Mulieri watched county go from carbon paper to the Internet age

Nearly 10 years after she retired from what was then Pasco-Hernando Community College, Pat Mulieri will hang it up once again Wednesday — this time as a Pasco County commissioner.

So what will the 76-year-old do now?

“Maybe I’ll become a belly dancer,” she said.

Pat Mulieri spends some time with Rocket, one of the dogs rescued by Pasco County Animal Services. Mulieri, whose last day as a county commissioner is Nov. 5, spent 20 years as a public servant, all thanks to a proposed medical waste facility.  (Michael Hinman/Staff Photo)

Pat Mulieri spends some time with Rocket, one of the dogs rescued by Pasco County Animal Services. Mulieri, whose last day as a county commissioner is Nov. 5, spent 20 years as a public servant, all thanks to a proposed medical waste facility. (Michael Hinman/Staff Photo)

Mulieri may be joking, but the 20-year commissioner has never been afraid to speak her mind, or go against the establishment in county government she more than once referred to as a “good ol’ boy club.” Whether it’s speaking out on increasing local gas taxes, or throwing her support behind a candidate from a different political party, Mulieri always has described herself as fearless, standing up for those who might not be able — or willing — to stand up for themselves.

“You can’t just sit there, and you can’t be afraid to speak out,” Mulieri said. “People will try to intimidate you, they’ll try to talk over you. But you have to keep an open mind, and never waver from what you believe in.”

Spending so many years in elected office would have many asking what kind of legacy a commissioner leaves when they retire. Mulieri, however, sees her legacy beginning well before she won her first election in 1994. In fact, it was her work in the late 1980s and early 1990s that pushed her into public office in the first place.

“I was teaching at PHCC when someone came up to me and told me that they are building an incinerator on my corner, and I started looking into it,” Mulieri said.

As she does now, Mulieri lived in Gower’s Corner, the mostly rural area north of Land O’ Lakes at State Road 52 and U.S. 41. She and husband Jimmy had called it home since moving from New York in 1979, and plans were to build a plant that would dispose of up to 500 pounds of medical waste each day.

Except plans didn’t stay that small for long. By 1990, the developer expanded it to 54 tons per day, and that put Mulieri and her neighbors into action.

The first thing she did? Call Sylvia Young, of course, the longtime county commissioner representing much of the eastern side of Pasco.

“It was the most terrible experience of my life,” Mulieri said. “’It won’t hurt you,’ she told me. ‘Why do you care? It’s not going to hurt you.’”

Except at 54 tons daily, that meant trucks would be going in and out constantly, bringing in waste from all over the state, and even beyond. It was the last thing Gower’s Corner needed, Mulieri said, and she vowed to fight it, with or without the help of her elected officials.

“I filed to be my own attorney at an administrative hearing” with state environmental officials, Mulieri said. “It started out as a Gower’s Corner issue, and then it became a Pasco issue. By the time I was done, it had become a state issue.”

She got a lot of help from John Long, then a Democratic state representative who would later become superintendent of Pasco County Schools. Long helped push a five-year moratorium on the incinerator through the House, but it was the state Senate that was proving difficult.

“There was a senator there who was the meanest senator in the world, and he did not want to get it passed,” Mulieri said. “But John was a powerful man, and he walked over and whispered something into the senator’s ear. I have no idea what he said, but the next thing you know, there was a moratorium on medical incinerators for the next five years.”

That was enough to kill the project, and Mulieri could’ve simply gone back to teaching and enjoying life in Florida. But in 1994, many of Mulieri’s neighbors become frustrated with the lack of communication between commissioners and residents, and many of them were trying to convince her to run.

“It was really hard,” she said. “We didn’t raise a lot of money. I put in $9,000, and maybe I raised $10,000.”

But Mulieri got a lot of attention, primarily because of what she called her “green gang.” Someone had designed a green shirt with Mulieri’s name on it, and volunteers would wear them everywhere, becoming human billboards.

Mulieri won that election, and every challenge thrown at her ever since. Each time, she kept her campaign small. Her last election in 2010, against Republican Ken Littlefield and independent Clay Colson, Mulieri raised $88,000. But that was a little more than half of what her then colleague, Michael Cox, raised for his race, and is far less than the $174,000 Mike Moore has raised to try and replace her.

“I always tried to keep these races in the community, and it’s always been a grassroots effort,” she said.

On Wednesday, Mulieri will walk in the door of the commission boardroom for the last time as one of the commissioners. She’ll have a chance now to spend even more time with the Pasco County animal shelter in Land O’ Lakes, and quality time at her Gower’s Corner home. And she hopes she leaves the commission just a little better than the way she found it 20 years ago.

“For everything, there is a season,” she said. “When I started, everyone there was using carbon paper, and I had to push just to get Internet there. Now, we depend on the Internet.

“I hope the county will keep changing for the better.”

Published November 5, 2014

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