Who will be the next Hillsborough County Commission chairman? Handicapping the field
TAMPA — Last year’s vote to name the 2016 Hillsborough County commission chairman turned out to be a rather contentious affair.
Days after Commissioner Sandy Murman backed away from Go Hillsborough and presented her own competing proposal to pay for transportation needs, she was ousted as the board chair. In her place, Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat, ascended to the job, a surprising pick for a body where Republicans hold a 5-2 advantage.
The commission will decide today who will get the gavel next. There’s often quite a bit of behind-the-scenes jockeying for the job. While the title is largely ceremonial, it does come with an additional $10,000 salary and the added exposure is a nice perk for the more ambitious politicians who may be looking ahead to the next election (2019 mayor’s race, anyone?).
Whoever sits in the chair also gets to dictate the flow of commission meetings and who speaks first, which doesn’t seem like a big deal but can determine the outcome of more contentious policy decisions.
Here’s how the Bay Buzz blog handicaps each commissioners’ outlook for serving as the chairman for the next 12 months.
As the current vice chairman, Crist may seem like the logical choice to step up to chairman. He has plenty of experience in the role from his time leading committees in Tallahassee. But Crist just capped a tumultuous tenure as chairman of the Public Transportation Commission that was rife with complaints — fair or otherwise — about his stewardship of the thorny Uber/Lyft debate. He also doesn’t seem interested in the role; William March reported recently Crist bluntly said, “I don't want it." That could all be part of the dance, though.
Hagan has chaired the commission five times during 14 years on the county board, most recently in 2012. A Republican, Hagan has allies (and enemies) on both sides of the aisle and over the years has earned a reputation as a powerful politician. But the pro-Go Hillsborough faction of the commission had a tough year in 2016 and no one was a more forceful advocate for the half-cent sales tax referendum than Hagan. With the exit of Kevin Beckner, a referendum proponent, and the election of Pat Kemp, a referendum opponent, the anti-Go Hillsborough forces hold a 5-2 lead now and it’s possible they will shape the direction of the county moving forward.
Hagan, too, has been the county’s point-man on negotiations to bring over the Tampa Bay Rays and if those talks amplify next year as expected, he may rather focus on that instead of smiling for cameras at every ribbon cutting. Then again, if the Rays debate comes to a head this year, the board may want him as chairman to navigate.
After Hagan, Higginbotham is the most senior member of the commission and he has experience as chair in 2010. His mild-mannered temperament is expected to bring a calming presence to the acrimonious PTC now that he has taken over for Crist, and perhaps he could do the same for the county commission. For his part, Higginbotham has said in the past that the chair should serve two-year stints and even though he didn’t vote for Miller initially last year, he maintains that position.
Kemp will be the rookie on the commission and her first vote will be to choose the next leader. It’s highly improbable she will be voting for herself. Not only is she in the minority party, but there will be a steep learning curve for the first-time elected official, even one who served as an aide to two former county commissioners, and taking on chairman duties would be a tough task. Of the seven commissioners, she is far and away the least likely to earn the distinction this time around.
Miller has run a tight ship as chairman with little, if any, public criticism from his colleagues. He works through the agenda swiftly (meetings typically end before noon), keeps debate on topic and has a strong command of Robert’s Rules of Order that govern meetings. Still, he’s one of only two Democrats on the commission and some Republican insiders were not happy that he was given the reigns over one of their own. He may not even have backing from his own party member. Kemp and Miller were on opposite ends of Go Hillsborough and she didn’t say if she would support him for another term. Kemp is looking for a new era from the board that embraces increased community outreach and public hearings, more discussion on the dais and less input from the county administrator — all of which may signal a shift from the status quo. But in a year with no clear pick, the default could be to give him another year at the helm.
By all accounts, Murman was a fine, well-liked chairwoman until her shift on transportation lost her the seat. After she was spurned, Murman became the leader of the anti-Go Hillsborough movement. She not only helped defeat the sales tax referendum, but the county ultimately settled on a plan to pay for much-needed transportation work out of the existing budget, a concept first floated by Murman (albeit in a different form). In that sense, Murman is already leading the faction of the board that is now the majority of its member.
But the coalition may be less sound than it appears. While the anti-transit crowd and pro-transit people coalesced around Murman in defeating Go Hillsborough, she is showing why you can’t be everything to everyone forever. Murman is vocally in favor of a transit solution for the county eventually that may include a future sales tax hike. So having spent the last year derailing Go Hillsborough supported by Hagan and Miller, Murman is now proposing a future transit expansion, which Stacy White, Crist and Higginbotham are all wary of. That’s not to say transportation will guide the next selection and Murman is certainly in the running if she wants it, but other than political lines, the transportation issue has been the number one divider on the county commission. That’s why this is all relevant.
Entering his third year on the commission, White is perhaps the wild card. He has earned positive marks from his colleagues as principled yet reasonable. Crist, March reported, floated White’s name as a potential surprise pick. It would certainly be a dramatic shift to go from the board’s staunchest Democrat to its most conservative member, but it’s certainly not out of the question.
White, though, sometimes struggles with the parliamentary procedures of the board, and that will pose a challenge to him. It’s the job of the chairman to referee debate according to Robert’s Rules of Order and among Miller and the four other Republicans on the commission, White is the least versed in conducting meetings. But if no one else can muster the fourth voted needed to take the title, perhaps White emerges as the most agreeable alternative.