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BOARD OWES WETLANDS PLAN A REAL HEARING

The contempt Hillsborough commissioners have shown for public input is coming home to roost. Four commissioners doing the dirty work for developers were blasted Thursday by residents who understand that killing wetlands regulations puts their environment, drinking water and flood protections at risk. The board majority has so discredited itself by asserting falsehoods as fact and rigging the decisionmaking process that it was almost preordained that the meeting would take on a circus atmosphere.

Sitting as the Environmental Protection Commission, the board met to hear agency chief Richard Garrity outline a proposal to save the county's wetlands protection program, which Commissioners Brian Blair, Kevin White, Ken Hagan and Jim Norman voted last month to kill. Wetlands are the natural habitat that act as a sponge to absorb rainwater, filter pollution and recharge the water supply. Builders want to eliminate local protections, which are tougher than the state's, to make it easier, quicker and cheaper to develop environmentally sensitive property. Garrity's plan would scale back some protections but keep the program largely intact, while streamlining the regulatory process. It is a good-faith proposal that addresses legitimate concerns and deserves the board's support.

But the majority, particularly Blair, who chairs the EPC, has made such a mockery of honesty and open debate that the issue has moved beyond environmental questions to the board's very credibility. Former agency director Roger Stewart laid into the board Thursday for rules limiting speakers to one minute each: "If your time is so valuable, get the hell out and do something else." The ovation from a packed audience buoyed supporters who openly jeered Blair's bungling of the meeting and his self-serving asides against criticism in the press ("lies").

Commissioners did not even engage in a serious discussion of Garrity's plan, even though they asked for it and it represents a do-or-die decision. The biggest critics were silent. That makes it easier for White, Hagan, Blair and Norman to drop a bomb on Garrity at a public hearing in August, which would leave the director with little time to address or debunk any deal-killer these commissioners choose to invent.

The four have a responsibility to react now that Garrity has put a reasonable compromise on the table. This plan, after all, was written at their behest. Garrity and his staff deserve the opportunity to defend it, just as the public deserves a chance to examine whatever argument board critics will use in opposition. The purpose, after all, of public hearings and the requirement to advertise them is to give people a real and informed role in decisions that affect them.

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