Trayvon Martin case a trial by fire for rookie Sanford mayor
For about a month, Mayor Jeff Triplett labored to keep a lid on an explosive situation in Sanford, Fla., after local police released George Zimmerman, who fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin. The mayor emerged intact, but not unchanged.
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One of Triplett’s colleagues, City Commissioner Randy Jones, says mayors of Sanford have not traditionally grappled with mega issues such as racial profiling, Florida gun and self-defense laws, or the legacy of race relations in the South.Skip to next paragraph
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“We’re supposed to be dealing with rezones, and, do you have too many cats and dogs in your yard, and annexations,” says Mr. Jones. “It’s an absolutely unenviable situation.”
Depending on who is doing the talking, Triplett's response to the growing crisis is either an example of strong leadership under fire or the Machiavellian moves of a politician.
One of Triplett's first steps after getting the call about Trayvon was to attend a March 14 meeting at the Allen Chapel AME Church in Goldsboro, the historically black part of the city. In his naiveté, Triplett was unaware of the fury, near and far, that was gaining critical mass and speed, moving like a comet to smash into Sanford. But as he sat there and listened, it came into view. “Oh my," he recounts of his thoughts. "This is huge.”
Critics were accusing the police chief whom Triplett helped hire, Bill Lee Jr., of botching the investigation into Trayvon’s death. Officials from the NAACP came en masse, calling for Zimmerman's immediate arrest and demanding that Chief Lee be fired. Then emerged the horror tales that had nothing to do with this tragedy, as black residents revealed a trove of unaddressed grievances involving local police.
“I sat in on a couple of community meetings, and you hear some of the passionate outcries for justice, not just for Trayvon, but other things that have happened in our city. You can just see the degradation of the trust level,” he says.
The mayor led the offensive to release the 911 recordings that replay Trayvon’s last moments. Before the audio was released to the public, Triplett listened to it with Trayvon's parents in his office, a tiny room on the second floor of City Hall.
“You just think to yourself, how could I sit there if it was my son, in his last moments,” he says. “That was the toughest thing I have ever done in my life.”
He met with US Rep. Corrine Brown (D), whose district includes Sanford. They flew to D.C. and sat down with officials from the Department of Justice to discuss the incident. Along with two other city commissioners, he voted no confidence in Chief Lee on March 21. That decision, he says, wasn’t easy. When the motion was floated, Triplett felt conflicted. Right there in the meeting, he started sketching up a pros and cons list about Lee on a piece of paper. Maybe it was his banker's background, but he says he began thinking of himself and his colleagues as fellow business associates.
“Truly from a managerial point of view, is this the guy you want facing the media? Is this the guy you want letting the press releases go?” he says of his reasoning then. “If you look at our commission as almost a board of directors of a $40 million company, I had to make that call that I didn’t have confidence in ... how it was handled.” The majority prevailed, and Chief Lee temporarily stepped down.
The sole black city commissioner and a lifelong Sanford resident, Velma Williams, says Triplett has so far weathered criticism from all sides. There are angry residents who want to vote him out of office, and members of the police department who aren’t too pleased with his vote against Lee. But what really stands out to her is his willingness to listen during community forums with local black leaders and ministers.
“He’s very sensitive. When you find a white person who demonstrates or exhibits that he is very sensitive to situations like this," she says, "you have someone who really has excellent personal qualities.”