An internal HART investigation into allegations that chief executive officer David Armijo misused funds, among other complaints, is drawing new attention now that activist Al Pina has made race an issue.
Pina, chairman of the Florida Minority Community Reinvestment Coalition, issued a letter this week headlined, "Tampa African American Leaders Launch Race War Against Hispanics?"
In the letter, Pina stated that all the principals involved in the investigation are black, and he characterized it as a witch hunt against Armijo, who is Hispanic.
"The Hispanic community in Tampa is watching this issue and all that I have spoken to on this issue are already claiming it is about African Americans attacking Hispanics," Pina wrote. "The Hispanic community fully supports Mr. Armijo and will defend his position as CEO of HART.
"An attack on him is an attack on the Hispanic community in philosophy."
During a special meeting Monday about the allegations, HART officials did not reveal the names or race of employees who filed complaints against Armijo. Nor did the board elaborate on the allegations, which went beyond the charge of misusing funds.
After a two-hour discussion, the board took its attorneys' advice and suspended Armijo, with pay, for two weeks while it conducts the investigation.
I'm not at all convinced race is the driving factor in this issue. But Pina's statement shines the spotlight on an interesting cultural dynamic.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau data reveals a dramatic Latino population increase over the past decade. One of every six Americans is Latino.
The growth brings into question the role Hispanics will play in our society. Their relationship with whites and blacks will change as they become the dominant ethnicity, and it is incumbent upon everyone to find common ground.
But Roy Kaplan, associate professor in the University of South Florida's Department of Africana Studies, said getting to that common ground is becoming more difficult because of the increasing disparity between rich and poor.
"With scarcity becoming the norm for more and more people, it's easier to create an environment that separates and divides minority groups because they're all competing for limited resources," said Kaplan, author of a new book titled The Myth Of Post-Racial America.
To his credit, Pina called for African-Americans and Hispanics to work together. But he undermines his own words by introducing race into this conflict and trying to cloud the focus of the investigation.
The HART board can't let this subterfuge distract from the greater issue of public trust. Any government agency director should be subject to, and actually welcome, scrutiny.
As for race relations, the entire community needs to sit down and have a frank discussion. As Kaplan noted, we need to get involved and create an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation, accommodation and understanding.
"We have to learn to value one another and appreciate diversity, not view it as a threat," Kaplan said. "Why not create an environment that can lift all people up?"
This HART issue shouldn't be at the core of any discussion about how we build better bridges.
It's not about ethnicity, it's about ethics.
That's all I'm saying.