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Sue Carlton: Who will take up where Jan Platt left off? Anyone? Anyone?

By Sue Carlton
Jan Platt fishing from Tampa's Ballast Point Pier. "When you're out on the water, the things that used to seem important, aren't important. It has a leveling influence on me." Platt, an environmentalist and former Hillsborough County commissioner, died Friday. KEN HELLE | Times (1994)

Here is a classic Jan Platt moment: In the 1990s, she ran for mayor against Tampa icon Dick Greco. But the day before election day — prime sign-waving time on city street corners — she had jury duty.

So did she try to get out of it? To postpone it? If you don’t know the answer, you didn’t know Jan Platt.

While candidates were out last-minute glad-handing, she sat in the courthouse with her purse primly on her lap. Jury duty, she said, was her civic responsibility. She had never asked to be excused before and she certainly didn’t intend to now.

There’s also the one about how she would walk to lunch downtown separate from her fellow Hillsborough County commissioners. She wanted to make sure no one thought she was inappropriately talking board business.

That was Jan Platt. A fighter for the environment and against dirty politics, she knew better than anyone the nefarious misdeeds elected officials could get up to, having witnessed three fellow commissioners hauled off in handcuffs in a bribery scandal in the 1980s. Jan Platt was pretty much the antiscandal.

Actually, people called her lots of things for that forthright intention of hers to do the right thing as she voted no again and again against development she knew would change the character of the county. And not in a good way.

Girl Scout, they called her. (In fact, she had been a Girl Scout leader.) Marian the Librarian. (She believed strongly in the public library system and fought for funding, so she’d probably be okay with that, too.) Do-gooder. (Yep.) Relentless. (That, too.) A stickler for doing the right thing, or annoyingly implacable, depending on your view.

She left so many lasting marks — a preservation program for environmentally sensitive lands, her pushback against sprawl, an ordinance against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the cleaning up of the waters of Tampa Bay — that I’d forgotten some of them. Like how she led the cause to preserve the old Sunshine Skyway bridge for fishing piers, today a local treasure.

She came by it honestly, growing up barefoot and fishing, loving where she lived and seeing with a steely eye how easily it could be lost. So with her tidy manner and her practical Peter Pan cap of brown hair, she went to work and did her job.

Even out of office, she did not stop working for causes she believed in. You could count on her for a sharp quote after members of a hospital board voted to pay themselves for their traditionally unpaid service ("The public is watching," she said), or when a former colleague was disgraced in scandal.

She died Friday at the age of 81 after health complications.

Lately it is a world where politicians of decency and character seem a distinct minority, when scandal in office is regular as rain, when insults and all-caps tweets pass for acceptable civil discourse.

Here would be the fitting postscript to the Jan Platt brand of public service: more candidates willing to take up causes for the right reasons and ready to push back — not for power or prestige, but for practicality, because someone has to do it.

That was Jan Platt.