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Hillsborough Commission says racism is public health crisis

Chairman Les Miller Jr. delivers his own message on racial discrimination prior to vote.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners declared racism a public health crisis Wednesday, but not before their only Black member, Chairman Les Miller Jr., delivered his own message on past and present race relations.

Miller, speaking last before the commission voted on the resolution from Commissioner Pat Kemp, talked for eight minutes about the racism he faced personally in Tampa, including growing up in a food desert that likely contributed to long-term medical concerns.

“I am the only one. Because of the color m my skin, I’ve faced racism — all kinds of deplorable acts because of the color of my skin,” Miller said.

Even as commission chairman, he said, he’d been called the N-word and had been racially profiled by a white police officer during a traffic stop who asked if Miller owned the car he was driving.

But, the resolution, he said, appeared to be motivated by politics.

"It appears it was a political move. I might as well say it, and that’s not right,'' said Miller. "The bitter taste in my mouth is still there and that’s absolutely wrong. This should not be about politics.''

Miller wondered aloud if a recent hiring decision at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority was based on skin color.

Related: Transit agency to conduct national search for CEO

In 2019, the transit board bypassed hiring then-Chief Administrative Officer Kenyatta Lee, who is Black, in favor of Ben Limmer, who later resigned amid an investigation of purchasing and vendor relations.

Interim CEO Carolyn House Stewart also is Black and has headed the agency since November. She also is the director of risk and legal services, but the transit board said in June it would conduct a national search to fill the CEO role. Miller had advocated for giving the job to Stewart on permanent basis, calling her "the perfect person to do the job.''

Miller, Kemp and commissioners Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman all serve on the transit agency’s board of directors.

Related: Hillsborough ponders racism as health care crisis

Kemp said Monday the resolution was brought to her by congregants of Bible-Based Fellowship in Carrollwood.

"I’m not aware of any role of politics in this,'' the church’s pastor, the Rev. Anthony C. White, told the Tampa Bay Times afterward.

White and other members of the church read the resolution into the record during the commission meeting. It states in part that racism zaps the strength of society by wasting resources.

"Hillsborough County’s collective prosperity depends upon the equitable access to opportunity for every resident regardless of the color of their skin,'' the resolution states.

It includes a 10-item action list, ranging from promoting equity through all commission-approved policies to encouraging county vendors, contractors and others to provide racial equity training. It is modeled after government action in Dallas County, Texas and similar resolutions in Mecklenburg County, N.C., Montgomery County, Md. and DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett counties in Georgia.

"Saying that racism is a public health crisis is saying that Black lives matter,'' said Commissioner Smith, quoting the resolution. And, saying Black lives matter "is an important step to real, substantive change.''

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren and Public Defender Julianne Holt both spoke in favor of the resolution, as did seven members of the public who addressed the commission in advance of the vote.

"Racism is still a daily concern and a day to day intrusion into the lives of black people,'' said Gerald White Sr.

He and other speakers noted racism leads to Blacks suffering undue stress and a higher prevalence of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes, as well as shorter life spans.

"Racism is a key factor in making us sick as Black people,'' he said.

But, the resolution is only a first step, said supporters, noting the county must follow through with public policy changes.

"We must put an abrupt halt to racism and white privilege every time it surfaces,'' said Samuel Wright Sr.

The commission approved the resolution on a 5-0 vote with Commissioners Stacy White and Ken Hagan absent.

Miller previously said he, too, was working to prepare a race-related initiative for the county to consider, perhaps through its 22-member Diversity Advisory Council.

"Until all of us, regardless of race, creed or color, sit down at the table and talk about our differences, we’re not going to go anywhere,'' Miller said Wednesday.

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