TAMPA — For weeks, rumors have swirled of a plot to shake up the Hillsborough County Commission and dramatically alter the political landscape there.
On Wednesday, that speculation became reality when Commissioner Sandy Murman unveiled a proposal to change the board’s makeup.
In its current state, there are seven county commissioners — four elected in equally apportioned single-member districts and three who serve county-wide. Murman, a Republican, wants to eliminate the at-large seats and instead have seven or nine single-member districts.
She said Hillsborough’s population is too large for county commissioners to effectively serve their constituents, and smaller districts will give communities and minorities greater voice on the board. The county is the size of Rhode Island and more populous than 10 states
"All of the other major counties have no county-wide commissioners," Murman said.
But others see a naked political move by Murman to shore up her future on the board.
Murman was re-elected in 2016 to a four-year term in her District 2 seat, but has filed to run for an open at-large seat this year.
If the commission approves this plan, she could pull back from running in what has already been a tough election cycle for Republicans. Then she could stay in her district until 2020, when she can run again for a seat drawn around her south Tampa home.
Asked three times after the meeting, Murman would not commit to staying in the countywide race if her proposal advances.
"I can’t say," Murman told the Tampa Bay Times. "You never say no to anything. But right now I’m still moving forward."
Several candidates have announced plans to run to replace Murman and would be sent scrambling if she changes her mind in the coming weeks.
Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat, grilled Murman over her past opposition to similar proposals. Twice, Miller has asked commissioners to consider smaller districts that could add a second minority-majority district. Murman helped defeat both efforts.
"It amazes me that I brought this up two times, and it went down the tubes twice, and now all the sudden it’s coming back," Miller said. "I just hope this is not politically driven."
Replied Murman: "People’s feelings can evolve over time."
The make-up of the county commission is set in the county charter. To change it, five commissioners would have to agree to place an amendment on the ballot and a majority of voters would have to approve it.
A motion by Murman to study the idea was rejected by commissioners. But at the end of the meeting, a defiant Murman nevertheless requested a staff report.
It is unclear if there is enough support on the commission for the proposal to reach the ballot.
Miller said he would only support it if the staff of the county’s planning commission drew the new district boundaries. Murman wouldn’t commit to that. The commission is currently in charge of drawing the commission map.
Commissioners Victor Crist, a Republican, and Pat Kemp, a Democrat, opposed the idea. Crist praised the existing system because it allows residents to elect a majority of the county commissioners who represent the county — one commissioners from their district, and three at-large commissioners. Under this new proposal, voters will only have a say on one of seven or nine.
"What we have right now works and it works well," Crist said. Crist is running for a countywide seat this year.
Kemp may have the most to lose if the board eliminates at-large seats. She was elected countywide, but would have to run for re-election in 2020 in whatever district encompasses her Seminole Heights home. That area has traditionally been represented by a black politician on the county commission.
The debate on districts came during a conversation on another charter amendment, this one to implement term limits. Commissioners approved Kemp’s request for a staff report.
Crist wondered if this was also politically driven and an attempt to push out the tenured Republican commissioners more quickly in a county that is trending Democratic.
On a 4-3 vote, commissioners rejected a charter amendment to elect constitutional officers, like the sheriff and tax collector, in nonpartisan races. Both the local Republican and Democratic parties opposed it.
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.