The topsy-turvy saga regarding a Confederate monument in Tampa took yet another turn Wednesday when Hillsborough County Commissioners voted that the monument will stay in front of the courthouse annex unless the private sector raises $140,000 in the next 30 days.
This was the third time that the Board has taken a vote on the volatile issue this summer. Originally they voted 4-3 to keep the 106-year-old statue, Memorial in Aeterna, remaining in front of the annex. That vote stunned some observers, as the trend throughout the county and especially in the Southeast over the past year has been to remove the controversial monuments.
A month later, the board reversed itself and decided to move the monument, with Commissioner Sandy Murman being the swing vote. She predicated her vote on the fact that the move would not cost taxpayers money, as a private citizen came forward to say that he would work on raising the more than $200,000 needed to move the statue independently.
However, fundraising has been slow (only $8,430 on the GoFundMe page as of Wednesday), and with some commissioners reading polls that indicate that the majority of the county may be supportive of maintaining the statue at its current site, the board on Wednesday voted that unless the private sector was able to raise approximately half the $280,000 now considered essential for moving the monument to a cemetery in Brandon, the statue would remain in Tampa.
The vote was 4-2 on Wednesday, with Commissioners Les Miller and Pat Kemp dissenting. Al Higginbotham, who had joined Kemp and Miller on two previous votes in supporting moving the monument, had an appointment and had to leave before the final vote. His absence was critical, since County Attorney Chip Fletcher had ruled that to make the change, the board needed a supermajority, which would have been five votes if he was part of the seven member board. However, once he had to leave, only four votes were needed to make for a supermajority.
Commissioner Victor Crist made the decision to have the private sector pick up the slack, insisting that his motive was not to keep the statue in place, but that it was only fair that since the monument was going into private hands, that the private sector pays for half of it. He said that the reason that the GoFundMe fundraising site had been so lackluster was because there was no incentive to raise the money, since County Administrator Mike Merrill had said on the July 19 vote that the county would have to pick up the finances if the private fundraising effort would bring in enough money.
County officials say that $20,000 of taxpayer funds has already been expended on preparing the monument at the Brandon cemetery. Officials said that they had been working to move the monument by the end of August, but that work will now cease for the next 30 days.
Crist’s call that he was concerned about taxpayer funds outraged Miller, the only African-American member on the board who had proposed moving the monument back in June. He derided Crist and Murman for being hypocrites, since both had called for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds at the original June 21 vote when the board decided to keep the monument in its current place.
“How much more condescending can he get?” Miller asked of Crist. “He talks about private property, yet he wanted to move it to a private cemetery in Lutz.”
Crist had originally proposed that a mural celebrating diversity be drawn up by an artist behind the statue, as a “compromise” to a sensitive subject. Murman had called for spending $250,000 on an education fund on racism on that original vote to keep the mural in place back in January. While Crist’s proposal never had a dollar figure estimated, Miller said on Wednesday that it would have been $500,000, and said it was outrageous that both were now claiming they wanted to save taxpayers money now, but didn’t when they voted to keep the monument in place ( Christ said the mural would only have been half of that)
Murman said last month when she switched her vote she was only doing so because no taxpayer funds would be expended.
The monument roiled tensions with Hillsborough County commissioners and the public this summer; those tensions were evident as the meeting began, just four days after a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia which resulted in the death of an activist.
The first bitter dispute evolved not from warring members of the public, however, but between Crist and Miller after the very first speaker during the public hearing part of the meeting, former longtime city of Tampa staffer Fred Hearns, told the board not to reconsider their previous call to move the Confederate monument that sits in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse annex.
Crist questioned why Hearns brought the issue up, when it specifically wasn’t on the agenda.
“I’m just a little bit confused,” Crist told Chairman Stacy White. “I don’t recall seeing any language in that ordinance that protects the Civil war monument?”
White agreed but said that the language in the ordinance wasn’t finalized, and the board could take action to change that.
Miller objected to Crist’s comments. “Regardless of what’s in that ordinance, I think the chairman has basically said that language can also be taken out.”
Crist bristled, saying, “This seasoned public servant understands my obligation as a public servant, and I’m not going to allow other members of this bench or the public to bully me. I heard a person come up to the podium during this volatile time that was inflammatory that was not true on an issue that needs to be very, very very clear.”
“I’m not interested in this becoming any more of a circus act than it’s already become,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan, making a rare public statement about the volatile issue.
“I am totally appalled that a seasoned politician would chastise anyone that has a right to come up here and say what they have to say,” said Miller.”Ladies and gentlemen, come forth and say whatever the hell you have to say.”
“Yes I am a seasoned public servant, entitled to speak my mind, just as you are,” replied Crist. “I am not chastising anyone for speaking their mind and I invite anyone up to speak their mind. What I was simply doing was correcting the record so that we won’t have misinformation being disseminated out there to intentionally stir the pot and create hatred.”
Supporters of maintaining the monument in its place argued that the board should put the issue on the ballot next year.
“President Trump said it right last night when he said, ‘where does this end?’ Should we remove George Washington from that Purple Heart because he was a Southern slave owner?” asked St. Petersburg resident Andy Strickland. “Let the community decide this issue. Then we’ll find out who has the moral majority.”
Over the weekend, vandals applied red paint to granite memorial pillars that lay at the site of what has been called the world’s largest Confederate flag that flies over Interstate 75 near Interstate 4.
Luanne McCallister cried as she showed a photo of the monument that showed the paint that obscured the name of her late husband, Bart Siegel. She said she was feeling a lot of hate towards her. “They want us all gone. All of us,” she said of those who have desecrated similar monuments around the country.
Other monuments supporters said they resented being called bigots or white supremacists.
Monument critics told the board the issue wasn’t that complicated.
“It’s not about the monument, it’s about white supremacists saying that they are superior over people who do not look like them,” said Michelle B. Patty, who applauded St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s unilateral decision on Monday to remove a plague noting the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway at the intersection of Central Avenue and Bayshore Drive.
Murman said on Wednesday that she knew of a private donor who could probably raise all the money to pay for the statue’s removal. However, he would not keep the statue in Hillsborough County. Seeing that she didn’t have the votes to support that, she withdrew her motion.
Crist has said that because the public has shown in polls that they support keeping the monument, they should not have to pay for the full cost of the move. Miller blasted that notion, referring to how the pollster with Gravis Marketing told SPB that his survey was not scientific.
Another survey conducted by St. Pete Polls did not survey the public about whether they supported keeping the monument, but rather would they vote for or against a commissioner who supported keeping the monument in place. That survey showed that by a 58 percent to 28 percent margin, voters would support a commissioner who wanted to keep the monument in place.
All four of the commissioners who have supported keeping the monument in place — Murman, White, Hagan and Crist — are all up for re-election in 2018.