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Measure to elect Hillsborough mayor removed from November ballot

TAMPA — A proposal to dramatically remake Hillsborough County government by giving it an elected mayor is off November's ballot.

Circuit Judge James Arnold removed the question Friday, ruling in favor of a man who said a petition form he signed to get the measure on the ballot was misleading and had essentially expired.

Arnold agreed that the timing of the ballot question was fatally problematic.

That's because the proposed charter change that would have created a county mayor called for holding elections for the job starting this November. And that's not possible, since that's when voters were being asked to decide whether to create the post in the first place.

In his one-page ruling, Arnold called the mayoral election date specified in the charter change "a self-imposed limiting condition that cannot occur in 2008."

Mary Ann Stiles, leader of the group Elected County Mayor Political Committee Inc., which backed the measure, said she would appeal in hope of getting the question back on the November ballot.

If her appeal is not successful, she said, she will begin collecting petitions anew.

"I am not going away," Stiles said. "If the appellate court agrees with Judge Arnold we will just start all over again."

For now, the ruling means that what promised to be a de facto referendum on the often fractious County Commission is on hold.

"I'm disappointed in the judge's ruling because I wanted the public to have the opportunity to defeat such a poor system of government," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, whose board would have seen its role diminished under the proposal. "But I'm not surprised, (because) I think the ballot language was full of constitutional and legal flaws."

The problem identified by Arnold has its roots in the history of Stiles' campaign.

She initially proposed replacing Hillsborough's appointed county administrator with an elected, nonpartisan mayor nearly three years ago. Stiles says the county has grown too big to be run by a seven-person commission and needs one elected executive to lead it.

A second question, if supported by voters, would have given that mayor veto power over commission decisions.

Stiles' group, initially called Taking Back Hillsborough County Political Committee, started collecting voter petitions to get the questions on the November 2006 ballot. Hence the 2008 mayoral election date.

But Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said the group failed to collect the needed number of signatures in time for the 2006 vote. Still, he let the group apply petitions it had already gathered toward the goal of having the question on this year's ballot.

Last month, activist James Shirk, a civil engineer, sued Johnson's office, and Stiles' group joined the case in Johnson's defense.

Shirk had signed a petition in 2006 but his lawyers say he no longer supports the idea.

He said Johnson should not have allowed Stiles' group to carry over the 2006 petitions. He also said the ballot language was misleading because it failed to say that the county mayor would have added powers.

Judge Arnold ruled against him on both counts, effectively finding Johnson had done nothing wrong.

The problem, the judge ruled, was the specific timeline the petition set forth for holding mayoral elections.

Stiles said the date was meant to convey when the first mayoral elections could occur, not when they must take place.

Jennifer Blohm, an attorney for Shirk, said mayoral supporters could have avoided the problem with less specific language. Having included a date, they must abide by it, she said.

"It's almost like a contract," Blohm said of the petition her client initially signed. "If you have a contract that says something lasts for a year, then it lasts for a year. It's not perpetual unless you agree to that."

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

Measure to elect Hillsborough mayor removed from November ballot 08/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:12pm]
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