Pinellas commissioners disagree over ‘Black Lives Matter’ Zoom background

Commissioner Kathleen Peters urged the board to adopt rules to govern procedures.
The Pinellas County Commission during a Zoom meeting on June 30.
The Pinellas County Commission during a Zoom meeting on June 30. [ Pinellas County Commission ]
Published June 30, 2020

Is the Black Lives Matter mural on Ninth Ave. S in St. Petersburg an appropriate backdrop for a government meeting?

The question arose Tuesday at the end of the Pinellas County Commission meeting when Commissioner Kathleen Peters questioned the backgrounds that commissioners and administrators use during online meetings, specifically the background used by Commissioner Ken Welch.

Welch’s background was a photo of the Black Lives Matter mural on the street in front of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg. Welch also used a Black Lives Matter photo as a backdrop last week during a meeting. A group of local artists collaborated this month to paint the mural for the city’s Juneteenth celebration.

When the pandemic forced commissioners to hold online meetings, Peters said commissioners were told to use generic county backgrounds for the virtual sessions. Peters said she has received complaints from constituents about Welch’s mural background.

“We have commissioners who decided to use art as their backgrounds,” Peters said. “Although it’s artwork, it’s still a sign, whether it’s right or wrong that they be offended, people are offended ... We should have guidelines that this governing body operates under. You all are very proud that you don’t have rules; I don’t know that I’d be proud of that.”

Welch, a Black Democrat, told Peters she should have raised the issue with him instead of complaining to a staffer and then the board.

Related: A new Black Lives Matter mural has been unveiled in St. Petersburg

“I know you had a problem with my Black Lives Matter background that you took to staff,” Welch said. “It is not art, it is an actual photo. It’s received worldwide acclaim. I have not received any complaints about it, only compliments about it. If you had a problem you certainly could have called me and told me about your issue with it.”

He added: “I don’t see a need for a rule book simply because some folks who’ve contacted you have a problem with the background. I don’t agree with what you brought forward at all.”

Peters, a Republican who joined the commission 18 months ago, used the background question as an example of the board’s resistance to following a rulebook for that and other processes. Commissioners Janet Long, Dave Eggers, Charlie Justice and Pat Gerard each said they were open to considering more specific rules for the board.

None of them spoke out about Welch’s background.

The conversation in the video begins at 2:04:38.

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Peters then told Welch the mural did not offend her.

“Commissioner Welch, I’m not offended by the artwork, and it is artwork if it’s on the street,” Peters said. “It’s still artwork. What’s to say I’m going to put up artwork about abortions, just for example; don’t shake your head. Putting a sign in the middle of a meeting sends a message — no matter what the sign is. When you’re on this dais, I don’t think signs should be included during our meetings, whatever the sign is.”

Welch said he didn’t want to belabor the conversation.

“In 2020, in the world we’re living in, we need to speak out on issues,” Welch said. “That’s no different than me wearing a lapel pin that supports an issue. I will continue to use this Zoom background because I feel strongly about it. That’s all I’m gonna say about it right now.”