For over three decades, the seven-member Hillsborough County Commission has consisted of representatives from four single-member districts and three at-large seats. But the county is much larger now, and there are a lot of people who think its composition needs to change to reflect that growth.
In the past few years, there has been two futile attempts to add another single-member district and eliminate an at-large seat. The opportunity to debate the issue comes back this Tuesday night in Tampa, where the 14-member Charter Review Board will consider this and other ideas, such as making the entire county single-member districts or adding more commissioners.
“Hillsborough County is the only (Florida) county with over a million people that still have at-large districts,” says Commissioner Les Miller, who has championed a previous effort through the board.
He’s right: Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Broward County all have county commission boards consisting strictly of lawmakers representing single-member districts, which Miller and other says allows for more accountability in a county that is now 1.3 million people strong.
The Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners hasn’t always been set up this way. Over three decades ago, the board expanded its total number of members from five to seven, with four of those members representing specific districts in the county.
Leading that change in 1983 was former County Commissioner Jan Platt, who is still making her point that it remains the best system. Platt serves on the Charter Review Board, and says that the current system continues to allow every voter in the county to vote for a representative in their own district, as well as three others, giving the sense that they are weighing in on a majority of the seven member board.
But Les Miller says that was fine for the mid-’80s — not 2015. And he says arguments for the status quo are tired, such as the fact that it was established after three county commissioners were arrested on corruption charges in the 1983. Without mentioning his name, Miller says that the current system didn’t prevent another county commissioner from being arrested not that long ago.
That would be Kevin White, who is expected to be released soon from prison after serving a three-year sentence on bribery and corruption charges.
Another issue that the Charter Review Board will consider is to increase the number of board members.
“The right thing to do would be to go to nine single districts,” says Norma Reno, a member of the Charter Review Board appointed by Commissioner Ken Hagan. Reno says at least having five single-member districts and four-at-large seat would suffice, but doesn’t believe that proposal has much of a chance.
“They’re going to say, ‘oh, this is increasing government. It’s spending money. We don’t have that kind of money,'” she says, anticipating criticism of that plan.
But Miami-Dade County has 13 single-member districts, and Broward County has nine members on its board.
Advocates for more members on the board say that when the BOCC expanded from five to seven members in 1983, Hillsborough County’s population was at 700,000. It’s now grown half-a-million more, to approximately 1.3 million people.
“That’s crazy,” Reno says. “How can I talk to my commissioner if he or she has to attend to over 300,000 people?” she asks, referring to how many people are roughly divided into the four-single member districts. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The two previous attempts to change the board’s composition flamed out royally. In both cases, a major impetus in the change was a demand from the Hispanic community to create a minority-majority district for a Latino to represent on the board. Advocates say that with Hispanics comprising over 26 percent of the county, the current structure makes it more difficult for such representation.
That argument became divisive and a flashpoint — and has largely been dropped from the current discussion.