BOYNTON BEACH — It was designed to honor Boynton Beach’s first Black female firefighter, but instead it turned into a racial firestorm for the city after her face was replaced with a white face on a public mural.
Now, the city is ponying up to settle a lawsuit filed by the firefighter, Latosha Clemons, in April.
Boynton Beach has agreed to pay $80,000 to settle the case, Mayor Steven Grant told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday. The lawsuit claimed defamation and negligence in city’s handling of the mural, which generated national headlines after being unveiled in June 2020. The lawsuit claimed Clemons suffered mental and emotional harm as well as damage to her reputation.
“What happened to Latosha is inexcusable,” Grant said. “I’m appreciative she was able to make this offer to the city of Boynton Beach so everyone can move forward.”
Neither Clemons nor her lawyer could not be reached for comment.
City commissioners will vote to officially approve the settlement agreement on Oct. 19.
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Hired in 1996, Clemons spent 26 years with the city’s fire department, rising to deputy chief of operations before retiring in 2020. Clemons and former fire chief Glenn Joseph, the first Black firefighter in Boca Raton’s fire department, were chosen to be represented in a mural approved by the Boynton arts commission.
But when the mural was revealed at the fire station south of Gateway Boulevard and west of Interstate 95, their faces had been altered to be white. The city quickly removed the mural the following day.
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“I feel like I am the community and the community is me, and to have the white-washing of my face on that mural, it’s more than just defacing me,” Clemons said last year following the incident.
City Manager Lori LaVerriere fired Public Arts Manager Debby Coles-Dobay and removed Fire Rescue Chief Matthew Perry from his position as a result of the incident. Perry later resigned.
According to the lawsuit, Coles-Dobay claimed she was “pressured to make the artwork change by the fire chief and his staff and that the city was well aware of the change.”
Grant said the city is currently in the midst of a racial equity study with Florida International University and hopes to use the results to “implement changes for the city.” Grant added he’s been requesting for upper-level city management to receive education on racial equity.