When the Hillsborough County Commission set out to elect a new chairman, it should have been a yawner of a vote, with the board quickly on to bigger business.
But Hillsborough has long held the title of Most Dysfunctional Local Government Around, and tradition is tradition. Over the years the gang of seven could politicize anything from a library display to, probably, sending out for sandwiches. (Egg salad? Sounds suspiciously liberal! Cubans? Opens the whole trade and travel debate! Chicken? What did you call me?)
Though the latest incarnation of the board has been disappointingly quiet, commissioners came back strong last week with an embarrassing display over picking a leader.
"Leader" is generous. Being chairman or chairwoman means running meetings, and the extra 10 grand it pays is nice. The job also comes with the intangible benefit of being The Person In Charge in the eyes of the public, which may get you something on election day, as long as you never winged the gavel at anyone's head or anything.
But this time around, chairmanship also means you get to be the board's representative at next year's Republican National Convention in Tampa, which must be particularly tasty if you happen to be a Republican yourself (as most of the commissioners are) and also looking out for your political future.
As the Times' Bill Varian reported, the calls and cajoling started weeks out, with friends and political allies of certain commissioners calling other commissioners for votes. Depending on whom you ask, the tone was either cordial lobbying or bruising, all-but-threats of political retribution. Given tradition, I'm betting on the latter.
Ken Hagan, who served three terms as chairman (and as far as I know never winged a gavel at anyone), was elected. Commissioners spoke generally about those prevote conversations being "pretty rough" and the lobbying "out of control." Al Higginbotham, who was also in the running, talked of brutal attacks but declined to give details.
"It doesn't do the future of this board any good" to be specific, he told me this week. Too bad, because I bet citizens would be really interested in how this particular political sausage gets made.
By the way, besides being the reigning champion of Most Dysfunctional, the commission holds several awards for Most Interesting Local Pol And Not Necessarily in a Good Way, with past recipients including fire-and-brimstone Ronda Storms; Jim Norman of the intriguing but apparently not illegal funding for a family vacation home; Brian Blair, who could not have been more out of place at a public meeting had he worn his wrestling tights; and Kevin White, awaiting sentencing on corruption charges. Really, they ought to build a trophy case.
But watch out, Hillsborough — Pinellas Commissioner Norman Roche and his past penchant for harsh online opining under the name "Reality" may be hot on your heels!
You might not believe this, but there is a smart, easy and logical attempt afoot to fix this, even if it does take the fun out of dysfunction. Commissioner Les Miller called for a rotation of the post among all commissioners to limit ugly lobbying and also give those not in the prevailing political party a prayer. They take it up next month.
What will win the day — no more politics, or politics as usual? Stay tuned.