TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman lost her bid Tuesday for a second term as the commission's leader. It was a surprise rebuke that came just days after she spoke out against a proposed sales tax increase to fund the county's transportation needs.
Surprise was then followed by shock: The Republican-controlled board named Democratic Commissioner Les Miller the new chairman for the next year.
"Wow," Miller said after the vote. "I don't take this lightly. It's a lot of work to be done. I know that."
Miller is the first Democrat to lead the commission since Tom Scott in 2003. It's also the first time in at least two decades that a member of the party opposite the one in power was selected chair. There are five Republicans and two Democrats on the commission.
The title of chairman is largely ceremonial — it means having to attend a lot of ribbon cuttings — but it does come with a $10,000 pay bump. The jockeying and lobbying for the title is usually intense.
After the vote, Murman told the Tampa Bay Times she was "disappointed" she wasn't selected for a second term. But she didn't attribute it to the growing transportation divide on the commission.
Last week, Hillsborough's commissioners and three mayors gathered at the Policy Leadership Group meeting to discuss the transportation plans and funding options mapped out for the county by an engineering firm.
But the night before that meeting, Murman dropped her own plan that relied on other revenue streams. She said she would not support a referendum to raise the sales tax by a half-cent to pay for badly needed transportation improvements throughout the county.
The group voted Thursday to endorse the sales tax referendum; Murman opposed it.
"I hope there was more respect for me and my job as chair and as the only female on the board than to have any retribution for just trying to put another funding option out there," Murman said Tuesday.
The meeting started positively for Murman's prospects. Commissioner Al Higginbotham presented her with a gift from the rest of the commission, an annual tradition, and then nominated her for a second year as chair.
However, Commissioner Victor Crist then crossed his fellow Republican by nominating Miller over her.
When it came time to vote, Murman fell short of the four votes needed to win the chair.
Miller, though, had support from not only Crist, but fellow Democrat Kevin Beckner and Republican Ken Hagan. After it was clear Miller would win, Commissioner Stacy White and Murman voted for Miller in a sign of support for the new chair.
Higginbotham, however, voted against Miller.
Crist, nominated by Miller, was then named vice chair and White was named chaplain.
Murman, visibly displeased, never opened her gift in public. She tried to cut off Crist when he asked to make a statement about the outgoing chair.
Higginbotham suggested Miller's ascent may have been a coordinated effort. He said before the vote, Crist attempted to tell him of his plan to not back Murman's second term, in violation of Florida's open government laws.
Crist said he ran into Higginbotham before the vote but only said: "We've got business to conduct, and I have a feeling it may not go the way people expect it to go." The conversation ended there, Crist said.
"You've got some board members that came in today with a foregone conclusion that everything was going to go one way, and all of a sudden the carpet got pulled out from underneath them and they're shocked and angry," Crist said. "There ain't no master plan. It was a last-minute decision."
For his part, Miller, the county's only black commissioner, said while the position is considered ceremonial, it isn't symbolic that an African-American will now be the face of Hillsborough at many public events.
"It shows this county has come a long way and starting to make some changes," he said. "Are we where we're supposed to be? No way. But we're trying to get there. If we're going to be a progressive county and be the big boy on the block, this shows we're getting there."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.