Award named after controversial conservative

09/17/08 Mitch E. Perry
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Despite searing criticism from some members of the public, the Hillsborough County Commission voted today to rename the Moral Courage Award after former GOP power broker Ralph Hughes.

Hughes died in late June at the age of 77, and was called “the father of conservatism” in Hillsborough County by former Commissioner Joe Chillura.

Because of his pro-development and conservative ideology, Hughes was a controversial prescence in Hillsborough politics over the years, and several people came to the board’s meeting this morning vehemently blasting the idea. Marcella Osteen said money was the only reason behind the idea.

The idea was proposed by Commissioner Jim Norman, who had county staff produce a DVD tribute to Hughes to distribute to his fellow commissioners as further proof that Hughes deserved the honor.

But many others strongly disagreed.

Dover resident Carla Holding referred to an ugly incident from Hughes youth.

The St. Petersburg Times reported that at the time of his death, Hughes was sentenced to 7 years in prison for beating and robbing a man while posing a police officer when he was 20 years old.

Captain Jerry Adam Lewis quoted Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth in blasting the idea of naming the Moral Courage Award after Hughes.

Cam Oberting is president of the Taylor Road Civic Association in Seffner. After Hughes died, she wanted to respect him by not publicly commenting. But she said she could no longer remain silent after learning of the the board's action.

Some public speakers said the award should not be renamed for any particular individual.

Others, like Kelly Cornelius, named a variety of local citizens who she said were as worthy of being named, such as environmental activists Mariella Smith, Terri Flott or Denise Layne.

Eva Perez from Seffner blasted Cast-Crete, Ralph Hughes' concrete business. She called him "evil" and suggested that the award should be named for Oberting, the first recipient.

Activist Terri Flott said Norman should be ashamed to present Ralph Hughes as an embodiment of moral courage.

The only public speaker to support Commissioner Jim Norman’s proposal was former County Commisioner Joe Chillura. He mentioned issues in which he opposed Ralph Hughes, and yet maintained their friendship.

After the public spoke, Commissioner Norman said he was ashamed at the disrespect shown to the Hughes family, and to his memory.

Over the years, Ralph Hughes funded many of those who served or still serve on the County Commission. One of those men is Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who said Hughes had financially supported him in the past, but stopped awhile ago.

Sharpe said the Board might be better off doing what professional sports leagues do, wait five years before selecting members to their Hall of Fame. He said he was ambivalent about it all, but ultimately thought Hughes was too ideological to receive such an honor.

County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who never received financial backing from Hughes, was unhappy that she was put in an awkward position of denigrating the recently deceased concrete builder. But Ferlita quoted Clerk of the Court and former Commissioner Pat Frank in saying that Hughes was a lobbyist for his own interests.

Ferlita and Sharpe were the only dissenters as the Board voted 5-2 to name the Moral Courage Award after the late Ralph Hughes.

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