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Hillsborough commissioners take step on long road to give Hispanics more political clout

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners moved forward Wednesday with a proposal to change the makeup of voting districts, part of an effort to give more political power to the county's exploding Hispanic population.

In a 7-0 vote, commissioners directed county attorneys to draft an ordinance that would keep the County Commission with seven members but change how they are elected.

Currently, four of them are elected from districts within the county and three are elected countywide.

The new ordinance would move one of those three countywide commissioners into a single-member district instead —making five commissioners elected from within districts and two elected countytwide.

The proposal has got a long road ahead. Commissioners would have to vote by May whether to put the ordinance before voters in 2012. If it does go to voters and they approve, the change would take effect in 2014.

Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat who is pushing the proposal, said his hope is to carve that new district out of predominately Hispanic neighborhoods.

Hispanic groups pushed, without success, to include a larger Hispanic population in a voting district during the redistricting process earlier this year.

Hispanics make up 25 percent of the county's population, up from 10 percent in 1980. No member of the County Commission is Hispanic.

"The County Commission, God bless us all, we do not show the diversity of this county," said Miller.

Miller said that, more importantly, the change would make the board more responsive to constituents by reducing the size of the districts. Each single-member district commissioner currently represents more than 307,000 citizens.

"The time has come for us to be closer to our constituents," he said.

While fellow commissioners lauded Miller for his intentions, they were reluctant to commit to supporting his proposal.

Commissioner Sandy Murman, a Republican, said she wants county officials to estimate how much the change would cost. "That's going to be a big decider for me," she said.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, also a Republican, said he likes the idea of smaller districts. But he said commissioners would be jumping into another highly politicized process, even with good intentions.

"You can gerrymander for good, you can gerrymander for bad," said Sharpe.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat, said any ordinance to change a district would need to be specific enough to reflect what Miller says are his intentions — smaller districts and more minority representation.

Otherwise, he said, the process will get shaped by partisan interests. He called this year's redistricting process "the most obvious act of political theater" he's ever witnessed.

That redistricting plan passed with the support of all five Republican members and Miller.

Victor DiMaio, who represents the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition, said Miller's proposal is better than nothing. But the coalition's priority, he said, is to expand the board to nine members, something that Miller said he does not support.

DiMaio said the board is not a true reflection of the county's diverse makeup. "You need to have someone who speaks the language," he said.

The coalition, which is made up of about two dozen minority groups, already plans to appeal the redistricting maps approved by Hillsborough commissioners this year, he said.

Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Hillsborough commissioners take step on long road to give Hispanics more political clout 11/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 11:51pm]
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