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Perceived snub produces a snit

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Hillsborough County commissioners solved none of the county's significant growth, transportation or water troubles Wednesday.

But after a debate laced with taunts and name-calling, they did approve a new rule for who among them gets to attend parades and other public functions.

The policy was approved 4-3, a vote that underscored the tension and distrust on the bitterly divided board, which has six of its seven seats up for election in November.

"This is going to be a long year," Democrat Tom Scott said afterward.

Scott sparked the debate after he learned that Republican Commissioner Stacey Easterling was the county's representative in St. Patrick's Day Parade in Ybor City on Saturday. Easterling was riding in place of Democratic Chairwoman Pat Frank, who was invited by parade organizers but couldn't attend.

By tradition, when the board chair gets an invitation and can't go, it's passed first to the vice chairman, then the chaplain, Scott said. The vice chairman is Republican Jim Norman, who Easterling says she may challenge in one of the at-large commission races this year.

Scott is the chaplain. He also is up for re-election, though he faces no opposition so far. His district includes Ybor City.

Frank said she decided to offer the invitation to Easterling because she stopped by her office around the time Frank received it.

Given the number of seats up for election, Scott said it's particularly important that the chair follow protocol when doling out invites to avoid the appearance of playing favorites. He said he was not trying to make it a personal issue.

"Indeed it is," Frank replied.

She accused unnamed board members of behaving like children.

"I'm not going to get involved in silly things like (who gets to march) in St. Patrick's Day parades," Frank said. "No, I'm not."

Scott, a pastor, warned her not to take his generally affable manner as a sign that he will let other commissioners show disrespect toward him.

"I can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, though my name may not be Muhammad Ali," Scott said.

Republican Commissioner Chris Hart, an Easterling ally, expressed disbelief that Scott was making an issue out of who gets to attend parades. He said he has always managed to participate in years past, commission invite or not.

"What's the big deal?" Hart asked. "I don't really understand, Reverend."

County attorney Emeline Acton said there is no board rule on parade invites. Easterling remained quiet.

Republican Commissioner Ronda Storms, arguably the least likely commissioner to avoid a fray, called for the vote without weighing in herself.

"I feel uncomfortable with this," Storms said.

She then voted with Scott, Norman and Democrat Commissioner Jan Platt in support of having a policy.

Scott suggested afterward that Frank should be thankful the board approved firm rules.

"When you do that, you stay out of trouble," he said. "In reality, it really helps her. She doesn't know it."

Before the meeting, Frank suggested that Scott may regret what he asked for. She said she gets far more requests to attend public functions than she is able to attend.

Asked if she intends to comply with the policy, she said, "You better believe it."