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Jan Platt, Hillsborough County's voice for the environment, dies at 81

TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt, for more than 40 years a clear and often solitary voice for the environment, good government and libraries, died Friday evening. She was 81.

Mrs. Platt was often known as "Commissioner No" for voting against development she found to be poorly planned or harmful. As Hillsborough County boomed in the late 1980s, she voted "no" 80 times on rezonings during a three-year period when every other commissioner voted "yes."

But the nickname overshadowed a career of far-reaching accomplishments.

"She left a lasting legacy," said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who served with Mrs. Platt on the County Commission from 1985 to 1992. "She could always be counted on to be that voice for honest and open government. She will always be known for her love of the outdoors and for protecting Tampa Bay. You knew what she stood for. She never wavered in her convictions."

Mrs. Platt, a Democrat, led the effort to create a county preservation program that manages more than 61,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands, increased funding for libraries and successfully fought to pass an ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Florida Power didn't string a power line across northern Hillsborough County and Tampa Electric didn't build a power plant on Cockroach Bay because she fought against both projects. You can fish from the piers that once held up the old Sunshine Skyway bridge and visit the historic gun batteries at Egmont Key because she led efforts to preserve both.

After Mrs. Platt worked to create an agency dedicated to restoring Tampa Bay's waters and testified before Congress to make the bay part of the National Estuary Program, the fish population rebounded. She championed the West Coast Area Agency on Aging and an independent Environmental Protection Commission.

"She had the courage to stand up for what she believed in," said her son, Kevin Platt. "She took a lot of unpopular stands that turned out to be popular years later."

In 2013, the County Commission voted unanimously to rename its popular Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program in her honor.

"Hillsborough has lost one of its greatest public servants for our community," said former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who called Mrs. Platt his mentor and most trusted confidant. "The environment in this community was her passion. I think right up until her last day she lived for this community."

Jan Kaminis was born Sept. 27, 1936, in St. Petersburg, lived in or near Tampa for most of her life and grew up with a love of the bay and its wildlife.

"I was a tomboy. I loved to fish," she told the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) in 2004. "My dad didn't have a son, and my sister was very artistic, and sang and played the violin, and I just liked the out of doors. .?.?. I'd always be my dad's tagalong."

A love for the sea ran on both sides of her family. Her mother's grandfather had been a whaler in Norway. Her father's father, Arthur Kaminis, built sponge boats in Tarpon Springs. She long wore a Greek coin he gave her on a chain around her neck. She remembered the Tampa Bay of her youth as a place where she could scoop up crabs easily, collect scallops by the tubful and use a seine net to catch enough shrimp for dinner.

She graduated from Hillsborough High School, then earned a degree in political science from Florida State University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and attended a year of law school at the University of Florida.

Despite those interests, she didn't anticipate she would end up in public office.

"Growing up as a young woman in the '50s, women weren't supposed to do this sort of thing," she said in 2004. "It was far-fetched to think that a woman could be in public office. When I came to the University of Florida law school I was the only woman in the whole law school. I majored in public administration, I applied to be a city manager to a city and they didn't even return the letter."

Instead, after working as a public school teacher in Nashville and Hillsborough County, she served as a Girl Scout field director. Before she ever ran for office, Mrs. Platt took on Pinellas County over its decision to run a 30-inch outfall pipe from a sewage treatment plant to the Gulf of Mexico next to the Girls Scouts' Camp Wai Lani.

"We had Brownies write letters," she told the Tampa Tribune in 1988. "Brownies flooded Tallahassee with letters, flooded the courthouse with letters.

"To me it was a black and white issue," she said. "Any government that would put a sewer plant immediately adjacent to a Girl Scout camp was unconscionable as far as I was concerned. But it was not that black and white to the government officials."

But the scouts prevailed, and the effluent got sprayed at a golf course instead.

Then, in 1974, she ran for and was elected to the Tampa City Council. That year, her sister Bobbie had died of cancer, and Mrs. Platt reassessed her life.

"My younger sister was very talented and very gifted," she said. "I just decided life was short, and you had to make the most of each day."

In 1978, she was elected to the Hillsborough County Commission, a body where she would serve a total of 24 years.

At the time, a majority of the commission was corrupt, though Mrs. Platt didn't realize it.

"I had no idea people were taking money, but I did see a lot of strange votes," she recalled in 2004. "There would be strong public opposition, a room full of people against something, and yet the board would vote to do it. .?.?. Lobbyists were up and down the hall constantly. The public had no sway on anything."

