TAMPA — The lead advocate for creating an elected Hillsborough County mayor has previously emphasized that the position would be nonpartisan —above the political fray in a sense.
But new preliminary ballot language would make the job partisan after all.
Mary Ann Stiles, a lawyer who has headed the initiative, said she is heeding the will of some of other supporters, particularly her fellow Republicans. They say they want campaigns for the office to include the full and open debate of political ideologies that only a partisan race can offer.
Stiles said she believes the change also will ward off one avenue for a potential legal challenge. Mayoral elections would take place at the same time as partisan County Commission races, and the courts could find that creates confusion.
It makes little sense to have partisan commission races and nonpartisan mayoral elections, Stiles said. In any event, she said she believes it's a change with little meaning since voters these days are more aware than ever of candidates' political affiliations even in nonpartisan campaigns.
"I think it just confused everything," Stiles said. "I don't see it as that big of an issue."
Voters currently elect seven county commissioners, who hire an appointed county administrator to run day-to-day government operations. Stiles and the group Elected County Mayor Political Committee Inc. want to replace the county administrator with an elected executive who they argue will be able to chart a vision and be held accountable.
They've been trying to put the question to voters for the better part of five years.
But Stiles' group failed to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot in 2006. A court threw the issue off the ballot in 2008, saying supporters improperly carried over signatures.
A companion measure that would give the county mayor veto power over some commission decisions was passed by voters with little campaigning in support of it in 2008. Supporters are preparing to start collecting signatures to get the issue back on the ballot in November.
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt has opposed the initiative, saying it concentrates too much power in one elected official.
"I think this will make matters even worse," Platt said.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.