Firing squad: Latino residents rally in support of Maricela Medrano

Latino residents rally in support of county employee Maricela Medrano.

click to enlarge ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK: Maricela Medrano hopes to keep her job, saying, "The community is very happy with what I do." - Rebecca Wainright
Rebecca Wainright
ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK: Maricela Medrano hopes to keep her job, saying, "The community is very happy with what I do."

UPDATE: Hillsborough County Commissioners on Wednesday voted 4-3 to retain Medrano's job.For details,read here.

The first of three scheduled public hearings on Hillsborough County's proposed 2011 budget, which will include $65 million in cuts, was held on a Thursday night in mid-July. Concerned citizens were greeted at the entrance by two women who affixed a small yellow badge to those coming specifically to advocate on behalf of Maricela Medrano, one of 73 employees currently on a hit list of those to be terminated by October 1.

For more than two hours, the County Center's second floor boardroom heard from speaker after speaker, many Latino and some who only spoke Spanish and needed the aid of a translator, who commented on the value and great customer service that Medrano had provided in her job.

And it wasn't just Latinos.

Shelly Gannon, an instructor at Bloomingdale High School in Brandon, told the Board of County Commissioners that Medrano's job — which was created to help all citizens navigate the county's fairly arcane and sometimes byzantine land use laws — was critical for all citizens.

"What you need to know is that no matter how intelligent a person is, they cannot get through this system if they're a layman, that's just not possible," she said, adding that Medrano represented the common man and woman, not just the common Latino or Latina.

Proceeding Gannon was another Caucasian, Markie James from Dover, who said that without Medrano's help, it was likely his family would have become homeless. And then there were dozens more piling on the encomiums, such as Santos Noriega, who said that Medrano is a person that "Hispanic people can talk to without being afraid, on you know, anything that could hold them back from anything."

In a time when resentment toward government as being unresponsive to the public's needs has never been louder, how can such an apparently popular government official be losing her job?

Peter Aluotto is the Director of Hillsborough County's Planning and Growth Management department, and Marciela Medrano's boss. When asked why he proposed canning such a popular and effective employee, Aluotto says that when he came to the department three years ago he had 344 employees, but the budget cuts that have now become almost de rigueur at the County Center have trimmed the staff to 172. "Obviously, it wasn't the first position on the list to fire," he says about the ombudsman gig.

Aluotto has said that the decidion about who stays and who goes is based on what he calls "taxable value," the prioritization of positions that insure that property is adding to the county's tax rolls. The ombudsman's job isn't on that list, but Medrano has demonstrated her value by helping residents of all stripes navigate the county's maddening land use laws. And the fact that she's bilingual and multicultural is a boost for a county that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008, is nearly 23% Hispanic.

At the July public budget hearing, USF Political Science Professor Harry Vanden distributed to the County Commission a list of over 4,000 signatures demanding that Medrano keep her position. Vanden, the founder of the Carribean and Latin American Studies Center at USF, has history with Medrano. The professor brought her on as a graduate assistant back in 1995, calling her "unbelievably focused and hard working." Vanden says he's fascinated by the Latino community's public support for Medrano, because traditionally the community as a whole has not been willing to speak out much, despite the fact that nearly one out of every four people in the county are of Hispanic origin.

"Some of our leading groups are unwilling to support anything in the past, preferring to hang in the background. But here's someone who's receptive, decent, inclusive and more than wiling to work with whomever comes before her," Vanden explains. He links the reticent behavior with a cultural history of Latins in the Tampa area trying to assimilate and not rock the boat. "I just think that some older Latinos got the idea that could not get any acceptance or get any place if they showed any strong Latin feelings," he says. Judging by the anonymous comments written on the website of the Tampa Tribune after the paper reported on Medrano's plight (several of them removed by staff, presumably because of a racial component), perhaps some of that reserve is due to the attitudes of their fellow residents, as well.

Hillsborough Commissioners were scheduled to discuss Medrano's fate on July 28. Last week Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who said she was inundated with e-mails from supporters of Medrano, says there might have to be some compromise with her position, but she was hopeful that with Medrano's skills she could be retained in some capacity. Commission Chair Ken Hagan also said the public display of affection for Medrano was impressive and unlike anything he'd ever seen during his time on the board. But he'd also heard considerable grumblings from some of the dozens of other employees facing termination at the end of September, asking why they didn't merit similar consideration.

Needless to say, Medrano doesn't want to lose her job. "The community is very happy with what I do," she says, detailing how she has been able to defuse occasionally volatile situations.

"I listen to them, sympathize with the problem and explain how I'll fix it, and when they leave, they feel happy. And that's so rewarding because I feel like I did something great for the county," she says.

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