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Hillsborough seeks greater equity in county government

Jobs, housing, transportation are among focuses of new diversity, equity and inclusion office.
Cheryl Howell is the newly named assistant Hillsborough County administrator for equity and community impact.
Cheryl Howell is the newly named assistant Hillsborough County administrator for equity and community impact. [ MAMARAZZI FOTO | Hillsborough County ]
Published Aug. 9|Updated Aug. 9

TAMPA — Hillsborough County is seeking to embed greater equity within its government operations.

Toward that end, County Administrator Bonnie Wise is creating an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It follows a recommendation contained in an equity profile, compiled by MGT Consulting Group and released earlier this year.

Wise named Cheryl Howell, who had been director of affordable housing, to fill the newly created post of assistant county administrator for equity and community impact.

Howell will be charged with helping guide county policies to try to ensure all residents, including historically marginalized groups, have equal access to resources and opportunities to succeed.

The MGT study quantified that Black or Hispanic residents in Hillsborough County lag behind their white counterparts in wages, health care, affordable housing, transportation options and digital access, but are defendants in a disproportionately higher number of criminal justice cases. Those topics will now become the focus of Howell’s office.

The county commissioned the study, first suggested by Commissioner Kimberly Overman, amid the social justice movement following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Wise called the new office part of “a journey toward creating greater equity” that would involve nonprofit groups and other agencies. She cautioned commissioners that there is an expense involved.

“There will be additional resources needed. This is a big task,” Wise said.

Commissioners, briefed during a workshop last week, welcomed the initiative. Commissioner Mariella Smith noted the county can improve on its own internal efforts in hiring.

” I think we need to walk the walk in our own county government … ensuring that our county government from the top to the bottom reflects the community in proportion to the diversity of our community,” said Smith.

Likewise, Commissioner Gwen Myers said commissioners could be more inclusive in making their citizen appointments to various county boards.

Later, Commissioner Harry Cohen asked Wise to consider adding an office of tenant advocacy within the newly created equity office.

“It seems to be this type of program would be right in their wheelhouse,” he said.

In an interview, Commissioner Pat Kemp mirrored Howell’s statement that the efforts already had begun including using an equity lens to disburse $20 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for sidewalk repairs. Three-quarters of the spending targeted areas where a majority of residents have low or moderate incomes. Howell also noted the county set aside nearly $27 million of the federal aid for affordable housing.

What lies ahead comes because of what happened in the past, Howell told commissioners.

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“When you’re in a position to help create policies, you’re always thinking about things that are good for all,” said Howell. “We didn’t really get here because of policies that were good for all.”

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