HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL — The Hillsborough County Commission has asked the county attorney to draft an ordinance that would disband the Emergency Policy Group and give the authority to make decisions related to the coronavirus pandemic to the county commission.
The motion was made by Les Miller, who serves as both chairman of the EPG and the county commission.
Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, the EPG, made up of three county commissioners, the mayors of the cities of Plant City, Tampa and Temple Terrace, the Hillsborough County sheriff and the chairman of the Hillsborough County School Board, has been meeting twice a week to make policies and issue orders protecting the safety and welfare of the county's residents.
But now members of the county commission are wondering if the EPG is asserting a bit too much authority and overstepping the bounds of its legislative mandate.
Under Article 8 of the Florida Constitution, counties have been permitted (but not required) to convene EPGs during emergencies for decades.
According to Miller, the legislation was intended to allow elected officials to react quickly during a weather emergency. It was never intended for making critical policies related to a global pandemic.
Hillsborough County is the only county among Florida's 67 counties to enact an ordinance to convene an EPG in times of crisis.
That doesn't sit well with some members of the Hillsborough County Commission. Although all the members on the EPG are all elected officials, they were never specifically given the authority by the voters to make critical emergency decisions on behalf of all 1.4 million residents of Hillsborough County, said County Commissioner Mariella Smith.
“We are the board that was elected to issue legislative orders for our county,” she said.
Both the Pasco and Pinellas county commissions make the emergency decisions on behalf of their counties during the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the arguments for disbanding the EPG is the group's inability to reach a consensus on major issues.
Since it first began meeting, many of the votes have been divided along party lines between Republicans Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, Temple Terrace Acting Mayor Andy Ross, County Commission Sandy Murman, school board chairwoman Melissa Snively and Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister and Democrats Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and county commissioners Miller and Kimberly Overman.
This led to the EPG to declaring a countywide curfew in April only to rescind it less than a week later and a divided vote on mandating the wearing of masks, which critics said weakened the order.
Miller said the rift has led to a lot of frustration and no clear direction as Hillsborough County's coronavirus numbers continue to rise.
“It has become apparent that the pandemic is a different challenge and the EPG has limited enforcement options. The board of county commissioners has broader authority to enforce those options," Miller said.
Some EPG members think disbanding the EPG is a good idea.
"I fully support the decision of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners," said Chronister. "The BOCC has greater purview over county resources, will streamline the allocation of those resources, and be a more efficient representation of every citizen in our county.”
The county attorney is expected to present a draft copy of the ordinance to the county commission on July 21.