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Stories of an employee that served seven Tampa administrations

A conversation with Debbie Rotolo, who worked with the city mayors: Bill Poe, Bob Martínez, Sandra Freedman, Dick Greco, Pam Iorio, Bob Buckhorn and Jane Castor.

Times Correspondent

Debbie Rotolo’s mother, 97-year-old Mary Pullara, worked 25 years in the personnel office of the Tampa Police Department. She brought her young daughter to the office occasionally and to a lot of city employee picnics and other gatherings.

"So I feel like I’ve been with the city since I was born,'' she said.

Rotolo, 60, retired this month after 42 years with the city. She was there through seven administrations, starting with Mayor Bill Poe, and served as executive aide to chiefs of staff for four mayors.

She got a job as a clerk in the police department in 1978 through a program to provide summer jobs for teenagers. Starting salary: $2.73 per hour. She was hired full-time, and seven years later went to work in the mayor’s office as executive aide to Public Safety Administrator Robert L. Smith. That was during the term of Mayor Bob Martínez, who resigned to make a successful run for governor. Rotolo worked 10 years in what became the Parks & Recreation Department, returning to the mayor’s office during Pam Iorio’s term.

She talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the job and the memories.

What was the first day on the job in the mayor’s office like?

Mayor Martínez came over that morning and welcomed me to the floor, and I was just like, oh my gosh, the mayor just came by my cubicle! And I just thought that was so personable, that he would take time out of his busy schedule to acknowledge that it was my first day of work. So I knew then that I was around good people.

Next you worked for the Tampa’s first woman to serve as mayor, Sandra Freedman. Memories?

She would come by with her little black book and say, "We drove by this street. There was a pothole. Can you make sure it gets filled? She was very detail-oriented like that. She knew everybody’s name and we had daily interaction with her. ... There was Sherry and Marion and I and Viola, we were the executive aides on the floor, and she would often come to us with any issues she had noted out in the community.

Her driver at the time was Bob Seth, the security detail. We would tell him, "Don’t take her back by that street for a day or two to give us time to correct it.'' She would not be happy if it wasn’t corrected pretty quick.

Former Mayor Bob Martínez and Debbie Rotolo.
Former Mayor Bob Martínez and Debbie Rotolo. [ Photo: Courtesy Debbie Rotolo ]

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, in those days, was a special assistant to Freedman, and worked in your area. What was that like?

His office was directly across from my cubicle. We were all young at the time. We tormented him. He tormented us. He often called us slackers. That was his favorite word at the time. … Little did we know he would come back and serve as our mayor.

You made a cameo on the national news when the Republican National Convention was in Tampa. How did that happen?

I forget which of the major news outlets wanted to set up and interview (Buckhorn). … I jokingly said (to) him, “You’ve been on the news a lot. Can I be in the background?” You know, just being silly. And he said, "Sure.'' ...

So anyway, I really didn’t think it was going to happen, but he walked out with a folder and opened it, and we were acting like we were discussing a blank folder. And the cameraman was taking the picture. ... So I was so proud that I had asked to be on the news. I told him, "You’re such a good sport, mayor. Thanks for letting me do that.''

"Oh, my pleasure,'' he said.

Debbie Rotolo and Dick Greco when he regained the mayor's office.
Debbie Rotolo and Dick Greco when he regained the mayor's office. [ Photo: Courtesy Debbie Rotolo ]

You said you probably served cake to Police Chief Jane Castor at a police department celebration when she was a new recruit. As mayor, she attended a celebration of your "graduation'' – to retirement.

The mayor came up and read her letter of appreciation to me. I have it on a plaque here. Also Charlie Miranda, city councilman, came and gave me a council commendation. And, of course (Castor chief of staff) John Bennett and (Buckhorn chief of staff) Dennis Rogero were there, so they said some nice words. Then I was able to speak for a little bit.

I had my family with me. My husband, Steve, worked with the city for 20 years. … He worked in code enforcement. And then my brother Freddie had worked at the police department, too, for nearly 40 years. … And my stepbrother Jim worked in the budget office for 14 years. So, all in all, between my mom, my brother and my husband and my stepbrother, we have a total of 141 years with the city. Charlie Miranda pointed that out.

You’ve watched the city grow, as you say, from one tall building.

During (Martínez') time, they started the Performing Arts Center and the Tampa City Center Quad Block, so there was a lot of economic development going on at the time. ...

The beautiful aquarium and the convention center were built (during Freedman’s) time …

Then, of course, Mayor (Dick) Greco pitched the half-penny community investment tax. That was kind of controversial at the time. But I moved to Parks & Rec then, and they really benefited from that tax. ...

In Mayor Iorio’s time, (it) was wonderful that the Riverwalk got started on the east side. And now it’s exciting that they’re going to try to finish it up on the west side.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II visited Tampa during Mayor Sandra Freedman administration. This photo of Debbie Rotolo shows Her Majesty and the mayor walking in the background.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II visited Tampa during Mayor Sandra Freedman administration. This photo of Debbie Rotolo shows Her Majesty and the mayor walking in the background. [ Photo: Courtesy Debby Rotolo ]

You saw some celebrities during your time in the mayor’s office, but a high point, you say, was Queen Elizabeth’s visit?

I know we had a parade for her coming down Franklin Street, and that was really exciting. ... (The queen and Mayor Freedman) walked down Franklin Street for a few blocks for people to wave. ... The mayor did bring her over to where we were standing, and she mentioned that this was her team, so we got to see her close up. That was really awesome.