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Instead of hurricanes, Hillsborough’s emergency group faces a different storm

Elected leaders, sitting as the Emergency Policy Group, face criticism over their coronavirus responses
Hillsborough Commission Chairman Les Miller, who heads the Emergency Policy Group, listens during the group's March 12 meeting. Behind is County Administrator Mike Merrill. The emergency group faces criticism over its handling of a stay at home order and proposals for a  nighttime curfew and mandatory wearing of face coverings while doing essential services.
Hillsborough Commission Chairman Les Miller, who heads the Emergency Policy Group, listens during the group's March 12 meeting. Behind is County Administrator Mike Merrill. The emergency group faces criticism over its handling of a stay at home order and proposals for a nighttime curfew and mandatory wearing of face coverings while doing essential services. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 26, 2020

TAMPA — The mission was supposed to be single-minded: Declare weather-related emergencies, open shelters and order evacuations if necessary.

That was the widely-accepted role of Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group, with three county commissioners, three city mayors, the sheriff and the school board chairman serving as voting members. Its authority is granted by state law and delineated in the county charter. Dealing with Mother Nature each summer and fall was always the presumptive reason for the convening of the board.

Then came COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Because of the crisis, the emergency group began meeting regularly in mid-March. The hot topic for the first session was WrestleMania 36, scheduled for April 5 at Raymond James Stadium.

For the Emergency Policy Group, the wrestling hasn’t stopped since, with members grappling with proposed stay-at-home orders, curfews and mandatory wearing of face coverings for safety.

“We never thought we’d have an (Emergency Policy Group) to deal with a pandemic. It was put together for hurricanes,’’ said Hillsborough Commission Chairman Les Miller, who heads the policy group. “These are unprecedented times.’’

The group has been around for decades, though in a previous incarnation, it was called the Executive Policy Group and did not include school board representation. But now, the panel’s governance, its transparency and its membership are being questioned after it ventured into public health policies intended to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Attorney Patrick Leduc isn’t shy about his criticism, particularly of Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Leduc prepared a lawsuit, but did not file it, over the nightly curfew the board passed without public notice on April 13. The group rescinded the curfew three days later and Leduc didn’t pursue the litigation.

Leduc contended that the Emergency Policy Group doesn’t have the authority to declare emergencies or pass executive orders. That is the responsibility of the elected county commission, he said. More specifically, a sitting sheriff can’t vote to approve executive orders and then enforce them, especially when a violation is considered a second-degree misdemeanor, he said. Doing so is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers doctrine, Leduc said.

He pointed to the sheriff voting for a stay-at-home order and then working to arrest Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne on a charge of violating it by holding church services.

Chronister has beclowned himself,’’ said Leduc. “He is a walking separation of powers violation. He needs to resign from the Emergency Policy Group."

Cronister’s office declined comment, saying Leduc still could file the litigation in the future.

Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith, who is elected countywide but not a member of the policy group, has her own concerns.

Why, she asked, do the mayors of Temple Terrace and Plant City and the Hillsborough School Board chairwoman vote on issues of significant importance to 1.4 million residents, but some commissioners who represent the entire county cannot?

The only current policy group members elected countywide are the sheriff and Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman. By design, the group includes the commission’s chairman and vice chair and Commissioner Sandra Murman, because of the preponderance of coastal areas in her District 1.

The inclusion of the commissioner representing the waterfront areas, Miller said, is indicative of the group’s intended function to deal with hurricane issues. He defended the make-up of the group and said he valued the inclusion of the smaller-city mayors.

The group’s membership roll gives great authority to the cities of Plant City and Temple Terrace, two municipalities with a combined population of less than 67,000 people. Those cities’ mayors and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, representing 392,000 people, each have a vote.

Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Temple Terrace Vice Mayor Andy Ross, who assumed that city’s mayoral duties last month after Mayor Mel Jurado announced her resignation, were the first to voice opposition during the April 13 debate on Miller’s push for an overnight curfew. They eventually found themselves on the short end of a 5-3 vote with Overman also dissenting.

“I believe that we would be causing more harm than good,’’ Lott told the policy group.

“I think our citizens would be outraged for (practicing) good conduct that they get charged with a curfew for a very small percentage of our population that are going to... break the rules no matter if we have a curfew or not,’’ he said.

Lott’s warning was prophetic. On April 16 the group agreed with his sentiment unanimously, They reversed course and killed the curfew after residents bombarded the county with protest emails.

During that same meeting, Castor’s call for people to wear mandatory face coverings while conducting essential services also died, just three days after a board majority had voiced support for it. Then the group couldn’t even agree to a resolution recommending employers voluntarily provide face coverings to their employees if they worked within 6 feet of each other. Castor and Overman were the only supporters.

Castor later took to social media to show her disdain.

“Today’s vote could lengthen the time that we will need to keep the Safer at Home order in place, hurting our small businesses, and keeping us all away from our family and friends.’’ Castor’s said in a tweet that included a picture of her wearing a mask.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor's twitter account sent out this tweet after the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group shot down her push for mandatory face coverings for people conducting essential services.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor's twitter account sent out this tweet after the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group shot down her push for mandatory face coverings for people conducting essential services. [ Twitter ]

Six days after her failed mask-wearing mandate, Castor responded with her own announcement of a partnership with grocers and retailers to equip employees with face coverings and to encourage customers to wear masks inside the stores.

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announces mask partnership

The mayor’s office did not provide comment for this story.

The county’s safer-at-home order triggered its own legal challenge. Attorney Kurt Davis filed suit in circuit court alleging, among other things, the emergency group didn’t provide sufficient public notice or opportunities for public comment. Leduc contends the since-rescinded curfew vote violated the state’s open-government law for the same reason.

The brouhaha over the curfew votes brought procedural changes. On April 20, Miller began setting aside 20 minutes for public comment at the beginning of each meeting.

And, at the suggestion of School Board Chairwoman Melissa Snively, the policy group no longer will vote on an issue during the same meeting in which it is raised for the first time. That would avoid a repeat of the April 13 session in which the panel approved the proposed curfew, which was not on the published agenda, even though a copy of the executive order wasn’t available until the next day.

“It was ready, fire aim,’’ said Leduc.

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