HOMESTEAD — An advisory board that addressed racial issues in Homestead and Florida City has been dissolved, leading some residents to question whether the move was an attempt to stop their fight against the Confederate Flag.
Led by Homestead Mayor Lynda Bell, all seven members of the Homestead City Council voted on April 20 to shut down the Homestead/Florida City Human Relations Board (HRB).
“I can’t help what others think; I will repeat what I stated in public,’’ Bell said in an email to the South Florida Times. “The city of Homestead is no longer a small town. We are 60,000 residents, and are in need of a community relations board of our own, that is more inclusive.”
Bell continued: “We are also sixty percent Hispanic, and have many pressing needs in our growing community. We also have many special needs children in our community, and the HRB was not addressing those needs.”
Patricia “Pat” Mellerson is one of the founding members of the HRB, and was also its vice-chair.
“They do not want to deal with the Confederate Flag, and they think that by getting rid of the board, it will go away,” Mellerson said. “But I can tell you, it won’t.”
The controversy flared up after black residents complained that they were surprised by Confederate States organizations that were allowed to participate in the November 2008 Veterans Day parade.
The Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce organizes the parade, which receives financial support from the city. The chamber invited the Sons of Confederate Veterans to participate.
Group members wore Confederate Army uniforms and displayed the Confederate battle flag as they made their way along the parade route, down Krome Avenue. Some black residents who attended the parade said they were offended, and sought to have the organizations and their memorabilia barred from future events.
Supporters of the Confederate flag say it is a symbol of southern pride. Opponents say it is a reminder of slavery and lynching in the old South.
Citing freedom of speech concerns and the fact that Confederate soldiers received presidential pardons, Chamber of Commerce officials refuse to ban them.
The HRB took up the issue, and sided with black residents who want the groups banned. Homestead officials, however, said it was out of their control because they are not the organizers.
In April, the Miami-Dade County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined the fray. Fearing the possibility of unrest at future events, the civil rights organization petitioned the Miami-Dade County School District to keep students and school bands out of events where the Confederate Flag is displayed.
A week later, on April 20, the Homestead City Council voted to dissolve the Human Relations Board.
Officials with the school district are reviewing the request, but have yet to reach a decision as the controversy continues to brew.
Bell insists the city council made the decision to dissolve the board out of concern for a growing and increasingly diverse city, not the flag controversy.
Mellerson, again, disagreed.
“This is not true. Most of the issues we dealt with involved Hispanics, and the mayor knows this,” Mellerson said.
“We are the only city board that meets consistently, and we have the minutes to prove it.”
Other members also question the timing and motives behind the move.
“This was done without prior notice or warning,” said Rosemary Fuller, who was chairperson of the now disbanded board. The mayor brought it up at the end of the commission meeting without contacting any of us, and it was only done because we have been challenging the Confederate Flag. There is no other legitimate reason.”
Fuller said Bell has never responded to any invitations to attend the board’s meetings, and insists that Bell has never supported the work they have done.
“This is what she wanted all along,” Fuller added.
She said the city council refused to have any public meetings or discussions on the Confederate Flag issue, and even though the two municipalities implemented the board, no one from Florida City was informed of the decision to dissolve it.
Florida City Mayor Otis T. Wallace confirmed that no one from his city was informed by Homestead officials of the board’s dissolution.
“I feel the HRB board fairly addressed the issues brought before them regardless of the ethnic origin of complainants or presenters,’’ Wallace said. “The action by Homestead was unilateral. I was notified in passing by several people in attendance of the Homestead council meeting, not officially by anyone on the Council.’’
Wallace said he intends to work with the former board members to implement another process to address issues in the area.
The Human Relations Board was created in September 2002 after black city workers in Homestead complained of discrimination. Those allegations led to several community meetings where the exchanges often became heated.
“After one meeting, I approached one commissioner and suggested we form a group where sensitive issues could be calmly discussed,” Mellerson recalled. “They thought it was a good idea, and the mayors of both cities put forth resolutions that formed the board.”
Mellerson said the board has successfully resolved any number of issues brought before it without the support of Bell, including those that involved race, immigration, police profiling, employment and housing.
“If it was not for us taking a stand on the Confederate Flag, she would have allowed us to continue our work,” Mellerson said.
Bell, however, said her motives had nothing to do with the Confederate Flag, but rather was a part of streamlining all of the city’s boards so they focus on matters within the city of Homestead.
“I know change is tough, but change is coming and change is good! When it is all said and done, we will have the Community Relations Board. It will be a wonderful board, representative of our growing and thriving community. This should put this issue to rest,” Bell said.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT staff: Pictured above is Patricia Mellerson.