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Fired state official wins post in county

Dr. Rick Garrity will head the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission.

Few thought Roger Stewart, who ran the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission for more than 30 years, could ever be replaced.

No one had Stewart's name recognition, no one had his popular support and no one had his presence when he blasted polluters on the evening news.

No one until Thursday.

The commission on Thursday named Dr. Rick Garrity, a well-respected biologist whose firing last year after 15 years at the Department of Environmental Protection outraged environmentalists, to be Stewart's replacement.

Gov. Jeb Bush's new DEP secretary dismissed Garrity in September as head of the Tampa office of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Environmentalists at the time described Garrity's dismissal as tragic.

Environmentalists, developers and lawyers at the time had praised Garrity for his fairness and integrity. When he left the DEP last year, scores of Garrity's employees and friends threw a farewell party for him at the Florida Aquarium.

Almost immediately, the county hired Garrity to the newly created position of water resource team administrator, which paid $94,500 a year, up from the $93,000 he earned at DEP.

Thursday, the commission chose Garrity as the EPC executive director on its first vote. Four commissioners voted for Garrity, while three other commissioners supported three different candidates. After the first ballot, commissioners made Garrity's selection unanimous.

"I'm pleased with the choice," said Stewart, 74, who will step down at the end of June. "I'm confident Garrity can do the things I no longer can do."

Garrity, 56, will oversee a $10-million annual budget and 160 employees. He must still negotiate his salary, which could be as high as $110,000 a year.

"EPC is a great agency," Garrity said Thursday. "Roger has founded an agency that will endure."

When he takes over July 1, his style will be far different from Stewart's, who liked to country western dance and camp with his family at Fort De Soto. Garrity, 56, prefers to watch film's based on Jane Austen novels and enjoys taking photographs of birds. He listens to National Public Radio on his drive from Lakeland to work.

Commissioner Tom Scott, who voted for Garrity, told his colleagues not to mistake calmness for weakness.

"Never underestimate a person who appears to be serene," Scott said.

Commissioner Ronda Storms, who supported Garrity, said she struggled with the decision. She said she wasn't sure if she wanted an academic or a pit bull in the post.

"I want someone who demonstrates strong leadership," she said.

Several residents from a south Hillsborough environmental group in Storms' district criticized Garrity for not being tough enough. The group called Save Our Bays and Canals wants Garrity to take a stronger stance against a planned desalination plan in Apollo Beach on Tampa Bay. They had written scores of letters to oppose his appointment.

"If Dr. Garrity takes over as director," member Bob Murphy warned, "I am afraid we will have the same we have had in the past."

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