OLDSMAR — Toward the end of Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Janice Miller said she had something she had to get off of her chest.
"I have been wanting to do this for quite some time and I didn't know how it would be perceived," the council member said, "but now I'm going to throw it out there.
"I would like to propose that the city, how should I put this, any contractor that the city does business with should not employ illegal aliens because it just … I don't think it's right."
She commended Arizona for its sweeping new immigration law. She said the measure has galvanized other towns like Fremont, Neb., which last month approved a ban on hiring or renting property to undocumented residents. And then she segued into a story about the contractor who repaired the roof at City Hall a few years back.
"The contractor that we used was a mess," Miller said. "Our people picked up a lot of debris, lunch bags and Coke cans and bottles and things like that."
"You need to tell who threw the lunch bags down there," council member Jerry Beverland told her.
"The workers who are illegal," she said. "You know where I'm going."
Officials at Allied Roofing in Tampa, the firm that performed the repairs, were not available for comment Wednesday. An employee who answered the phone at the company's W Cayuga Street office said Miller's remarks were inaccurate.
Reached Wednesday, Miller said she couldn't "say for sure that they were illegal, but it is obvious to me that they were from Central America."
Asked how she knew that, she said: "What do you mean? I'm 68 years old and I know what different people look like from different countries. I know what Mexicans look like and Italians or Spanish or black or white or Asian. It isn't a big leap."
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Raymond Arsenault, the first vice president of the Pinellas County American Civil Liberties Union, said statements like Miller's are the very reason the Arizona law concerns business, agriculture and civil rights groups.
"This is just the kind of thing that critics of the Arizona law are so concerned about — people jumping to conclusions, making assumptions based on physical appearance without any real, anthropological expertise," he said. "Anybody who knows anything about racial demography knows that you can't typecast people like that.
"People have a certain image in their head, but that doesn't necessarily comport to reality and there's such a chance for guilt by association and misidentification. It seems antithetical to the spirit of a democratic society."
Arsenault, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor, said Miller's inflammatory remarks "seem to be a gross miscarriage of her responsibility as a public official to represent all of her constituents in a fair-minded manner. "She's sworn to uphold the law, which involves certain federal guarantees of civil rights and due process. To make such an irresponsible statement is very, very disturbing."
In response to Arsenault, Miller said her comments are no big deal: "We're proving who we are all the time. Everybody proves who they are these days."
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Nearly 20 states have already introduced or begun to craft Arizona-like measures. Florida, which has the third-largest number of undocumented residents in the nation (720,000), is among them. On Tuesday, the national debate made its way to Oldsmar, a town of about 14,000.
"Let's face it," Miller said. "The whole country is up in arms about this and they have been for a while and now it's really coming to the forefront. Everybody's complaining about it."
Mayor Jim Ronecker said he didn't agree with the context of Miller's proposal and didn't know how the city would police businesses that employ undocumented workers. "How do we know they're even in the country illegally or not?" he asked.
John Hubbard, a lawyer with Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt, Trask & Yacavone LLP in Dunedin, told the council that Oldsmar could make contractors sign an affidavit that they do not and will not employ illegal immigrants.
"You don't need to pass an ordinance or law or anything," he said. "You can have provisions in the contract for monetary penalties. And also, the person who signs the affidavit would be subject to the penalties of perjury."
Council members did not raise any objections, but Beverland suggested and his colleagues agreed that the city "wait to see what the state says. Let's get the legalities of this to see where we stand."
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The city is in the midst of building a $20 million reverse osmosis water treatment plant. Miller praised the city for enlisting an Oldsmar company to do some of the raw water line work. Bob Fornwalt, president of Keystone Excavators, said he does not employ undocumented residents and requires that all new hires complete an I-9 employment eligibility form and provide two forms of documentation proving U.S. citizenship. "They're all American," Miller said. "It certainly looks like they are. They are black and white. The point is, I want to see Americans doing these jobs just like it's supposed to be.
"I mean we've got too many people out of work and not enough of them are out of work. Most of them are still working. They're not just picking tomatoes. They're doing drywall, electricity, plumbing, all kinds of stuff that normally was reserved for Americans."
Reach Rodney Thrash at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.