Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Carlton: For David A. Straz Jr., a small award for a big no

It's not like prominent Tampa philanthropist David A. Straz Jr., whose name is splashed across the town's performing arts center (among other buildings), is unfamiliar with governmentally doled-out accolades.

Hanging in his office, in fact, are plaques bearing keys to not just the city but also the county, each thanking him for his generosity in the usual overstuffed language of such awards.

So what's the big deal about Thursday morning, when Straz gets a commendation from the Tampa City Council for nearly 20 years of "outstanding" service on Tampa General Hospital's governing board?

Maybe it has something to do with why he quit.

Straz and other presumably civic-minded and often well-heeled citizens— prominent doctors, business types and assorted community leaders — met six times a year to deal with the business of the city's well-regarded hospital that is a safety net for the poor.

Serving on that board is a time-honored tradition and one they performed without being paid. Until last fall, when board members voted they should get the option of being compensated — $15,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on their duties. Straz — along with another board member who later added her name to the nays — voted no. Were this a less genteel group, his vote might have been recorded as "hell no."

When the pay proposition passed, Straz said he would no longer serve.

For the record, no law that says people who happen to have enough money to give their time for free have to do so. None. But this was an affront to those who, like Straz, saw it as a community service on behalf of a respected, not-for-profit institution and not a chance to make a little money.

It took some time for the news to get out, as they did not exactly go around boasting about this vote to pay themselves. But this is a town where a good story, especially one involving perceptions of privilege and audacity, is unlikely to fade quietly away. A day after it hit the front page, the pay plan was dropped. No one said board members were embarrassed, but a lot of people thought they should be.

That Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda is presenting Straz with the commendation Thursday adds a smidge of intrigue. In his years of government service, Miranda has made a habit of speaking up for the little guy. He was the man in all black mourning for the taxpayers who had to pay for a football stadium.

I asked Miranda if, beyond talking about Straz's years on the hospital board, he might also bring up the reason Straz left in protest. Miranda did not get this far showing all his cards. He said he doesn't write down what he's going to say ahead of time, and "whatever comes out comes out from the heart."

"I think it's a very nice gesture," Straz said of the commendation. "I have a great fondness for that hospital."

Straz said after the story was reported, he received "tremendous" mail and calls, all supportive. People have come up to him to say what he did was right. As is also tradition, the hospital board votes in its own members. No, Straz said, he has not been asked back, and he wouldn't necessarily go. Rumor has it he may end up doing similar service at some other area hospital. I'm guessing for free.

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