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Ken Hagan wins rough-and-tumble Hillsborough commission chair battle

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners selected Republican Ken Hagan as their chairman Tuesday after weeks of jockeying among board members who wanted the position.

Then commissioners tentatively agreed to a new system of choosing a chairman that they hope will reduce the lobbying and strong-arming that goes on before each year's selection. It would allow each commissioner a chance to serve as chairman on a rotating basis.

Commissioner Les Miller said he came up with the idea in part due to intense lobbying in the weeks before the board's annual organizational meeting. He said he thought it was inappropriate that outside forces would be weighing in with such vigor on what is essentially a ceremonial post.

He also didn't think it was fair that board partisanship would prevent him, as a Democrat on a board with a heavily Republican majority, from serving in the role.

"I think it would take the politics out of it," Miller said.

Each year's bid for the chairmanship attracts a great deal of lobbying by friends of commissioners. The position carries no real power, though the chairman collects an extra $10,000 in pay.

But with this year's choice comes added cache: The chairman will be front and center as the county's representative when the 2012 Republican National Convention is held in Tampa.

Miller said he began getting phone calls over the summer about the pick. He said east county Republican activist and campaign fundraiser Sam Rashid engaged him in an animated call in which he enlisted Miller's support to return Al Higginbotham for another term as chairman.

"The conversation was pretty rough," Miller said in a recent interview. "I just think that's not proper."

He said Rashid claimed to have four votes already and was seeking added support.

Rashid acknowledged calling Miller and other commissioners, but said the conversation was cordial and that he never intimated that he had votes lined up. He called Miller's depiction a "mischaracterization or outright lie."

He said he wasn't particularly adamant that Higginbotham return as chairman, but said that, out of fairness to others, he didn't think Hagan should get it. Hagan has served three prior terms as chairman.

Several commissioners said this year was particularly ugly. Higginbotham said he faced brutal attacks but did not elaborate. Sandy Murman said the lobbying was "out of control."

"It's never been to the degree that it was this year," Hagan said. "The comments and threats being made were beyond disturbing."

Commissioners voted 5-2 for Hagan, with Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe in opposition. The vote came after a nomination for Sharpe by Higginbotham failed to win a majority. Sharpe has been jilted several years in a row in bids for the chairmanship. Higginbotham declined a nomination by Commissioner Victor Crist.

Democrat Kevin Beckner proved to be the swing vote against Sharpe, denying him the more high-profile post at a time when he is challenging fellow Democrat Kathy Castor for Congress.

Murman was unanimously approved as vice chairman, and Miller as chaplain.

Under Miller's plan, which must win future approval, the chairmanship would rotate starting in November 2012. The first two years would factor in seniority, at the suggestion of Beckner.

It would make Sharpe chairman next November, and Beckner the chairman the following year, if they are both are still in office. After that, the chairmanship would rotate sequentially through each commission district, starting with the District 1 seat now held by Murman.

If the person in the seat up for the chairmanship has been in office for less than a year, that district would be skipped. The vice chairmanship would also rotate sequentially so that the person who serves in the post is next in line to be chairman.

Commissioners would still elect their chaplain, who gives an opening prayer before each meeting and is third in line to fill in as chairman when absences occur.

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

Ken Hagan wins rough-and-tumble Hillsborough commission chair battle 11/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 7:08am]
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