Hillsborough EPG chairman calls for group to be dissolved

The future of the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group is in question, thanks to both legal and political challenges.

Chair Les Miller is offering county commissioners the chance to dismantle the board as soon as Wednesday.

"I believe we have made some great efforts,” he said during an interview with Fox 13.

His statement is not a ringing endorsement of the eight-member group the county commission created decades ago to manage hurricane responses. 

Along with three commissioners, it includes the sheriff, the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, and the chair of the school board. 

During the pandemic, they have heard from health officials in instituting curfews and requiring masks. 

The problem, Miller said, is that some on the board, like the sheriff, vote, and then enforce policies they don't agree with.

"I am asking the board of county commissioners to have a discussion on whether that is something we want to continue to do."

The EPG is also facing a challenge in court, from lawyer Patrick Leduc, who said not only does the group cross lines between branches of government, but that their orders are unconstitutional. 

He asked how they can require business owners to insist on people wearing things, like masks, in their store?

"COVID-19 is a deadly virus,” Leduc said. “The last thing COVID-19 should kill is our civil liberties and our Civil Rights."

In the near-term, it'll be up to county commissioners. 

Kimberly Overman is on both boards and agrees the EPG is better-designed for hurricanes, which are more of a short-term problem. 

"I wish there were a lot of things we could have decided on much earlier,” she said. “It does seem to take three to four weeks before the questions I have posed are able to find enough consensus to move forward. That does not work well with an escalating virus."

She has found that chief executives like mayors and sheriffs have different styles than board members, which she says makes collaboration more difficult.

"(Collaboration) doesn't come naturally,” she explained. “It takes practice and during an emergency is not the time to figure it out."

The mayors of Temple Terrace and Plant City are also on the EPG.

Temple Terrace mayor Andy Ross is worried if the board was disbanded, that his city won't have the same voice, especially because he considers himself a bit more conservative than most members of the board of commissioners.

He says the group should stay in place for hurricanes.

The mayor of Plant City, Rick Lott, says this is the wrong time to be making such a big change.
He wants a longer discussion once this is over on how to form a more cohesive group when it comes to fighting future pandemics.

What would happen to the policies that are now in place, like the mask ordinance, if the board gets disbanded?

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The county attorney has yet to issue an opinion on that, but Fox 13 has been told questions will be considered over each policy as they arise.

Leduc’s lawsuit is awaiting a decision on whether it requires immediate action in court, which could come as soon as Thursday.
The EPG is still expected to meet on its regularly-scheduled days of Thursday and Monday before Wednesday's meeting at the county commission.