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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Learning curve

NEW PORT RICHEY - There was a moment last December when Pasco Commissioner Henry Wilson did something totally out of character. The most soft-spoken commissioner since his election in 2010, Wilson issued a verbal smackdown to a developer who repeatedly interrupted the county attorney as he attempted to give the board legal advice. Others took notice. "We called that a Henry Wilson moment," County Clerk Paula O'Neil said. "If you see an increase in his assertiveness in the meetings, it's not a sign that all-of-a-sudden he cares more," O'Neil said. "You know what I think it is? Knowledge gives you confidence, and he's much more knowledgeable about county government now. That has given him the confidence to be more assertive."
At the end of that same meeting, during the time Wilson usually recites a moment's worth of trivia on his favorite topic — recycling — the commissioner made an announcement. He and County Administrator John Gallagher had finally figured out a way to expand Pasco's dismal recycling program that was inexpensive and that the county's haulers would support. He had been talking about recycling for two years. Last month, commissioners unanimously approved the new program that does away with those annoying blue bags. Starting in June, residents will be able to apply a county-issued decal on any garbage container to hold their recyclables. Jennifer Seney, the county's recycling coordinator, credits Wilson for making it a priority for the county. "Recycling has needed a champion on the board for a long time," she said. "His contribution is huge, and no, it would not have happened without his involvement." Wilson says moments like that are why he ran for office in the first place. He's been having more moments lately, stepping out of the shadows and embracing a leadership role on the board. "When he has a cause he cares about, he does not give up," O'Neil said. "And he's in a position to make a difference — for the customers and for county employees." Wilson has been a strong advocate for raising the county's tourist tax rate, raising the ire of members of his own political party. "I got a lot of grief for supporting that," he said. Wilson said Pasco County needs more tourist tax revenue to become a premier destination, and he's not beholden to the Republican establishment. "I wasn't the party's choice to run against (former Commissioner) Michael Cox in the first place," he said. He sparred with Saddlebrook Vice President Greg Reihle over the tax increase, but the debate forced him to rethink his position. "I will be meeting with each hotelier in the county to ask how they really feel about the bed tax," he said. "I'm hearing two competing messages." Commissioner Pat Mulieri said that approach is typical of Wilson. "I think Henry is a very thoughtful person," Mulieri said. "His leadership style is to listen, to learn and then to move. He isn't one to just speak without having thought something through." For the first two years of his term, Wilson rarely brought new initiatives to the board. He was guarded with the media. He is the first to admit he wasn't entirely comfortable with the public aspect of his job. "Everybody has a learning curve no matter what new job it is, but I took this one more seriously than just a new job," he said. "I didn't want to say something that could hurt the county. I still, to this day, before I bring up a new subject, 90 percent of the time I run it by the county attorney's office." Only recently did he reveal that he had been spending the last Thursday of each month working in various county departments, alongside the rank-and-file workers, to gain a better understanding of the government. He calls them his workdays. "I was sitting there one day reading the budget, and I was like, I don't know what these people do," he said. "And I kept hearing from people outside the county that we needed to shrink government." He wanted to know why the county's Utility Department wasn't reducing the number of meter reader personnel even though it had switched to automated readers. So he spent a day working alongside a meter reader to understand how they spend their day. "He wanted to learn more," O'Neil said. "You know, government is very complicated. I think he's had this desire to learn more so he can make informed decisions." Since then he has paved roads, repaired streetlights, striped baseball fields, reshelved library books and met with probationers. Wilson never spoke publicly about the workdays. "I don't do it to get in the paper," he said. His wife, Rita, told him he needed to talk about it. "My wife is the one person I take political advice from." Probation Manager Tracy Toner said Wilson's workday made a big impression on her staff. "We're not in the courthouse, we're in our own building," she said. "It's pretty rare to get someone other than Facilities to come to our office. It gave everybody in the office a chance to talk to him. He had lunch with the staff in the break room, and they talked about anything and everything. They could share their concerns." The one issue they complained about more than anything was the condition of the carpet in their office. "It was really worn and dirty," Toner said. The carpet has since been replaced. Wilson worked with a Facilities crew in late August. They spent five hours on the roof of an elections office changing out an air conditioning compressor. "I had to call my wife to get her to bring me a hat," he said. "The top of my head was totally sunburned." Technician Revis Johnes said the heat was "brutal," but Wilson didn't complain or duck out. "He did a fantastic job. He was a fast learner," Johnes said. Charlie Ryburn, environmental and hazardous waste manager for the utility department, said Wilson worked a day in the county's FOG (Fat, Oil & Grease) plant. It's one of the filthiest jobs in all of county government — removing the grease from sewage before it goes to the wastewater treatment plant. "It's a very hard, dirty job. The odor is wicked," Ryburn said. "It was a real shot in the arm to the men and women out there. They were pleasantly surprised there wasn't anything he was unwilling to do." That included grabbing a set of rubber gloves and cleaning out a clogged valve and then cleaning feces from the wall. Ryburn said it's no coincidence Wilson was the first commissioner to propose giving county employees a 3-percent raise in the next budget. "He understands it's a tough position," he said. "He understands that a lot of people are working and not moving forward." Wilson said that after going five years without pay raises, it just was time. "It's personal for me," he said. "Most jobs I've had, I've had to work my way up through the ranks. I have to acknowledge that there's not a lot of support outside of (county government) for giving them a raise. But our employees are people, too, and they have bills." A few weeks ago, Wilson hosted a roundtable discussion at a business park in Land O' Lakes. The theme was "Is Pasco County Doing it Right or Wrong?" Real Estate Appraiser Walter Price was one of about a dozen small business owners who attended, and he came away impressed with the commissioner. "He was very approachable, and he didn't spend a lot of time talking about himself," Price said. "He spent most of the time answering questions." What surprised him most was that Wilson admitted when he didn't know the answer to a question. He took down the person's phone number and promised to follow up with them later. "Everything we suggested, he wrote down," Price said. "We're not even in his district. He came across as someone who wants to see the whole county flourish."

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