In 1983 three of the five county commissioners were led from the courthouse in handcuffs, charged with selling their votes on rezonings.

The FBI had recorded Commissioner Jerry Bowmer soliciting $75,000 to green-light a shopping center. Bowmer cooperated and wore a wire that led to the convictions against Commissioners Fred Anderson and Joe Kotvas. A federal grand jury said a majority of the board had become, in effect, a racketeering enterprise.

"A terrible stain," Iorio said. "I think it forever changed Commissioner Platt and her view of what her role was going forward."

Mrs. Platt would walk to lunch apart from other commissioners, so no one would think they were discussing votes. She took campaign calls at a pay phone in the courthouse hallway to avoid using her office for political gain. She once left a meeting after telling a state attorney general she didn't agree with his interpretation of Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine law.

"Jan should be remembered for being a stickler" for honesty and transparency in government, protecting the environment and building the library system, said former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, elected to the City Council the same year as Mrs. Platt.

"It wasn't the substance as much as the style that sometimes got people annoyed," Freedman said. "She didn't always have the most courteous delivery, but she really stood up and called it like it was. And that's not a negative thing."

Mrs. Platt often said her "no" votes were overemphasized and her "yes" votes forgotten. It wasn't that she was against all development, she said. She supported what she thought were well-planned projects such as Harbour Island, Tampa Palms and industrial development at the port.

But she dug in if she concluded the planning had not been thought through or the arguments were misleading. During the mid-1980s, Mrs. Platt opposed a series of large residential developments near Gunn Highway and Anderson Road in northwest Hillsborough. Some projects included clusters of tightly packed apartments that required the county to give developers a "bump up" to build more dwellings per acre than the county plan recommended.

Those new higher densities, Mrs. Platt said, were then used as precedents to allow similarly high densities in other nearby projects. "You start a domino effect," she said. Moreover, as high-density developments were proposed farther and farther away from urban areas, county government had to spend more and more to extend roads, utility lines and other services to those new residents.

"It's a problem," she said in 1985, "and it needs to be stopped."

As a commissioner, Mrs. Platt said she never forgot how serious the county's rezoning scandal was.

"I believe in good government," she said in 1994. "It should not be slanted toward special interests. It should be credible. Our area has a notorious reputation with back room politics and handshake deals."

In 1995, Mrs. Platt ran for mayor of Tampa, losing to former Mayor Dick Greco by nearly 2 to 1. She later returned to serve on the County Commission again.

Former Tampa City Council member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura served with Mrs. Platt and then ran against her for a commission seat in 2000. He lost, and Chillura, now 78, said he probably shouldn't have run in the first place.

"It was like running against Mother Teresa," Chillura said of that race.

Mrs. Platt continued to volunteer and advocate for a broad range of causes after leaving the commission in 2004, from updating the county charter to advocating for preserving unspoiled lands to championing community involvement in the oversight of Tampa General Hospital.

Through it all, Mrs. Platt said she couldn't have served all those years without maintaining her childhood connection to the bay — without going fishing.

"Going fishing and the outdoors really have been a saving grace for me while I've been in office," she said in 1988.

"If you're out on the water, and you see the birds and the sky, it puts everything in proper perspective. It rejuvenates me. Really, it gives you a good set of priorities. A lot of things that seem very important and would be very stressful, you realize are not that important."


Jan Kaminis Platt

Born: Sept. 27, 1936

Died: Nov. 3, 2017

Survivors: husband, Bill Platt; son, Kevin Platt and his wife, Michele Platt; and granddaughter, Emma.


U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa

"Jan Platt inspired me to be a better public servant. She was honest, ethical and loved our Tampa community – from the waters of Tampa Bay to the pristine, wooded areas she worked to protect. … Jan created the Agency on Bay Management, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, just a few examples of her love and dedication for Tampa Bay. Throughout her career serving our community, even in times of great change in local governing bodies, Jan was steadfast in her leadership and it was a great honor to learn from her and know her."

Hillsborough County Commission chairman Stacy White

"Commissioner Platt was the epitome of good, honest government. Dedicated to continually preserving Hillsborough County's natural heritage, Platt was also a champion of the environment. It was this commitment and caring that led Hillsborough County to to rename its program the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program. … She has left behind a great legacy that will have an impact for generations to come."

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco

"She said what she thought and you expected that from her every single time. It wasn't about politics or looking good for her. It was all about what she believed was the best for the community."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Twitter

"During a difficult time in county government, her integrity shined brightly."