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Gulfport council member brings strong opinions to diverse city

Published Jun. 2, 2016

GULFPORT — There was a time, decades ago, when Gulfport was like a lot of Pinellas County communities — a mean place where people with dark skin dared not venture far from home at night.

Yolanda Roman has heard those stories, of course — heard them and dismissed them as a long-ago chapter in the history of a quiet, waterfront community that is better known nowadays for embracing diversity.

"If that existed before, you would not see it today," she said.

In fact, Roman personifies the town's current image. When she was elected to the City Council in 2014 with almost 59 percent of the vote, she apparently became the first person of color to serve there. She was re-elected without opposition this spring.

Roman, 58, has dark skin and identifies as Hispanic, specifically Puerto Rican. Puerto Ricans have a diverse heritage of Spanish, African and indigenous Indians, but "we are Americans first," she said.

Blacks make up about 10 percent of Gulfport's population and Hispanics about 5 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2015.

The city of 12,100 has a nice mix of people by age, occupation, race and sexual orientation, Roman said. "You won't find much separation. We respect one another and that adds to the richness."

As a member of the five-person City Council, Roman is known for her meticulous preparation and outspoken style — a style that sometimes leaves other commissioners bristling.

During a council meeting on Feb. 16, Roman and Mayor Sam Henderson clashed over her remarks about the city's response to St. Petersburg's decision to dump untreated and partially treated sewage into Clam Bayou after heavy rains overwhelmed the St. Petersburg sewer system in August.

For months thereafter, Gulfport repeatedly closed its beachfront, marina and Clam Bayou Nature Park because of high bacteria counts.

Roman introduced a proposed resolution holding St. Petersburg more accountable for the dump and questioning the effectiveness of Gulfport's response.

That drew a heated response from Henderson, who had met several times with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Henderson called Roman's assertions a "bald-faced lie" designed to advance an agenda marked by "political spin and offensive grandstanding" and hurt his re-election campaign. His opponent was Barbara Banno, Roman's friend and former campaign manager.

In a lengthy written response, Roman denied that she was in cahoots with Banno. She said she would not be intimidated by accusations of grandstanding.

"It has become apparent that other council members also question the integrity of my work," she wrote. "They are free to their opinion. I know my own truth."

Henderson, who was easily re-elected a month later, said he now realizes his fiery comments were unprofessional. He still disagrees with Roman, he said, but "we need to demonstrate more professionalism as city representatives."

Roman grew up in Philadelphia. She graduated from Chestnut Hill College, a private Catholic school in the city, with a bachelor's degree in biological science in 1979 and then spent 36 years in the pharmaceutical field.

Much of her career was at Johnson & Johnson, the giant health care company, where she worked in research, sales and state government relations, helping the company keep track of health care legislation in state capitals.

Her last job, she said, was working at home as a regional director post at Alkermes, a Dublin, Ireland-based company that manufactures Vivitrol, an injectable medicine for patients with opioid and alcohol dependence.

She retired in 2015 — "a good stopping point," she said — but thinks about starting a small pharmaceutical consulting firm.

Roman and her husband, a biochemist, had three children, all college graduates. They divorced in 1995.

Roman, who lived for years in the Philadelphia suburb of Laverock, said she got acquainted with Gulfport when her mother and brother moved here in 2003. She bought a vacation cottage near Clam Bayou two years later, and over time grew to love the community.

"In Gulfport, you have everything a small town needs," Roman said. "You can walk down the streets and feel right at home."

She became a resident in 2008, bought a bigger house and sold the cottage.

When Roman decided to seek a City Council seat in 2014, she and friends knocked on a lot of doors to introduce herself and hear what residents were saying about the city.

One of those friends was Banno, a restaurateur and council member from 2011 to 2013 who helped manage the campaign and raise $7,468.

Roman "knew how to take initiative" as a leader, Banno said.

During the campaign, Roman said, she and friends heard a few comments about her dark skin but never considered it a concern.

As a new council member a few months later, Roman struck a blow for diversity by sponsoring a resolution expressing support for changing the state ban on same-sex marriage. The council unanimously approved it.

As a council member, she said, her main duty is getting current issues on the council agenda. She meets regularly with City Manager James O' Reilly and residents for their comment.

During her spare time, Roman likes to garden and stroll Gulfport beaches.

She lives with two dogs, a German shepherd named Duchess and an English fox hound named Ms. Bella, along with a cat named Maddy and two betta fish.

"We are one happy zoo," she said.

Jeffrey Zanker is a student reporter at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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