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Les Miller on Tampa Bay Express issue: The votes weren’t there

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Last week, the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a $3 billion plan to add express toll lanes to Interstates 275 and 4 and rebuild the northbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

The vote was whether to include the proposal, dubbed by the Florida Department of Transportation as the Tampa Bay Express (TBX), in the MPO’s transit improvement plan (TIP). A total of 62 people testified before the board, 54 of them calling on the agency to remove the “TBX out of the TIP.”

But the MPO board opted to ignore those concerns, voting 13-1 to side with FDOT’s plan.

“I’ve been in this business long enough to look around and tell when you’ve got the votes and when you don’t have the votes. The votes were not there to remove it from the TIP,” said MPO Chairman and County Commissioner Les Miller said on Tuesday. Miller was the board member who called the motion to approve the TBX plan, but he added benchmarks for the Department of Transportation to hit in his motion, including an order that they meet with community leaders to deal with how the TBX plan could affect the Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights neighborhoods.

Miller said he spoke with FDOT Secretary Jim Boxbold after the meeting and sent him a letter to clarify what his intentions are.

“I’m hoping that, some way, some how, if this is going to happen, and it appears that it is going to happen, they can work with the community and get what the community wants in the whole thing,” Miller said on Tuesday night at the Columbia Restaurant, where a fundraiser for his 2016 campaign was being held. “Not just ram it down their throats. That’s not the way to do it. That’s my hopes, but the votes weren’t there to take it out.”

Miller says that in the past, the FDOT has “been its own worse enemy,” when it has come to working with the community, a sore point frequently mentioned by neighborhood activists critical of the plan and the agency. Miller believes that those in the District 7 FDOT office in the Tampa Bay area are determined to change that opinion, but he’ll be watching closely to see if they follow through.

While the longtime lawmaker was trying to balance neighborhood concerns with a state agency in the TBX plan, he’s also been front and center over the past few years in leading the push to attempt to change the configuration of the seven-member County Commission, which has had the same general structure over the past three decades.

Miller believes that with a population of 1.2 million people that will only grow larger in the coming years, the county has simply become too large for the four district commissioners to sufficiently represent their constituents. He hoped to change the current system by expanding the board’s single-member districts, from four to five. Concurrently, members in the Latino community were pushing for that new district to be a minority-access district that would allow for an opportunity for a Hispanic to be elected. The county is currently 26 percent Latino, with no direct representation on the board.

Advocates argued that among the largest counties in the state, Hillsborough has the fewest number of commissioners, and certainly the fewest representing single-member districts.  They cited Miami-Dade County’s 13 single-member district commission, Broward’s nine single-member commission, and Palm Beach County’s seven single-member commission.

But the majority of the Charter Review Board, which was tasked with debating and possibly approving the change (that would ultimately go before the voters), argued that what worked in Miami-Dade or Broward won’t work in Hillsborough County. Miller disagrees, saying, “to me it’s about making the districts smaller, making the commissioners more accessible to their constituents.”

Regarding the issue of creating a Latino minority-access district, Miller says his District 3 seat is a minority-access black seat. He says if he were to run countywide, he’d probably lose, “Because there’s just some people in this county who aren’t going to vote for me because of who I am and my ethnic background. That’s just the way it goes.”

The issue has been ongoing for the past four years in the county, and was first championed by Miller’s fellow Democrat on the board, Kevin Beckner. Miller picked up the mantle two years ago, and attempted to get his fellow board members to agree on the proposal. The majority GOP board rejected it, however. That led to his only other option — having the Charter Review Board, which convenes only once every five years — to discuss and debate it.

But that board overwhelmingly rejected it last month.

After working on this issue for the past few years, Miller says there’s nothing more he can do about it. “Maybe some years down the road when I’m gone, some of the commissioners will see the light and say, ‘you know what? Les Miller was right. We need to do something about it.’ But now is not the time.”

Miller has represented District 3 on the Hillsborough County Commission since 2010, after serving 14 years representing the Tampa area in Tallahassee in both the House and Senate. The only other announced candidate in the race is Republican Willie Lawson.

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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