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COUNTY OFFICIALS TO THE PEOPLE: SHUT UP

Sixty seconds.

That's what the opinion of each citizen who showed up to speak on the most critical environmental issue of the day was worth in front of Hillsborough County commissioners this week.

Forget apathetic voters - it would not be melodramatic to say the people rose up righteous in the face of a plan to gut local wetlands protection. They came in droves to be heard. But were the commissioners they called "the gang of four" listening?

That's four as in four of seven who already had initially voted to ax the arm of the Environmental Protection Commission that protects wetlands of a half-acre or less. Brian Blair, Jim Norman, Ken Hagan and Kevin White did this amid claims the agency duplicates state and federal functions. Besides, why should those poor developers have to jump through all those silly hoops? And one good thing about massive budget cuts - politicians can keep a straight face when they slash programs they never liked anyway.

For Thursday's EPC hearing, people took off work, found child care and drove downtown. They filled commission chambers and spilled into the hall and an upstairs overflow room. One woman held a baby as she waited to speak. They came in ties and in T-shirts that said "WETLANDS - Save 'Em, Don't Pave 'Em.'' With flair, they deposited 60 cents each in a jar on the podium - the program's cost-per-citizen, they said.

Only to be told they would not get the standard three minutes to have their say. Lunch was looming, then a budget meeting. Commissioner Rose Ferlita's suggestion of seeing if they had enough board members to work as long as they had to went nowhere.

And so, in a parody of the process, people hardly got going when the bell dinged. Blair cut off speakers midsentence even as the audience applauded the words. Former Commissioner Big Jim Selvey was barely into his analogy on how the EPC was an old farm tractor - serviceable, given an oil change and a tune up - when he, too, was shut down.

For the record, those who spoke in favor of killing the program got the same one-minute limit. But hadn't they already been heard?

Most righteous of all was Roger Stewart, former head of the EPC and a legend in local environmental circles. Stewart, who in his time sat in meetings past midnight because it was his job, called one minute a mockery. "If your time is so valuable, get the hell out and do something else,'' he told commissioners, nearly drowned out by the crowd's approval.

And how respectful was Blair, he of the ever-present American flag lapel pin, of the efforts of the people? As coins clinked repeatedly in the jar, he suggested they take their change down the road to a place where they feed the poor.

Maybe some politicians forget how democracy is supposed to work: The people speak. Elected officials listen, consider and decide.

Friday, Ferlita sent a letter suggesting a larger venue, more time and three minutes per speaker at the Aug. 16 public hearing, which will include a final vote on whether the wetlands division lives, evolves or dies outright. "The people have worked too hard,'' she said.

And they've shown they have something to say. You might want to listen, commissioners. If you've got a minute.

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