TAMPA — Hillsborough County's environmental commission on Wednesday rebuffed an attempt by its incoming executive director to soften a proposed ban on her political activity.
In a drawn out public negotiation, Janet Dougherty criticized the ban as "ambiguous." She said it would hinder her ability to lobby Tallahassee in her capacity as Hillsborough's top environmental official.
But the Environmental Protection Commission, made up of the seven county commissioners, firmly insisted the prohibition on politicking was critical to the agency's integrity.
"It sheds the wrong light on (the EPC) and gives the wrong impression there could be biases," Commissioner Victor Crist said. "It could hurt the agency."
The precarious situation — Dougherty is supposed to start as director next week — was complicated by her background. She has twice run for county commissioner and has long been active in local Republican circles.
On Friday, Dougherty attended the Hillsborough County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner, its largest annual fundraiser. Such activity would likely be blocked by the EPC's contract provision.
"We know that when you go to the fundraising dinners, that those contributions go to support candidates," Commissioner Kevin Beckner said. "Any element of partisan politics that we can remove is better for the organization."
The EPC wanted Dougherty's contract to state simply that she could not hold political office or engage in any political activity other than vote. The county charter requires similar restrictions of the county administrator and county attorney, but not of the EPC director.
In its place, Dougherty's lawyer offered several lengthy alternatives.
But county commissioners scoffed at those changes. In the end, the board added some language that allowed Dougherty to seek guidance from the county attorney if she was unsure whether an activity constituted political involvement.
Dougherty ultimately capitulated. She indicated she would sign the contract, which pays her $165,000 a year.
"I do not want to jeopardize the agency at all," Dougherty said. "I just want clarification."
The board made it clear that Dougherty would not be blocked from lobbying for the EPC.
"The bottom line is that the county administrator, the county attorney, they seem to know what political activity means, and they seem to know what to steer clear of," Commissioner Stacy White said, "and if I'm being frank, I expect that out of a high-functioning professional like the EPC director."
Outgoing executive director Richard Garrity is scheduled to retire from the agency on Tuesday after 15 years. His contract did not include restrictions on political activity.
But commissioners said Garrity maintained a political neutrality that eschewed the appearance of any bias.
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"I haven't a clue what Dr. Garrity's politics is," Crist said. "All I know is he's Dr. Garrity, he works for me, and he's done a great job."
He added: "You're coming in this a little bit tainted because you are and have been a political person."
Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scontorno.