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Black history museum task force member accused of ‘tanking’ score against Orange County

EATONVILLE, Fla. — Concerns are growing that a member of the task force designated to recommend a site for Florida’s Black History Museum deliberately threw the vote, resulting in St. Augustine’s proposal narrowly beating out Eatonville’s in preliminary scoring.

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The fury over the member’s score has resulted in calls to throw out some scores and the preparation of a formal complaint for the state to review, members of the Orange County delegation said.

Eatonville, St. Augustine, and other sites have been jockeying for the proposed museum since last year when Gov. DeSantis signed a law creating a task force to oversee the planning, construction, and operation of a facility.

Earlier this month, the top four cities made their formal pitches, with St. Augustine eking out the top spot by less than two points, 96.78 to 95.33. The preliminary scores will factor into the task force’s overall recommendation to the state due by June 30, but they won’t be the only element.

Read: Eatonville makes pitch to host Florida’s black history museum

It was Rep. Kiyan Michael, a Republican from Jacksonville, who largely caught the delegation’s attention when the individual task force members’ scores were published. Michael gave St. Augustine’s proposal perfect marks across categories ranging from historical significance to transportation infrastructure.

Michael, in turn, handed Eatonville its lowest score of the nine members, a measly 78 out of 110. She docked the town heavily for “historic significance” despite it being the oldest black-incorporated municipality in the United States. She gave it a five out of 20 for “appropriateness of location” and knocked off two points for “regional economy” when all other judges gave tourism-centric Orange County a perfect score.

Read: Orange County School District gives Eatonville land for State’s first African History Museum

The 32-point difference between Michael’s scoring between St. Augustine and Eatonville was more than double any other task force member. Rep. Berny Jacques, Republican from Pinellas County, had the next biggest difference -- in favor of Eatonville -- but he knocked off St. Augustine’s points more evenly and in less subjective categories like educational resources and infrastructure.

Had Michael given Eatonville a score below the average of the eight other judges but more in line with their scores, It would have comfortably won.

“They’re tanking Eatonville’s proposal in order to make St. John’s the number one,” Rep. Bruce Antone (D-Orange County), who has worked heavily to bring the museum to Central Florida, accused. “Even regional economy, how is St. Johns County ranked higher than Orlando, Orange County, which is the number one tourist destination in the world?”

Antone – admittedly biased himself – said there were other factors that compounded the scoring shock, including St. Augustine being “off the beaten path” for many people.

His concerns have also been shared in Orange County’s government.

“The county administrator is concerned there may have been some bias in the voting,” a spokeswoman for Byron Brooks said after emails emerged showing his concerns about several St. Augustine-based task force members’ “appropriateness of location” scoring, including Michael’s.

Read: Eatonville could soon be home to a state Black history museum

Michael’s conduct also drew complaints from several delegation members, including Antone. They said task force members were only supposed to change their scores during the final meeting if they listened to the entire proposal, but Michael increased her St. Augustine’s score by a small amount after popping into the meeting more than three hours late, though it wouldn’t have affected the final rankings.

“This demonstrates the political motivations of some Task Force appointees,” Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orange County), who chairs the task force, wrote in response to questioning about the scores.

Michael did not respond to multiple attempts to contact her by phone and email. She was appointed to the task force by House Speaker Paul Renner, a Republican based in Flagler County. Renner’s office did not issue any statements regarding the accusations after being contacted.

It’s not clear what a formal complaint will change, if anything, or how Thompson will handle it once it’s presented to her. She said she had not received anything as of Tuesday afternoon.

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