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On second thought: Hillsborough Commission opts to remove Confederate monument

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Four weeks after the Hillsborough County Commission voted to keep a controversial Confederate monument outside the courthouse annex, commissioners have changed their minds.

In a 4-2 vote Wednesday, “Memoria In Aeterna” will now likely be relocated to the Brandon Family Cemetery. Earlier in the day, county officials said the owner of that facility came forward with an offer to house it.

The Confederate monument has stood outside of the Hillsborough County Courthouse for more than a century.

Commissioner Sandy Murman changed her vote from last month, which resulted in a fusillade of negative publicity for the county. In recent months, local governments throughout the South have supported the removal of such Confederate artifacts, as the county itself did in 2015.

Murman insisted Wednesday that the only reason she originally opposed the removal of the statue last month was that moving it would cost taxpayer funds. She said that would no longer be the case, now that South Tampa attorney Tom Scarritt came forward to say that he would work on a fundraising campaign to generate the more than $100,000 expected to pay for the statue’s removal and relocation.

Scarritt has created a GoFundMe page called “Tampa Statue Relocation Fund.” He told board members that the controversy could offer a positive experience for the community.

“I’m proud to be a Southerner, but it does not change the fact that slavery is an abomination,” Scarritt told commissioners. “We have a chance to be a role model for the rest of the South and the country.”

“This to me was a fiscal issue,” Murman said afterward. “I did not want county dollars to go to the relocation of the statue.” She went on to say however that she hoped that the statue would not have to be relocated but “because of the community and because there is no financial obligation from the county that stands in the way, I don’t see how anybody could not support this.”

However, County Administrator Mike Merrill said that taxpayer funds, in fact, will very likely be used to move the statue, beginning with hiring a law firm to negotiate the transfer of the monument.

Merrill added that while he wholeheartedly supports Scarritt’s efforts, there is no guarantee he will raise all of the necessary funds.

Curiously, Murman then brought up the idea of putting the issue on the ballot as a referendum, a request made by Confederate monument supporters citing polls that show that the public is on their side on the issue.

She didn’t get a second vote from any of her board colleagues.

Two opposing votes came from Stacy White and Ken Hagan.

While White was stoic in defeat, throughout the entire three and a half-hour discussion, Hagan never uttered a word, just as he had remained mute during last month’s original contentious discussion.

The fourth original vote to keep the monument, Republican Commissioner Victor Crist, announced last week that he had changed his mind and would vote to remove the monument. However, he was vacationing this week in California.

Since the board’s original vote, a coalition of religious leaders and businesses like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay Rays released statements criticizing the vote. Jeff Vinik and the Tampa Bay Lightning, however, chose to stay out of the discussion.

More than 100 people signed up to speak on the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting, and (unofficially) the ratio was more than 3:1 of speakers who called for the monument to be removed. With so many speakers, the board ultimately voted to limit the discussion to only a minute.

“I think we can all agree that the monument doesn’t unify us, it divides us, “said Hillsborough Clerk of the Court Pat Frank, the first speaker of the morning, who added that as a County Commissioner, she refused to sign a proclamation honoring the Confederacy.

“Many of us left the last BOCC meeting shaken, hurt (and) insulted by some of your actions,” said Pamela Gomez with the Community Protection Coalition. “It’s beyond disappointing and hurtful that we have to come before you not once, but twice.”

“You wanted to a quarter of a million dollars to teach children about racism, when you could spend that same money to remove a monument and teach them about racism by standing up to it and doing the right thing in the face of it,” Black Lives Matter activist Jae Passmore said to Murman.

Murman’s original vote to maintain the monument inserted an amendment to spend $250,000 to teach Hillsborough youth about racism (a provision that was removed Wednesday).

This time, fewer who spoke out in support of keeping the monument where it’s been since 1911.

“I would wager that over 75 percent of the speakers today did not even know that this existed on January 1 of this year,” Ken Reyes said of the statue. “Would somebody please tell (Bob Buckhorn) and the county leaders that many of their employees are descendants of the Daughters of the Confederacy. What are you going to do about them? Relocate them?”

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who voted both times to remove the monument, read some racist emails he received in recent days and weeks from the public.

“Some folks complained that a bias was created because it was just black reporters were just talking to black supporters of moving the statue,” he said. “There were times when they referred to Les (Miller) as a racist.”

It was Miller, the lone black member of the board, who brought the issue up last month and again Wednesday.

Higginbotham quoted an email saying the decision to remove the monument — and Les in particular — “breed poverty and crime. And they don’t like ebonics spoken in this boardroom.”

“Enough is enough,” he concluded.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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