Call me a sucker for moments when people actually seem happy with local government, but I like those schmaltzy commendations handed out at Hillsborough County Commission meetings.
Winning high school soccer teams, Boy Scouts, do-gooders, pillars of the community, business owners and retiring public officials who have managed to not sully themselves — commissioners pick them for Official Recognition just after the Pledge of Allegiance but before the real business of the meeting begins.
Like who? A woman who turned 100. TECO for its help in Hurricane Sandy. A longtime School Board member, a former mayor — even a German shepherd named Chino in the sheriff's canine unit got his props. Before battles over redistricting, transit, trouble at the animal shelter or whatever the county headache of the day, citizens (and a dog) got their attaboy, their signed proclamation and their moment.
Did I say moment?
Because sometimes there are so many such proclamations, with accompanying speeches and picture-takings with commissioners at their toothiest, feel-good commendation time can spill into the actual business the board was elected for. Agenda items marked time-certain — for which workaday people sit waiting in the audience — can get "blown out of the water," says Commissioner Mark Sharpe.
And while every commissioner doles these out, some are more prolific back-patters than others.
"Some days you walk in and they're stacked up on your desk," says Commissioner Les Miller — commendations for anything from "being recognized for being an Eagle Scout to, I don't know, a winning cow at a fair." (The recipient presumably not being the actual cow.)
Miller wanted to commend a community activist but was told it couldn't happen for 2 ½ months, given all that were scheduled. And the activist was battling cancer.
The list has included everyone from Monsignor Laurence Higgins (12 minutes) to Mel Lohn of the local culinary gem that is Mel's Hot Dogs (nine minutes.) That one came from Commissioner Victor Crist, who got to say things like "with great relish" and "frankly, the best."
And commissioners don't just commend pre-meeting, they also proclaim, proclaiming it Bladder Cancer Awareness Month, Pro Bono Week, Older Americans Month, Water Conservation Month, Donate Life Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Black Nurses Historical Day, National Bullying Prevention Month, and, who can forget, Cybersecurity Month.
Yes, since you ask, an (elected) official commending a citizen can come off as hokey and possibly even political, if you are a cynical sort. It can seem like, apologies to Chino here, a bone thrown to a voter in hopes he'll remember this kindness come election time.
Except it's also just kind of nice.
People have been known to tear up at being officially recognized and thanked. "They really do appreciate them," Miller says.
For this slightly sappy story, a happy ending: Commissioners recently agreed to hold commendations to three per meeting, four in special cases, with more to be handed out at quarterly meetings.
But already, they plan to push to four at their next meeting with a proclamation for Nelson Mandela,
"Three minutes," Miller says. "That's it."