Perhaps a proposal to prevent anybody in Hillsborough County from staying in office longer than eight years will provoke more unity among members of the Hillsborough County Charter Review Board.
That idea was briefly discussed at the end of Tuesday night’s sometimes contentious discussion among those 14 board members after they decisively rejected a proposal to add two additional members to the seven-member County Commission.
The vote was 11-3, with only E.J. Otero, Norma Reno and Gerald White supporting the idea that would add two more members — five to be elected in individual districts, and the other four elected countywide.
There were two arguments that supporters of the expansion of the board had argued for months (and actually years): that the county has expanded tremendously over the past 30 years, with 1.2 million residents now living in the county. In comparison to Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange counties, Hillsborough has a smaller government per population size.
With more than 25 percent of the county’s residents now of Hispanic origin, Latino advocates have been concurrently arguing that it was time for a “minority access” district that would make it easier for a Latino to get elected to higher office.
But that idea turned the stomach of board member Juan Capote, a native of Cuba who is now an American citizen. He said that while he would love to see Hispanic representation on the board, he expressed revulsion when he said he read that such a minority access district would make it easier.
“I was never raised with easy,” he declared. “My father believed what was right, not what was easy.” He urged people in the audience to get involved in the political process themselves. “They would make great county commissioners! Get them to run and win like everyone else.”
“That takes us back 50-60 years,” argued board member William Mitchell about the idea of creating a new district that would include a concentration of Latino voters. “We’ve gotta get away from that. Our strength is our diversity.”
Mitchell also echoed the same criticism that the majority of the board did about the need for more staff — where was that demand coming from, he asked?
“No one came up here and said, ‘I can’t get ahold of my commissioner,'” he said.
Board members Sharon Calvert and Debbie Cox-Roush also said that bigger government wasn’t better government, before they prepared to reject the proposal. “I’m struggling to understand what you mean by fair representation, because I haven’t heard anyone say they couldn’t contact their commissioner,” Calvert said.
Nobody argued more passionately for the change on the Charter Review Board than Gerald White, a Les Miller appointee. In the early goings of the meeting, White simply took over, speaking over and calling out other people, including fellow board member Jan Platt and County Attorney Mary Helen Ferris. That prompted Cox-Roush, participating via the telephone, to tell White to show “better decorum.”
“We just don’t have the power. We don’t have the strength. We don’t have the intellect, and we definitely don’t have the will to make this kind of change,” White said with a tinge of bitterness after the vote went against the proposal. “I place this back in the hands of the Board of County Commissioners.”
Theoretically, the Board of County Commissioners could still vote to put such a measure on the 2016 ballot, but that would appear to be a nonstarter. The fact of the matter is that when Commissioner Les Miller didn’t have the votes to pass a similar measure on the board two years ago, he kicked over to the Charter Review Board to discuss and debate.
“How long must they wait?” he asked of the Latinos in Hillsborough County who are hoping for one of their own to serve on the board. “How long? It’s been too long.” He then said he hoped the board would pick up the issue.
“As I pray to almighty God, that their souls and their hearts will be touched, and see this debate tonight, and convene and do right by 300,000 of their fellow citizens in Hillsborough County.”