SAFETY HARBOR — Safety Harbor city commissioners voted 3-2 to replace the Black Lives Matter signs on city property after more than three hours of debate and public comment Monday night. The proposal was for the new signs to read “Safety Harbor Stands United,” however the design and exact phrasing are still in the works.
The decision reverses the one commissioners made unanimously last week that placed a Black Lives Matter sign in front of City Hall and another by the library. After a two-day backlash on social media and via email, Mayor Joe Ayoub requested last week that the commission revisit the decision.
Now, the city will place a new sign on city property that is of “non-segmented” nature.
During Monday’s virtual Zoom meeting, residents spoke out on all sides of the debate. Some contested claims that the words “Black Lives Matter” are political. Others demanded the city dissociate itself from Black Lives Matter, the organization, but keep the message of racial equality.
Central to the discussion was the argument that if the city allowed the original signs to stay, future proposals for signs on city property — some referenced Ku Klux Klan signs — would have to be considered by the commission to avoid lawsuits. Ayoub said the city has already received requests that additional signs be put up.
Just before the vote, city officials heard from Black community leaders before making their decision. “This issue we’re addressing tonight is definitely bigger than a sign,” said Carmen Lundy, a Black Safety Harbor resident. Lundy said although she supports the Black Lives Matter signs, she’s willing to squash the sign controversy in light of the larger fight for racial justice. “For the sake of unity, so be it.”
Commissioners Andy Zodrow and Nancy Besore voted against replacing the sign. “I’m not going to change my position on the sign,” said Zodrow.
“My conscience is sticking with our initial decision,” said Besore.
Ayoub pushed back. “What’s more important, making a statement or making progress?” he said.
Vice Mayor Cliff Merz flirted with the idea of replacing “Black” with “African American” to keep the original sign to avoid associations with Black Lives Matter the organization, but ultimately the idea fizzled out.
Ayoub, Merz, and Commissioner Carlos Diaz voted to replace the signs.
A separate vote for the City Manager to draft a resolution condemning racism in all its forms — similar to an initiative done in Dunedin — passed unanimously.
Lewis Ponds, a Black resident who has been organizing and leading in the Safety Harbor community since the death of George Floyd, said he’s saddened by the reversal. “It kind of took the fight out of me in a way,” said Ponds. “It really hurts.”
Ponds says the original use of the words “Black Lives Matter” was intended to push for unity. “All I’m saying is treat me fair, treat me with respect.”
Now Ponds is calling on city leaders to transfer the energy sparked by the recent debate over signs into sustainable change to address racial injustice.
“I just want help from my leaders,” said Ponds. “I need help.”