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In retirement, Hillsborough County's former environmental chief Rick Garrity finds his voice

Rick Garrity is enjoying the freedom of being able to express his opinions since retirement.
Rick Garrity is enjoying the freedom of being able to express his opinions since retirement.
Published Jan. 24, 2016

TAMPA — Rick Garrity's low and level Bostonian voice reflected a calming presence during his 15-year career leading Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission. But it also irked some conservationists who wanted him to be a louder advocate for the county's natural resources.

Now in retirement, Garrity is speaking up.

Garrity stepped down as EPC executive director in June. Since then, he has taken vocal stances on issues like fracking and climate change and has at times criticized the environmental record of Gov. Rick Scott's administration.

Garrity largely avoided those kinds of contentious positions while a public official, when he served most of his tenure under a Republican-controlled EPC board at times averse to a progressive environmental agenda.

"There's no question that in the secular world I'm in now, you have a little more freedom to express your opinions," Garrity said. "And that's what I'm doing."

Most recently, Garrity spoke at a December EPC meeting against the plan from Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, to pump up to 3.9 million gallons of water per day from a sinkhole in the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve.

Not long after retiring, he co-authored a letter with former Commissioner Jan Platt that successfully pushed the county to inject funds into its Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. Commissioners approved a budget in September that set aside $15 million for the popular, voter-approved conservation program to purchase and preserve pristine, sensitive land.

Garrity also plans to help lead the fight against a bill circulating in Tallahassee that would bar local governments from regulating hydraulic fracking, the process for extracting natural gas from beneath the earth's surface.

He recently launched an advocacy blog and Facebook page, Clean Air and Water 99.

"People need to speak up and stand up and give their opinions," Garrity said. "If I can be somewhat influential, then I will (speak up)."

The EPC is a unique agency created by a special act of the Florida Legislature in 1967 to regulate pollution affecting Hillsborough County's land, water and air. The EPC board is comprised of the seven Hillsborough County commissioners.

As is the case, Garrity said the EPC director must maintain good relationships with the state and county government. It meant having to bite his tongue at times and pick his battles, he said, often to the chagrin of the environmental community.

That approach to the job highlighted the differences between the stoic and even-keeled Garrity and his predecessor, the legendary, late Roger Stewart, who was an outspoken force during his three decades leading the EPC.

Stewart once said of Garrity: "He's nice. Deferential. And the politicians have run roughshod over him."

But Kent Bailey, chairman of the Tampa Bay Group Sierra Club, said the criticism of Garrity was often unfair. Bailey noted that Garrity oversaw the EPC at a time when the board attempted to gut the entire wetlands division.

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"He had to thread the needle between preserving the environment and preserving the agency in a hostile setting," Bailey said. "I always admired his ability to balance his environmental ideals with the political realities. It was a very difficult role."

Current EPC executive director Janet Dougherty chuckled when asked about Garrity's newfound voice in retirement and said she has definitely heard there's more political activity on his personal Facebook page.

"He's much freer to voice his opinions and it's been very liberating for him," Dougherty said. "I think he loves it."

Garrity said he won't be afraid to criticize the EPC if he feels the agency isn't serving Hillsborough County residents, but added that Dougherty is "trying her darnedest to take good positions."

For her part, Dougherty said she "can't imagine a scenario where we wouldn't be on the same page" and she doesn't mind Garrity's foray into advocacy.

"Why wouldn't you want someone to take their expertise and utilize it?" she said. "People think you retire and then go travel. That's not everybody's bailiwick."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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