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Window closing on advocates’ attempts to change Hillsborough County Commission composition

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Though they haven’t been completely dismissed yet, advocates supporting a change in the size and/or configuration of the current Hillsborough County Commission are on life support today.

On Tuesday night the Hillsborough County Charter Review Board voted to review a proposed  “5/4 plan,” which would expand the current number of county commissioners from seven to nine, adding an additional single-member district and another member who would be elected countywide. The other option they will review will be simply to maintain the  status quo, which is seven commissioners, four elected from single-member districts and three countywide, also called “at-large” districts.

A “5-2” proposal to keep the current number of commissioners at 7 — but simply adding an additional single-member district and removing an at-large district, failed to gain any traction, and is now completely dead.

The drive to change the composition on the commission has been going on for four years now. Advocates say that it’s been over 30 years since the board’s current configuration was established, and in the meantime, the county’s population has nearly doubled to 1.2 million, meaning that each single-member district represents roughly 300,000 voters, which they say is too large for any individual commissioner to effectively represent.

For comparison they cite counties of similar or larger sizes in the state such as Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, all of which have at least seven single-member districts.

Hillsborough has but four such districts, with three at-large or countywide elected officers.

When Commissioner Les Miller proposed a change a few years ago, the issue was booted to the Charter Review Board, which convenes only once every five years to deal with such issues.

But the 14-member board, consisting of 10 Republicans and four Democrats, seems inclined to keep the configuration the same, frustrating advocates of change, including those who say it’s time to create a single-member district that would favor the election of a Latino man or woman. The county is over 26 percent Latino, yet there are no Hispanics on the board.

That idea rankles charter board member Jan Platt, who helped create the current board composition back in the 1980s. She said it “saddened” her to hear such emphasis on nationality.

“Hispanic people think it’s rigged against them. It is not. The key is to get out and run and find good, qualified people to run,” she said, calling any redistricting to facilitate the election of such a candidate “reverse segregation.”

Charter Board member Joe Affronti pushed back as well, saying that there are three Hispanics on the Tampa City Council at the moment (Yolie Capin, Mike Suarez and Charlie Miranda). He considered the move “trying to gerrymander something, and I don’t think it’s right.”
Fighting valiantly to change the composition is board member Gerald White. He said previous testimony has shown that conservative Republican residents of Hillsborough support a change. “It’s a reasonable request,” he said.
Chris Cano, an advocate for changing the board’s composition, was allowed to present research on changing the BOCC, but he appeared to overreach by constantly reminding the board that they could be sued if they don’t expand the board to include at least an additional single-member district.
Referring to similar cases in Escambia County in Florida and in Dallas, Cano argued that the “status quo is the losing side of the argument. I’d hate to see that cost to our taxpayers of millions of dollars.”
He also proposed a scenario where there could be nine single-member districts, saying that Plant City, Brandon and South Tampa could all have their own representatives on the board.
His argument didn’t seem to win many fans. Charter board chairman Art Wood summed up his thoughts on Cano’s report by simply stating, “That’s your opinion.”
“Are you an attorney?” Jan Platt asked.
County Attorney Mary Ellen Farris disputed the notion that the board as currently composed would lose in court if there were legal challenges.
“We’re hearing the frustration of the Hipanic community,” said White as it was clear there was little momentum to fight the status quo. “I don’t think we should turn them away.” He then suggested taking both the 5-2 and 5-4 plans to the county attorney to draft proposed language changes and request a joint meeting with the entire Board of County Commissioners.
But Platt responded that under the law, it’s the charter review board, and not the county, that is mandated to make any changes regarding the board’s composition.
That led to a vote to come back next month for a final vote on either going to a 5-4 BOCC breakdown, or maintaining the same size and composition that has been in place for over 30 years.
The odds look good that there won’t be any change.

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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