TAMPA — Accountability.
It's a word thrown around quite a bit by people who want to create an elected county mayor in Hillsborough County. Replace the appointed administrator with an elected mayor and it will ensure that the person calling the shots is accountable directly to the public, they argue.
But a leading opponent of the initiative told the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa on Friday that accountability is a big reason for his distaste for the proposal.
James Shirk, who successfully filed suit to remove the question from the ballot two years ago, argued that accountability exists now. The county administrator, who runs day-to-day operations, reports directly to seven elected commissioners who can remove her at any time.
Under what is proposed by county mayor advocates, accountability would come only every four years in an election.
"I see a dictatorship with this referendum," Shirk said. "The County Commission would become a toothless tiger."
Shirk squared off against lawyer-lobbyist Mary Ann Stiles, leader of the Elected County Mayor Political Committee. For the better part of five years, she and prior incarnations of the group have been seeking to put the issue before voters.
The committee is seeking signatures from voters to get the question on November's ballot.
Stiles said she has watched a dysfunctional County Commission struggle with addressing major issues, particularly transportation. She argued it's time Hillsborough has a single leader reporting directly to the public.
Commissioners would have veto power, already approved by voters, as a balance against the mayor, she said. She made vague references to the current brouhaha at County Center, in which County Administrator Pat Bean is on paid leave while commissioners grapple with stealth pay raise and e-mail snooping allegations against her.
"I think we've found that (the current system) doesn't always work," Stiles said.
Tiger Bay member Sydney Potter asked: If the current elected commission is dysfunctional, what's to say that couldn't happen with an elected mayor?
Stiles said her proposal isn't a response to any of the personalities in county government now, that it's about changing the structure of government.
"We have an administrator today," she said. "As taxpayers, we have no right to say if that person keeps their job."
Another member, Stanley Gray, asked about the pluses and minuses of each form of government in moving forward. He said afterward he was thinking particularly about mass transit.
Shirk said that on that issue in particular, it is important that some form of consensus is reached, and that is made possible when you have seven commissioners debating the merits.
"One of the advantages of the current system is that is takes a lot of energy to get something done," he said. "Of course, that's also one of the disadvantages."
A civil engineer who lives in unincorporated Hillsborough, he said the county includes pockets of people with diverse views and often different beliefs about how the community should grow.
"It's awfully hard to distill those competing interests into one person," Shirk said.