DADE CITY — Hundreds of people filled downtown for the Cinco de Mayo street party, tempted by the display of classic cars, the aroma of smoked meats and the beat of spicy salsa music.
Newly selected Mayor Camille Hernandez milled about, chatting with people. In the back of her mind, though, she noted several police officers monitoring the event.
"My first response," she said, "was, 'What's this costing us?' "
She asked City Manager Billy Poe, and was satisfied when he explained it was just a few hours' overtime pay for four officers (and two of them went home early).
Hernandez, 53, took the mayor's gavel about a month ago, nominated by her friend Jim Shive, who just won a seat next to her on the City Commission. Her job is to run the commission meetings, attend ribbon cuttings and represent the city in dealings with other agencies. At times a controversial figure — she has publicly sparred with city officials and survived a recall effort — Hernandez now finds herself serving as the public face of Dade City.
She's already dug in with both hands, showing a keen interest in the day-to-day runnings of the city. Every Wednesday she meets with Poe, sometimes for up to two hours, asking questions about how things work. She recently asked city crews to pick up litter along U.S. 301.
"Historically it's been more of a ceremonial position," Hernandez said. "But I'll be a need-to-know, keep-me-in-the-loop type of mayor."
Born Camille Sutherland, she was the middle child among seven siblings raised in Woonsocket, R.I., a textile town of 40,000 along the Massachusetts border. Her father was an attorney, her mother a nurse who stayed at home to raise the children. She lost her only brother to Downs syndrome, and two sisters to cerebral palsy and stillbirth. Those painful losses instilled in her a sense of responsibility and a desire to help others.
"These experiences made me who I am today," she said.
She graduated from Brown University and earned a master's degree in public health from Yale, where she met a future doctor named David Hernandez. He was drawn to her sense of nurturing: "I knew she would become a great mother," he said. The couple married in 1987.
Camille received a Rotary Ambassador Graduate Scholarship, which gave her the opportunity to travel to third-world countries to study indigenous health issues. Then the couple moved to Florida, closer to David's family, who had citrus groves in Odessa. At first they lived in Bayonet Point, where David provided medical imaging services for area doctors.
Then one day David, a graduate of Saint Leo University, took his wife for a short road trip to east Pasco.
"David said hop in the car," recalled Camille, who grew skeptical as the drive wore on. "I was bored until we hit the hills of San Antonio. It reminded me of beautiful land in the northeast. When we arrived in Dade City, I was captured by the cute and quaint character of the town."
She was sold. They moved to Dade City in 1992. David established Radiation Protection Associates, his medical imaging firm, and invested in some downtown properties. Camille focused on raising their children, now ages 16, 17, 19, and 23. The eldest is in her third year of medical school in Boston.
Over the years she became active in various civic and charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Sunrise Rotary, and the Area Agency on Aging Pasco/Pinellas at Love One Another, a program to feed the homeless. She joined the political scene in 2006 with an ambitious campaign to unseat longtime Dade City Commissioner Bill Dennis — and won by 50 votes.
She ran under a promise of creating "a system of government that is inclusive." Almost immediately she crossed swords with City Hall.
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Before she even took office, Camille Hernandez made headlines after a spat over Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law. She argued she had "untethered freedom" to talk to other board members privately because she hadn't been sworn in yet. City officials told her she was wrong.
Then in the summer of 2007, Hernandez sent an incendiary letter to the governor requesting an investigation of former City Manager Harold Sample and then-Mayor Hutch Brock. She alleged corrupt practices and conflicts of interest that both men categorically denied.
That controversy brought standing-room-only crowds to commission meetings and triggered a recall effort of Hernandez. Recall organizer Curtis Beebe pulled the plug on the effort a few months later, after Brock urged him to let it go.
Beebe, who later served alongside Hernandez on the commission, still has mixed views.
"Camille is such an enigma," said Beebe, who did not seek re-election this year. "I give her credit for what she's accomplished. But is there a statute of limitations on smearing reputations? I'd like her to acknowledge mistakes and apologize."
But Hernandez had her defenders, too — chief among them her husband: "Camille was exploited for her letter to Governor Crist," he said.
"She and I are scientists and probing is second nature," explained David Hernandez, who has aggressively questioned other officials at commission meetings while his wife sits at the dais. "It's how we generate discovery."
Camille Hernandez isn't one to share her reflections on any of the controversies. Ask her about the Sunshine Law, or the letter to the governor, or the dustup a couple of years ago when Hernandez suggested lifting the city's ban on private wells without mentioning she already had such a well — and you'll get a reticent response.
"I'm not looking back," she said. "I take responsibility for everything I do and sign my name to. This is politics and I can't please everybody all the time."
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Last fall, when furious Mickens-Harper residents packed into the commission chambers to protest plans for a reclaimed water tank on their neighborhood baseball field, Hernandez took the lead with her candor:
"We dropped the ball," she told the crowd. The board failed to recognize the water tank would displace the park, she said.
She voted to withdraw the plans and has been vocal about finding a way to build a new sewer plant elsewhere, as the Mickens-Harper residents have long desired. Hernandez said she has overcome her own feelings of being an outsider, but still relates to those who feel marginalized.
"That's why I want to bring more citizens into the club," she said. "If I can reach out into the communities, more people get involved and make a big difference."
She has been an advocate for arts and culture in Dade City: She and her husband provided storefront space for the Dade City Center for the Arts, a gallery headquarters for the Youth Council and summer programs. She helped coordinate the popular monthly downtown concert series, First Thursday, with Saint Leo University and has reached out to Pasco-Hernando Community College for similar collaborations. And she still hopes to create a dog park along an expanded Eighth Street hiking trail.
Hernandez also plans to "resurrect the conversation" about the $2 million in the general fund, at one time earmarked for a new City Hall. She raised the issue last fall after some grants for City Hall had fallen through.
"I was bewildered by the hand wringing and moans," she said. "I had to say, wait a minute guys. The money is here and we've been talking about too many decisions forever."
Many of her priorities are concrete: stepping up code enforcement efforts on depressed properties, paving and repairing roads, annexing properties on the north and south ends of U.S. 301. Fellow commissioner Eunice Penix calls Hernandez a "go-getter," and the mayor has the schedule to prove it: Sunrise Rotary meetings, economic development workshops, staff appointments.
Last week she and the police chief met with residents about starting a crime watch.