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Hillsborough County mayor petition count is questioned

TAMPA — Some opponents of establishing an elected Hillsborough County mayor are questioning the validity of petitions gathered to put the measure on the ballot.

They're especially concerned with Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson's recordkeeping of the mayoral petitions.

•  Boxes labeled as holding 28,000 petition forms in support of placing the mayoral question on the November ballot contained 2,500 forms in support of a separate question about whether the mayor would have veto power. Did one set of forms get counted toward the other?

•  Within those boxes were dozens of petition forms listed as rejected for a variety of reasons. Some were duplicates. Others came from ineligible voters.

•  Several petition forms were incomplete. In most cases, that meant they failed to include a second page that had to be signed before it was accepted.

"The certified petitions from that petition drive should have been pristine," said Beth Rawlins, a public affairs consultant. "And it's chaos."

Rawlins has led other fights around the state against proposals to replace appointed professional administrators with elected mayors. She was joined by others, including Hillsborough political consultant Louis Betz, in reviewing the petitions Monday.

Initially, the group set out to review how many Spanish-language petitions were submitted. The goal was to see if that would show evidence that Hispanic voters were being disenfranchised.

They found only six Spanish-language petition forms by the time they had nearly finished looking through boxes.

But at least as disturbing, said Rawlins and her cohorts, was the seeming mixing of petition forms. It makes a meaningful analysis nearly impossible, they said.

"It kills me to find boxes that are supposed to have one thing and have something else," said Dani Dahlberg, a colleague of Rawlins'. "We don't know what we've found, but it's very clearly not an easily auditable trail."

Johnson expressed confidence that all of the petition forms were counted accurately, then double counted and recorded. He said he could check any form against the computer record of how they were counted, if a question arises.

"The work on the petitions was done meticulously," Johnson said. "What's in the system, the way we've recorded them, is the official record. If some were put back in boxes that were labeled other than that, it does not affect the disposition."

He said his office will be happy to look into questions about individual petition forms.

Mary Ann Stiles, who leads the group Taking Back Hillsborough County Political Committee Inc., which collected the signatures, said any questions about petition forms are Johnson's problem at this point. She has raised concerns of her own about whether Johnson's office correctly counted petitions, delaying when she could get the issues on the ballot.

She said petition gatherers had Spanish-language forms and that the small number submitted doesn't mean anything anyway. Many Hispanic voters likely signed English language forms, she said.

"I can't answer for the supervisor and what he does," Stiles said. "I would not surprised if they're all confused."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County mayor petition count is questioned 02/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2008 12:58am]
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