TAMPA — A debate over one man's proposed appointment to a diversity committee led Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday to scuttle plans for the panel — for now.
The panel was proposed by Democrat Kevin Beckner, an openly gay commissioner, to recommend ways the county could be more welcoming to people of various cultures. As envisioned, it would have included representatives of a number of ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as gays and people with disabilities.
The prospective appointee in question is Hillsborough County School Board candidate Terry Kemple, who has led repeated campaigns to block actions by local government that would legitimize homosexuality.
In an email to members of his Christian advocacy group, the Community Issues Council, Kemple said the proposed diversity council likely was "code for some effort to forward the homosexual agenda." Further, the email said, this was not the sort of "important work" commissioners should be doing.
Nevertheless, he applied for an appointment and was initially assigned a slot as a person of Northern and Southern European heritage.
When Beckner obtained a copy of Kemple's email, he had it forwarded to the National Diversity Council, which the county had asked to assist vet applicants.
The head of the national organization said the email should disqualify Kemple. But Kemple told the county he still wished to be considered, which touched off a heated debate Wednesday.
The two main participants were Beckner and Republican Victor Crist, who generally enjoy a collegial relationship. That would not have been obvious from the exchange, which grew louder and louder.
After getting assurances from Kemple that he intended to be a collegial participant and not a "grenade thrower," Crist recommended he be included.
Crist: "To exclude anyone or anyone's perspective from that process really, you know, shoots in the eye of what we're trying to accomplish here."
Beckner: To "use your personal opinions to try to create public policy that discriminates, promotes hatred, bigotry and divides this community, that is where the line must be drawn. … Those types of individuals should not be involved in this type of a process."
Crist: "The bottom line is there's a constituency out there in our county that are voters and residents that thinks and feels the same way as Mr. Kemple does and to say they don't deserve a seat at the table is being exclusive. … We have to begin allowing everyone an opportunity to be able to look everybody straight in the eye and speak their piece and work out their solution."
Beckner: "I would ask everybody here, if you saw an email — and just replace homosexual with disabilities, replace it with woman — if part of the mission of that board is to promote inclusiveness and diversity and yet an individual's on that board and they don't believe that to begin with, why should that individual be included or have a seat on that board?"
Commissioners ultimately voted 4-3 to support Kemple's appointment, with Republicans Crist, Chairman Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman and Al Higginbotham agreeing to include him as an amendment.
That's when Democrat Les Miller pulled a procedural maneuver. Having made the original motion to approve the appointment list without Kemple, he then moved to table its final approval indefinitely. Hagan joined that bloc, joining Miller, Beckner and Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe in agreeing to table a vote.
Prevailing commissioners can bring the matter back up later.
In the meantime, Beckner plans to keep diversity — specifically as it relates to gay rights — front and center. He told commissioners at the end of the meeting that he plans to ask them to lift a 2005 ban on county government recognition of gay pride events.