LARGO — Pinellas County commissioners discussed three requests to rename county property during their Feb. 9 meeting and decided to continue the conversation at a March 4 work session.
The requests included one from the Fred G. Minnis Sr. Bar Association requesting the “life, legacy and impact” of the county’s first black attorney be honored by naming a county courthouse or the law library in his name.
The second request was from Chris Sprowls, speaker of the House of Representatives, to rename the Pinellas County Justice Center on 49th Street in Clearwater after the late Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
The third was a request from Louis Claudio who has made multiple appeals to rename Phillippe Park for the Tocobaga Indigenous people. That request received little traction due to recommendations made by the Parks Advisory Board to requests made in 2015-2017. In 2017, the county updated the entrance sign to the park to add “Historic Site of the Tocobaga Capital City.” County Administrator Barry Burton doesn’t intend to take action on the request.
Much of the discussion concerned the letter from Sprowls, which also was signed by newly appointed State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke and Sixth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino.
McCabe died Jan. 1 after 48 years of service, including 28 years as State Attorney.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters suggested that the naming rights policy be waived due to so much support for renaming the Justice Center after McCabe, including bipartisan support.
The county has a policy with a specific list of steps to be taken when considering changing the name of a county building or asset for honorary or philanthropic reasons. In the case of honorary purposes, the person should be one that has made a substantial contribution to the community, which all agreed was the case with McCabe.
However, there is a process that should be followed. Although commissioners could decide to waive that process, as Peters suggested. But most agreed that the process be followed, including review by a committee, which could be the county commission. The process also includes at least one advertised public meeting to take public comment. The commission plans to include the matter in a regular meeting on March 9.
Commissioner Rene Flowers said she supported following the county’s policy for both McCabe and Minnis. She was concerned about naming a facility where a trial would be held after someone who had been a prosecutor.
Commissioner Karen Seel agreed. She said she “thought the world of Mr. McCabe and what he did for the county,” but she suggested that the commission be cautious and make sure both sides of justice was represented.
She suggested that the county consider different ways of honoring its legends, such as with a hall of fame, updating an existing history book, naming rooms or creating new awards that could be given to deserving people each year.
Commissioner Pat Gerard said she would like to honor McCabe.
“He did wonderful work,” she said.
She suggested naming the Justice Center after McCabe and Bob Dillinger, who retired at the end of 2020 after serving 40 years including 20 as Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender. She said naming the building after both of them would be fairer. She added that the decision should not be an emotional one.
Commissioner Charlie Justice also favored using a committee to discuss all the options. He pointed to two recent naming decisions. The Pinellas County Commission voted Oct. 9, 2018 to rename Joe’s Creek Greenway Park to Raymond H. Neri Community Park. Neri died in 2017.
Justice also pointed out that it took more than a year and a lot of discussion before the commission decided to name the emergency medical services and fire administration headquarters to honor John Morroni, a champion of first-responder issues, who died in 2018 after 18 years of service on the Pinellas County Commission.
He agreed with the others that supported a larger conversation, and said a decision shouldn’t be made at the Feb. 9 meeting.
Commissioner Janet Long pointed out that all the commissioners had received letters, texts and other communications and there were those with different opinions. She said whatever the commission decided should take both sides into consideration — prosecution and defense. Long agreed with Gerard that the decision should not be an emotional one.
Peters said she too would like to hear from the public, and again referenced the reasons that McCabe should be honored.
Long said a more appropriate way to do it might be to name the prosecutors’ wing of the Justice Center after McCabe and the public defenders’ wing after Dillinger. She said a person didn’t have to be dead to be honored and gave an example of the city of Seminole’s Community Library, which had been named many years ago after former state Senator and Representative Dennis Jones.
Commission Chair Dave Eggers said it might be a good time to look at the naming rights policy as a whole and that he didn’t mind sending the matter to a committee, although he doesn’t think that is necessary.
Justice said the commission had discussed multiple options before making a decision on the best way to honor Morroni. He said only one option was on the table for McCabe.
Flowers said she didn’t have problem with the commissioners serving as the committee. She just wants everyone to “be very deliberate and take into account everything brought to the table.” She also said that Dillinger had said his preference was to not have a building named after him.
“We could do it anyway,” she said.
Long said she was comfortable with the commission doing the work, or a small committee of people appointed by commissioners. She does not want to see a large committee appointed that might take a long time to make a decision.
In the end the commissioners decided to hold a work session on the matter on Thursday March 4 and then bring it back to a regular scheduled meeting where public comment could be taken on Tuesday March 9.
Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.