source for legal advice to help the committee navigate its way through complicated issues.

Friends and colleagues said they are confident that Jones will do well in his new job.

"I've never seen Doug falter," said Richard Durstein, who served with Jones on the local committee. "I have great confidence that he will do a fantastic job there."

Jones already has set for himself an agenda that includes:

+ stepping up drug testing of those who care for DCF clients.

+ working with the state Supreme Court's commission on fairness to make sure people involuntarily committed get a hearing within five days.

+ shortening the waiting list of those who need services.

+ watching the transfer of state-run programs to community-based.

"It's going to take more time than I've devoted in the past," Jones said of his new duties.

Jones said he hopes to meet with members of Gov.-elect Jeb Bush's transition team to work on some of those issues. Working with lawmakers is an essential, albeit at times frustrating, part of the committee's work.

Legislators, Jones has observed, find it easier to spend money on things that are tangible like buildings as opposed to social programs.

"There's nothing to look at when the service is done, so it's not as popular," he said.

Jones said his law firm has been supportive of his efforts as other lawyers there have participated in tutorial programs at various schools, working with boy and girl scouts and other youth agencies.

The work is important, but for Jones there's nothing better than being a watchdog.

"Others have worked out their destiny," he said. "This tends to be mine."