Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita's fierce pursuit

Her fight to get payback from Kevin White: Missionary zeal, mayoral dreams or both?

click to enlarge COUNTY SEAT: Ferlita, frequently mentioned as a potential 2011 mayoral candidate, has been a Hillsborough commissioner since 2006. - Phil Bardi
Phil Bardi
COUNTY SEAT: Ferlita, frequently mentioned as a potential 2011 mayoral candidate, has been a Hillsborough commissioner since 2006.

Rose Ferlita is smiling and shaking her head. It's about halfway through the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners' hour-and-a-half-long discussion on the Kevin White case last week, and she appears to be trying to contain herself as her embattled colleague is declaring to the board, the dozens of people present at the County Center, and to the audience watching on the local government broadcast that, in fact, he is guilty of nothing — despite the fact that a U.S. District Court jury decided last month that White discriminated against Alyssa Ogden, a former aide, by firing her for refusing his repeated sexual advances.

Although the White case pales on the salaciousness meter with other sex scandals in the news (Polanski, Letterman, Sanford), the fallout has been challenging for County Commissioners.

That's because White's fall from grace hasn't been all about him, or his transgressions. It's become an issue for the County Commission and for every taxpaying member of the county, who are (as of this writing) on the hook for approximately half a million dollars, after Federal Judge Richard Lazarra ruled that the county was equally culpable with White because of its failures to provide strong discrimination protection for many of its employees, like Ogden.

But while White's fellow board members have appeared like they'd rather be doing anything but discuss his embarrassing situation, Ferlita has been the driving force in trying to hold White accountable — culminating in a formal motion last week asking her colleagues to sue him to pay off some of the county's debt on the issue (the motion failed on a 3-3 tie).

In the words of University of Tampa Communications and Government Professor Scott Paine, who lost a cliffhanger election to Ferlita in her first race for office for Tampa City Council in 1999, "What Rose has put her finger on — and it's characteristic of her — is to say, this stinks for taxpayers. And she's not going to sit there quietly, she's going to try to make something happen."

Ferlita has dominated the board's discussion about the White issue since it first came before them in late August. County Attorney Renee Lee said that she preferred the board hold all meetings on the White saga in private, citing a state statute that allowed legal discussions to be exempt from the Sunshine Law.

But Ferlita would have none of that, taking the pre-emptive move of telling reporters two days before the board was to convene that she disagreed with Lee, and would not think of attending a meeting held behind closed doors.

Later, her colleagues followed suit.

As gossip continues about potential Tampa mayoral candidates to succeed a term-limited Pam Iorio in 2011 (Jim Davis, Dick Greco, Bob Buckhorn, Thomas Scott, Mary Mulhern, among others), a name that is on the top of many people's lists is Ferlita, an Ybor City native who will turn 64 the day after Christmas.

But Ferlita says that she won't even address her future until sometime in 2010, calling such speculation a distraction right now.

When asked to account for her aggressiveness on the White issue, Ferlita says it's all about accountability.

"This is like an election. It's not about me and Kevin White. It's about me and the constituents, and I can assure you, people are not happy. They want us to hold him accountable, and we haven't." When asked why she seems more driven than her colleagues to do just that, she says she can't explain why they haven't been as outspoken as herself.

But not everyone admires her zeal. Political activist Jarvis El-Amin, says she's "posturing" for the 2011 campaign "at Kevin White's expense."

(Commissioner White did not return CL's call for comment.)

El-Amin attended White's week-long trial. He says Commissioner White is guilty of bad judgment, but not sexual harassment, and he says he intends to rally the black community to hold a "huge campaign against her" if Ferlita runs for Mayor.

And a close observer of the Tampa political scene who wished not to be identified calls Ferlita's pursuit of White "showboating." He says that there is a competitive side to her "that doesn't play well with her colleagues," adding "there is something to be said for mayoral temperament."

UT Professor Scott Paine says that Ferlita pushes hard, which he considers a strength. But, he says, "culturally that could become a liability."

Ferlita's fierceness doesn't stop at calling out colleagues. She has publicly lambasted the county's Internal Performance Auditor, Jim Barnes, on several occasions, including last month when he turned in a review of County Administrator Pat Bean's pay raises to top staffers and herself. Ferlita was among several commissioners who criticized Barnes for failing to contact Bean for a response before releasing the report, but Ferlita's remarks were the most pointed.

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