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Hillsborough agrees to study idea of adding another County Commission district

TAMPA — A few months after approving new political boundaries, Hillsborough County commissioners are considering drawing their districts again or asking voters to do so.

Commissioner Les Miller floated a proposal Wednesday that would make five of seven commissioners represent specific zones of the county. The other two commissioners would be elected by voters countywide.

Currently, three commissioners are elected through countywide votes. Four commissioners represent specific districts, though all vote on decisions affecting the entire county.

Citing population growth since the current system was created nearly 30 years ago, Miller noted that each district commissioner now represents about 307,000 residents on average. That's too many, he said.

Other counties, including larger ones, have district commissioners who represent far fewer people, giving minorities a better shot at getting elected and focusing attention on neighborhood-level issues.

In Hillsborough County, Hispanics now represent 25 percent of the population, yet there is no Hispanic member of the board.

Some of those other counties have larger elected boards. Miller acknowledged that adding commissioners would be a hard sell in the current economic climate, so his proposal seeks to achieve the same end by changing the mix of district and at-large members.

"I think this county has grown to a point where we need to make some changes," said Miller, one of two Democrats on the board, who serves District 3 representing much of central Tampa and parts of eastern Hillsborough.

Commissioners voted unanimously to hold a workshop on the topic, during which they would seek public input. Miller had initially sought support for beginning to craft ballot language, but withdrew the proposal when some commissioners said he was moving too fast.

"I just think we need to go cautiously and move slowly on this," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, a Republican who serves in a countywide seat.

Indeed, each of the board's three at-large commissioners voiced concern with the proposal, while voting to at least consider it further.

It was only this summer that commissioners approved redrawing boundaries for their district-based seats to rebalance the population in each using the latest U.S. Census data. Commissioners debated at that time expanding the board to add district seats, or to redraw political boundaries to favor Hispanic voters, but declined to act.

Several Hispanic civic groups lobbied the board to do so but were rebuffed. Boundaries were redrawn in such a way that tilts three of the four district seats in favor of Republican voters.

Because of past discriminatory practices, the new boundaries must be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice. The county is in the process of finalizing its submittal to federal officials. If approved, those boundaries would be in place for the next county election cycle in 2012.

Victor DiMaio, president of the Hillsborough County Hispanic Democratic Caucus, said his group and others are likely to file a formal challenge with the justice department over the boundaries. While he supported Miller's intent, he said commissioners already should have rectified what he sees as an injustice.

"We're definitely not happy," DiMaio said. "And we won't be happy until we get some fair representation with a Hispanic member on this board."

What Miller is proposing is similar to what the Hillsborough County School Board has in place.

Fellow Democrat Kevin Beckner, who is elected at-large, noted that the current board structure was created after a mid-1980s corruption scandal in which three of then-five commissioners were arrested for selling votes. The current makeup allows all voters to approve a majority of commissioners — the three at-large board members, plus a district commissioner.

Further, he contended that having more commissioners elected by district could promote parochialism, with people elected to those seats concerned with localized concerns rather than the big picture.

"I am always open to conversation," Beckner said. "I look forward to the debate."

In order to change the makeup of the board, a super-majority of at least five commissioners would have to agree to ask voters to do so. That vote would need to take place by May or June of next year to get it on the 2012 ballot.

If the board agrees to put the issue on the ballot, and voters approve it, new districts would be put in place by 2014.

Hillsborough agrees to study idea of adding another County Commission district 10/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011 12:11am]
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