TAMPA — Two weeks ago, a community activist told Hillsborough County commissioners that a proposal to create a heavily Hispanic district amounted to "ghettoizing" one ethnic group.
On Thursday, about 10 Hispanic residents showed up at a commission meeting to blast the activist's use of that word — and take commissioners to task for not having her removed from the meeting.
"I feel nothing but disgust when … you allow this unfortunate person to insult us and attack us and humiliate us," said Beverly Oztolaza, a Tampa business owner. "I travel all over the world and I never suffered so much humiliation until here in our own back yard."
The longtime resident at the center of the controversy, Marilyn Smith, was also at the meeting and said critics had overreacted and misconstrued what she said.
"I've done nothing wrong," Smith said. "I'm sorry if they don't understand English or history. … I didn't call any of them any names. I wasn't vilifying anyone."
At a meeting last month, Smith characterized one redistricting proposal as "ghettoizing" County Commission districts. She said, "What's next? Creating districts so that Lithuanians or other ethnic groups can gain representation?"
Commissioner Les Miller later castigated Smith, saying the language "cuts deep."
Smith said she used the word "ghetto" to conjure the walled-off areas Jews and other ethnic groups were forced to live in by oppressors, from the Spanish Inquisition to the years leading up to World War II. The redistricting proposal risked "marginalizing and segregating" certain groups, she added.
Elizabeth Mossad, a Hispanic resident, said she believed Smith implied that all Hispanics lived in poor, crime-ridden areas.
"The reason it's so offensive to us is because ghetto has a negative connotation," Mossad said later. "It isn't anything positive."
Smith noted that the group that gathered Thursday included Victor DiMaio, a longtime political consultant who represents the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition that is pushing for a new district representing predominately Hispanic neighborhoods. Commissioners last month ultimately rejected that proposal.
"He's inflaming them," said Smith, who describes herself as "grandmother-at-large."
DiMaio denied that he had organized the turnout but said the incident showed that the board needs a Hispanic voice. He cited the fact that Miller was the only one to call out Smith last month.
"The whole issue is about power, and those who have it don't want to relinquish it," he said later.
On Thursday, though, commissioners were practically competing with each other as they apologized.
Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state legislator, said he and his then-colleagues tried to maintain certain standards of decorum. "I, too, apologize for the actions that took place," he said.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the board had to balance speakers' First Amendment rights with the protection of human rights. He asked county attorneys to review the decorum policy for public speakers and see if they needed to be strengthened.
"Again, I apologize to the Hispanic community for the words spoken," Beckner said.
Chairman Ken Hagan noted that he had tried in the past to consider tightening the decorum policy, but other commissioners were reluctant because of First Amendment issues.
Miller, who is black, spoke of a time when he was the target of racial slurs. He told the Hispanic residents he understood them.
"You may not have a Hispanic voice but you've got Les Miller," he said as the crowd applauded.
Resident Clay Daniels approached the podium and called the dust-up a "wakeup call" in Hillsborough.
"I think we need to put little logos out there that say 'Racism is a sickness,'" he said. "Y'all need to do a logo or something, put it on TV, advertise it."
People were clapping. In the back of the room, Smith shook her head.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.