TAMPA — Supporters of a plan to have an elected Hillsborough County mayor were heartened by one of the decisions voters made this month.
They think it bodes well for passage of a county mayor initiative when and if they manage to get the issue on the ballot. At the very least, the leading county mayor backer says it will energize her and others to start working sooner than later toward that end.
"I think there is no question that the people absolutely have sent a message twice," said Mary Ann Stiles, head of the group Elected County Mayor Political Committee Inc. "They want to change the form of county government."
Her optimism is based on a little-publicized question toward the bottom of the Nov. 2 ballot that was soundly rejected by voters. It asked whether they supported removing from the county's charter — its constitution of sorts — language that gives veto power to an elected mayor should that position get created.
Sixty percent of voters said no.
Former state legislator Les Miller, a onetime supporter of creating an elected county mayor who was just elected to the County Commission and is now not so sure about the idea, believes voters were just confused. And when confused, voters tend to err on the side of "no."
"I took it the other way around," Miller said. "I just think voters said, 'Wait, we don't have a county mayor. Why is this on the ballot? I'm going to vote against it.' "
Indeed, the situation is a bit confusing.
Stiles and her group have been working for the better part of five years to try to win the right to ask voters if they support creating an elected county mayor. They argue that the county needs a person who will provide a check and balance to actions of county commissioners. And they contend that a mayor who is directly accountable to the people, rather than an appointed administrator beholden to commissioners, can better chart a vision for the county's future.
They collected petition signatures for the 2006 ballot, but came up just short. They got the signatures for 2008, but a court threw the question off the ballot over a technicality. This past election cycle, a petition drive with cleaned up language started late and came up well short.
Giving the mayor veto power was a companion measure on the 2008 ballot to the question of whether to actually create the job. It wasn't challenged in court, remained on the ballot and voters approved it, even though there is no mayor to wield it.
With no mayor yet in place, the county's Charter Review Board, which has the power to put questions on the ballot without a petition drive, decided this summer to ask voters to scrub the language from the county's governing document in an effort to "clean" it up. That's what voters rejected Nov. 2.
Both the Charter Review Board and County Commission have the power to put questions directly to voters, but both have declined to entertain the county mayor topic. Stiles said she likely will approach both again anyway.
The Charter Review Board, which is appointed every five years to entertain possible changes to the governing document, is nearing the end of its tenure. A change in its stance, taken this summer, does not appear likely.
Three new commissioners got sworn in last week, and two of them — Miller, a Democrat, and former state Rep. Sandy Murman — have previously served on support committees for the county mayor effort. Miller, however, said he initially offered support, but now would like to hear all sides of the debate. Murman didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
Victor Crist, the other newcomer, said he opposes the creation of a county mayor.
Of the four returning commissioners, Republicans Ken Hagan and Al Higginbotham have consistently opposed the measure. Democrat Kevin Beckner and Republican Mark Sharpe said they would at least be willing to hear a proposal, though both said they have concerns with the concept as it has previously been proposed.
Among their questions: Should the position be nonpartisan? How would the mayor interact with other elected county officials? Is there a way to limit how much power that position would have?
"You don't just frivolously change the way we're governed without thinking these things through," Sharpe said.
If it comes to it, Stiles said she will again collect petition signatures. But she said she will seek to raise money sooner than she has in the past so that people can be hired to collect signatures and promote the idea.
In her latest effort, Stiles was unwilling to front much of the money herself as she did during her first try to get it on the ballot. But she said she's not burned out, noting that she spent years lobbying for changes to the state's workers' compensation laws and for tort reform.
"Things don't always happen the first time around," she said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.