OLDSMAR — As Janice Miller talked about "illegals" and "debris" at Tuesday night's City Council meeting, none of her colleagues interrupted her to denounce the racially inflammatory remarks.
Over the span of eight minutes, she reeled off stereotypes and assumptions and passed them off as credible arguments for a city ban on contractors who employ undocumented workers.
(The council didn't take any action, but a city attorney said Oldsmar could make contractors sign an affidavit that they do not and will not employ undocumented workers.)
By week's end, days after Miller's comments thrust this town of 14,000 into the middle of a national immigration debate, there was still no official city statement, no apology, nothing.
"It caught everybody off guard," said Vice Mayor Doug Bevis, who plans to meet with City Manager Bruce Haddock on Tuesday and suggest that the city take some kind of stance.
"I was trying to grasp the whole topic, what she was talking about. I don't think the entirety of the comment sunk in until the meeting was over."
That was the consensus Friday among three of the council's four other members. Mayor Jim Ronecker could not be reached for comment. He is out of the country until next week, City Clerk Ann Stephan said.
Council member Linda Norris said Miller's comments "deeply offended" her. "Just because somebody litters or is of Hispanic descent does not make them illegal," she said.
But Norris, Bevis and council member Jerry Beverland said they didn't express that sentiment Tuesday because Miller's remarks came at the end of the meeting, during the "council comments" portion — a time usually reserved for quick reminders about upcoming festivals and community happenings, not legislative discussions or votes.
"If it were really to come down to a vote on anything, that's where the rubber meets the road," Norris said. "That's when the citizens of Oldsmar will see where we each individually stand on the issues."
Race is "a supersensitive topic," Bevis said.
"What you say and how you say it, you have to be super careful when you talk along those lines."
Said Beverland: "Nobody wanted to get in that quagmire off of 'council comments.' An 'agenda' item? I would've definitely been against the stereotyping of anybody."
Some longtime Oldsmar residents questioned whether Miller was qualified to remain on the council after Tuesday's immigration flap. Miller told a St. Petersburg Times reporter on Thursday that she would not resign.
"When you take an oath," former council member Loretta Wyandt said, "you're up there to represent everyone. You can't be discriminatory and if you are, you shouldn't be up there."
Babe Wright, another former council member, said she doesn't think Miller is fit for service "if that's the way she feels about the general population."
Council members, however, stood behind Miller on Friday.
"If I thought Janice was bigoted," Beverland said, "I would say resign. But I don't think she's bigoted. She can't express what she wants, and that's the problem."
Bevis said Miller, a third-term council member, has done lots of good for the city. It was Miller who established the Oldsmar Citizens Academy, a boot camp of sorts for future city leaders. Bevis is a graduate.
"We've all put our foot in our mouth from time to time," he said. "It was a pretty damaging statement and I think Janice realizes that. She only has the best interest of the city at heart and I don't think she meant any race or any individual any harm, but it's unfortunate the way it came out."
Norris, who said voters should decide if Miller remains in office, said she understood Miller's overall premise.
"I agree that companies should make sure they only hire documented workers," she said. "What reasonable American can disagree with that?"
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.