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Dunedin officials finally do the right thing

Published February 4, 2004

Four of five Dunedin city commissioners found their courage Tuesday and finished the journey that Commissioner Bob Hackworth started almost a year ago: They renamed a city recreation center and a portion of the street that passes beside it for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., thereby addressing the final two recommendations of the Dunedin Inclusion Task Force.

The four commissioners are to be congratulated, because there were more than a few obstacles in their path. One of those obstacles was Mayor John Doglione.

From his management of the meeting to his opposing arguments at every turn Tuesday, Doglione made clear his unhappiness with the issue of how Dunedin, a largely white community, would memorialize King. When it became clear that four commissioners who felt differently would prevail, Doglione figuratively stuck out his foot and tried to trip them: He brought up the idea of taking the renamings to a referendum.

Leaders lead, they don't duck. And leadership is exactly what commissioners Bob Hackworth, Dave Eggers, Deborah Kynes and Julie Scales demonstrated Tuesday.

It was Hackworth who took the first plunge in January 2003, suggesting that Dunedin should rename a street for the slain civil rights leader. But his first choice - Jackson Street, a little-traveled street in a black neighborhood - was recognized as an insufficient memorial.

The City Commission instead appointed a diverse task force of some of the community's most respected leaders to make recommendations about a street renaming. That committee's six-month assignment blossomed into a broad discussion of the meaning of "community" and a true soul-searching about how to include all people in the daily life of the city. On Sept. 30, the task force delivered five formal recommendations: to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year with a commemorative program; to have a month-long emphasis on diversity each year; to allow various elements of the community to commemorate their contributions to the city and the nation at 26 Pinellas Trail crossings in the city; to rename a major street for King; and to rename a public building for King.

The City Commission quickly supported the first three, but struggled with the more controversial renaming issues, setting a special meeting Tuesday to seek a compromise.

For months, Hackworth had been joined by new Commissioner Eggers in outspoken support for pursuing even politically difficult ways to mark King's memory. On Tuesday, Kynes spoke out strongly, too. She made the motion to change the name of the city's Stirling Recreation Center to the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center. A new Stirling Center is being built by the city, and when it is finished, it will carry the new name.

"A recreation center is a place for children," said Kynes, adding that renaming it provided "an educational opportunity to continue our discourse on the importance of living in an atmosphere of respect."

Eggers called attention to the disunity and conflict in schools and society today and said, "Each of us is trying to become . . . a part of the solution and not the problem."

Kynes, Hackworth, Eggers and Scales voted to rename the center, but Doglione voted "no" following a rambling monologue in which he attempted to justify his decision. He equated removing the name Stirling - Stirling, Scotland, is Dunedin's sister city - to "no longer honoring our commitments to our sister city." He said renaming the center would not affect the city's desire to do something for its youth. And he said Martin Luther King Jr. would be "a little startled" to have the principle of inclusion demonstrated by naming a building for one man.

"Sure, we can put up signs," he said, "but who's going to see them? Who's going to appreciate them in this community? What's in a name?"

"We're trying to make a statement that says we want to educate our youth and honor a man who has done a lot for the nation and for this community," Eggers answered, adding that what was needed was a "bold statement that our community is open to all people."

When it came to choosing a street to rename, Eggers suggested the portion of Highland Avenue from Skinner Boulevard to San Christopher Drive. This was not a bold stroke, particularly since the Inclusion Task Force had suggested renaming the major thoroughfares of Patricia Avenue or County Road 1. But renaming either of those streets presented complications and had already inspired petition drives by opponents, so first-term Commissioner Eggers came up with a more politically palatable, though creative, idea. The half-mile portion of Highland Avenue that the commission voted 4-1 to rename for King has only a handful of businesses and homes, the Stirling Center and the city's wastewater treatment plant. Objections will be few, if any. The commission left untouched the 0.7-mile southern portion that has more upscale housing and the First Presbyterian Church.

No one was surprised when Doglione also opposed the street renaming, though he did make a valid point that the commission was catching Highland Avenue residents unaware by suddenly renaming their street. "Sometimes the public purpose outweighs the individual's concerns," Hackworth responded.

With the votes to rename, Dunedin completes an exercise that raised awareness of the need for a more inclusive attitude in the city, brought to the forefront a component of the community that had been too long ignored, and helped to educate many people about the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. That is success by any measure.

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[Last modified February 4, 2004, 01:31:46]

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