TAMPA — Hillsborough County is now poised to kill its Emergency Policy Group.
Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. proposed last week to keep the group in place to address weather emergencies, but to strip it of its authority to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, the Hillsborough County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to advance a planned ordinance change abolishing the group entirely. The vote came after Fire Chief Dennis Jones said the county should have a unified response to all hazards and should not have a separate body to respond to hurricanes.
“I think it will save lives,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp. “... It’s not working well for us at this time.”
A final vote on the proposed ordinance change will come after an Aug. 5 public hearing.
The eight-member Emergency Policy Group of three commissioners, three municipal mayors, the sheriff and the school board chairwoman has been meeting since mid-March to guide the public response to the coronavirus pandemic. But its prolonged debates and changing positions over stay-at-home orders, curfews and mandatory facial coverings has triggered criticism of it as parochial and inefficient.
“I’m really glad we came to this point,” said Commissioner Mariella Smith, who advocated last week for abolishing the group. “It’s very clean and easy to understand for everybody involved as well as easy to enforce.‘'
“I do believe it’s important that the commission actually make the decisions,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman, who was unable to get emergency group buy-in to her idea allowing citizens to wear masks on private property without harassment.
Instead, she took her proposal to the county commission, which approved it last week.
Prior to the vote Tuesday morning, state Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Valrico, told the commission he supported a change because the residents of unincorporated southeast Hillsborough County are under-represented on the Emergency Policy Group.
Miller made his pitch to end or alter the policy group to the rest of the commission last week. He said his idea was not guided by frustration, but by population growth and a changing mission. The Emergency Policy Group originated when the county’s population was significantly smaller, and the board was created with the intent to respond to weather emergencies, Miller said.
Last week, Miller also highlighted to reporters the dichotomy of Sheriff Chad Chronister’s office being in charge of enforcing emergency orders to which the sheriff had objected.
The Emergency Policy Group, often referred to by the acronym EPG, currently consists of Miller, Overman, Chronister, Commissioner Sandy Murman, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Temple Terrace Acting Mayor Andy Ross, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and School Board Chairwoman Melissa Snively.
The group is in charge of emergency responses affecting 1.4 million people in the county. The ordinance creating the group dates to the 1990s. It was amended in 2019 to include a school board member.
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“I think I’ve witnessed the inefficiencies,” said Murman, a 10-year member of the group. “I think now as it stands we really need, with our county being as big as it is, we just really have to take more control over the actions.”
After Miller’s idea became public, Castor said the city of Tampa deserved a continued seat at the emergency response table.
“I understand that,‘' said Murman, who suggested a future memorandum of understanding between the county and the city could make Tampa officials more comfortable with a county-controlled emergency response.
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