TAMPA — Hispanics who spent years pushing for a Hillsborough County Commission district that would enable them to elect one of their own thought that was finally going to happen Wednesday.
But commissioners rejected the idea, refusing in a largely partisan vote to put the issue on the 2014 ballot.
Commissioners voting in opposition said they didn't like the proposal, which would have converted an at-large, countywide seat into a district post representing a portion of Hillsborough. The current configuration of the seven-member board has three countywide seats and four district posts, including one drawn to improve the chances for a black candidate to get elected.
The biggest argument for the current makeup is it allows all voters to chose a majority of commissioners.
"I see great value in each citizen having four representatives on this board," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who cast one of the opposing votes.
He and other commissioners further objected to giving the job of drawing new districts to the county's appointed planning commission. County commissioners have that responsibility now.
Commissioner Victor Crist, who offered the most strongly worded opposition to the proposal, said he objected to characterizations from supporters that they would get more effective representation from someone who is Hispanic. He challenged those in the audience to show an example of him not being responsive to the concerns of Hispanic residents, objecting particularly to an advocate who said he'd like a commissioner who knows his community and attends his church.
Crist said he actually attended a black church growing up and now attends a Catholic one where many of his fellow parishioners are Hispanic.
"So get your facts straight," Crist said. "You talked me out of a vote today."
Crist and Higginbotham were joined in their opposition by Sandra Murman, who said she thought the issue should best be deliberated by the Charter Review Board, a panel selected every five years to consider modifications to the county's main governance document. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan also voted against the plan without explanation.
Republican Mark Sharpe joined Democrats Les Miller and Kevin Beckner in backing the proposal. Miller expressed a measure of disappointment at the end of the discussion, since the idea was simply to let voters decide.
"I don't quite understand," Miller said. "Why would this board object to the people who elected them having the opportunity to decide what they want?"
Miller had proposed the idea as a compromise to earlier redistricting suggestions aimed at creating a district with a plurality of Hispanics. He offered it more as an opportunity to reduce the number of residents each district commissioner represents to bring government closer to the people.
The possibility of creating a Hispanic opportunity district was more of a side benefit in his pitch.
But Hispanics and blacks rallied most vigorously for the proposal, turning out by the dozens for Wednesday's meeting.
"I see four pink slips that are due next election," said a disappointed Christopher Cano, the Tampa area coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, which has been working for the past two years on the campaign to create a Hispanic-leaning district. "The system we have now disenfranchises us."