TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to hire a consultant to help redraw their political boundaries using new population figures from the U.S. census.
The vote came over reservations expressed by some board members that the hire likely will muddy an already politically charged process.
The decision certainly breaks with past practice, when commissioners have relied on staff-level demographers, mapmakers and planners to guide them.
"I don't want any politics brought into this," said Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who along with Democrat Kevin Beckner voted against the proposal. "I think this ought to be staff-driven."
Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham suggested the move and said later that political considerations were not part of the calculation. He said he believes if the county hires outside help, such as a law firm, and the district boundaries are challenged in court later, it would put that firm on the hook to defend the new districts.
"My thought was to get the politics out of there," he said.
County attorney Renee Lee, who has assistants experienced with the redistricting process, said she has heard from representatives of "several" consultants, including law firms, interested in the gig. She declined later to name them.
Higginbotham said he has not heard from anyone about the proposal and didn't solicit ideas from people who might seek the work. Lee's office will craft a list of options for commissioners to consider soon, since the redistricting analysis must be finalized 120 days after the census is released and is under way.
Every 10 years, political districts for Congress on down to local offices are redrawn to ensure that each member of an elected body represents roughly the same number of people. That's true for the four Hillsborough commission seats that represent defined portions of the county. The other three are filled in countywide elections.
Hillsborough County has the added burden of trying to ensure that at least one of its districts affords minorities a shot of winning elections as indicated by its demographic makeup. The county is under U.S. Justice Department voting rights supervision due to past discriminatory practices.
Redistricting often is fraught with political manipulation, with parties in power seeking to shape new districts in ways that ensure continuing control. Republicans currently hold a 5-2 supermajority on the commission, even though more voters in the county are registered as Democrats among those who claim a party affiliation.
"It's kind of hard to take politics out of politics," said Victor Crist, a Republican who participated in redistricting while he was in the Legislature.
He tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to win support for hiring two consultants, with local leaders of each major political party getting a pick, or at least a recommendation. That would at least make the politics more transparent, he reasoned.
Ten years ago, a task force of staff-level county workers crafted a series of redistricting choices for commissioners after holding public meetings to get input from residents. That was the plan this time.
That approach is not immune from politics, either, since commissioners ultimately make the final decision. After weeks of debate, hearings and methodical map refinement led by the staff in 2001, the board discarded each of the publicly vetted options in favor of a different plan crafted by Democrat former Commissioner Pat Frank in secret.
Voters last year approved charter language that would require another public hearing if a new proposal is floated that wasn't previously publicized.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]