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Hillsborough Commissioners end emergency policy group

A unanimous vote brings power to manage emergencies back to county board, ending city votes on abolished EPG.

TAMPA — Control over the coronavirus pandemic is now firmly in the hands of the seven elected Hillsborough County commissioners after they unanimously approved dissolving an emergency policy group and taking control of its functions.

The effort, led by Commission Chairman Les Miller, shutters the emergency policy group, which included Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Temple Terrace acting mayor Andy Ross, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, Sheriff Chad Chronister and School Board Chairwoman Melissa Snively.

Instead, the county commissioners will meet weekly at 1:30 on Thursdays, starting Aug. 6. At Wednesday’s commission meeting, members signaled their positions on controversial issues, including face masks.

Commissioner Stacy White said he thought bringing emergency management under complete county government was the right thing to do. But, he said, a mandatory mask order for indoor businesses, extended for a week at the EPG’s last meeting Monday, is something he opposes.

He planned to address the issue when the now-shuttered EPG’s order expires on Aug. 10.

Castor has said she wants Tampa, as the county’s largest city and the third-largest in the state, to have a formal role in emergency management. No commissioner spoke in favor of her request at Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, several said they hoped old competitive wounds would not reopen between the cities and the county.

On Wednesday, after an appearance announcing a massive redesign of an East Tampa city recreation center, Castor said she believes Tampa needs her or her appointed representative at the table during future pandemic or other emergency planning in the county.

If that doesn’t happen, she said, the city is prepared to go its own way on the pandemic if necessary. Castor, as mayor, has the power to issue executive orders. In June, she issued a mandatory indoor mask ban in Tampa before the policy group acted. That group later followed with a countywide measure within a week.

But, she said, she would prefer not to diverge from what she characterized as a good relationship with county leaders.

“It’s always better to present a united front,” Castor told the Tampa Bay Times.

Commissioner Kimberly Overman said the EPG’s dissolution was for the best. The county will continue to keep cities informed during emergencies. And, since Hillsborough, was the only one of the state’s 67 counties to have delegated emergency management powers to a separate group, the change would bring the county into line with the rest of the state.

“We’ll continue to break down silos,” said Overman. “This will keep us in lockstep with other counties in Florida.”

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