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Hillsborough Charter Review Board not ready to decide on County Commission makeup

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They batted it around for more than two hours Tuesday night, but in the end, the members of the Hillsborough County Charter Review Board were no closer to recommending any changes regarding the current configuration of the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners than they were when they began.

For over 30 years, the board has consisted of seven members — four from single-member districts, and three at-large, voted on countywide. But there is once again a demand to change the current system, though inertia and the appeal of keeping things the same may still ultimately prevail.

The idea being pushed by Commissioner Les Miller is to add one more single-member district to the board, and eliminate an at-large seat, making the board go from a 4-3 configuration to 5-2.

But upon questioning, Miller admitted that this was his “compromise position,” and that if it were up to him the board would consist exclusively of single-member districts, and could even expand to nine members from its current seven.

“As the county grows, these issues will get more complex,” he said, arguing that the county’s population has swelled to nearly double the amount from 1983, when the board last changed.

“More than 300,000 (people) is too much,” agreed charter board member Norma Reno. “Maybe we should look at all the proposals. It’s doesn’t have to be 5-2. It can be 5-4, or 7-2. We have to study all the possibilities.”

The vast numbers of people that a single commissioner has to represent seemed to be a compelling factor,  persuading other board members as well that a change needed to be made.

But the relative comity between the board members devolved when it came to the volatile issue of race. Previous attempts in recent years to create a single new district also came with the argument that it could and should be one that packs in Latino voters. Those advocates say that with the population now 26 percent Hispanic in the county, this would be a fair way to ensure that representation.

But that brought out a fierce response.

‘I’m offended by some of the comments made, ” said board member Juan Capote, who was chosen to serve on the board by Commissioner Sandy Murman. “Hispanic this, white this, black this, it’s almost indicating that someone who is not Hispanic can’t represent a Hispanic community,” he said angrily.

A native from Cuba who said he came to the states in 1961, Capote said he was proud of his Hispanic background, but said it was “absolutely ridiculous” to become separated into groups.

“I believe your comment is an outright copout,” fired back board member Gerald White. “It’s an escape. You’re looking for an out, not even for a reasonable out to deal with 1.3 million citizens. I think we have a duty to properly address the issue by not copping out.”

Jan Platt said that the “irony” was that when there were five at-large districts, Hispanics were elected, naming Nick Nuncio and Rudy Rodriguez as examples. She called the Hispanic argument “regressive.”

“It’s encouraging a group to live in a particular area, and that’s not what America is all about,” she added.

As the author of the 1980s-era change in the board’s composition, Platt has been the leading voice over the years for maintaining the status quo, and her voice carries weight on the subject as she continues her public service on the charter review board at the age of 78.

In addition to the theory that the current system, because it allows every voter to vote for a majority of the commission, she also downplayed the arguments by Miller and others that an increasing population dictated a larger board, saying that while the population has also increased throughout Florida and the country, there hasn’t been any demand to increase the number of state legislators or members of Congress.

Board member E.J. Otero said the Hispanic argument wasn’t relevant. The large size of the county and single-member districts are, he insisted. “The point is, the representation for those individuals is not fair. No way in the world that a discussion in Riverview is going to affect someone in Keystone.”

Like Capote, board member William Mitchell said he, too, found the comments on race offensive. But he also said he was troubled how single-member districts had increased from 161,000 to 327,000. “That to me says we might need change.”

After more than two hours of debate, a fed-up and cantankerous Joseph Caetano said he was ready for a straight-up or down vote on the proposal — which actually got a few hands of support, including from chairman Art Wood. But many more hands opposed the motion, saying that the idea needed at least a little bit more study.

So the board will have county staff collect more information and bring it back to them on June 2, though the odds still look formidable for the forces of change to oppose the status quo.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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