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Tallahassee to Tampa: New Hillsborough commissioners bringing Capitol's ways to county government

TAMPA

In case you haven't heard, the three newest members of the Hillsborough County Commission used to be STATE LEG-IS-LA-TORS. Tune in to any commission meeting, and they'll remind you that they chaired a certain committee, wrote the laws on topics that are now vexing their new colleagues, and still have pull in high places. Victor Crist, Les Miller and Sandra Murman have riffed on their resumes at least 84 times combined in just their first 13 regular board meetings, a review of transcripts shows. "I can see the headline," Commissioner Kevin Beckner said with a chuckle. " 'You're not in Tallahassee anymore.' "

But the three newcomers have done more than wave their pedigrees since taking office in November: They have also sought to bring a semblance of the Old Capitol to County Center.

The former lawmakers have pushed for more direct sway over how county tax money is doled out, or to at least make spending plans look more like the state's. One of them wants the commission to have its own budget analyst, like legislators do.

They've suggested inviting political consultants to help them redraw commission district boundaries, like how it works you-know-where. And they've tried to stifle rude public testimony, which their former colleagues didn't abide.

A recent suggestion that commissioners rein in their own debates drew rebukes from veteran board members, who noted that this isn't Tallahassee.

The newcomers say they're not trying to recast county government in Tallahassee's image. They're just drawing from experience, like anyone in politics.

"There's some things we can learn from Tallahassee," said Miller, a Democrat who spent 14 years in the House and Senate. "Believe me, there are some things we don't want to bring here from the Legislature."

Former Commissioner Jan Platt, a Democrat who helped craft the county's governance structure, said the machinations bear watching.

"County government is not like Tallahassee, where the decisions are really made before you walk in the room and the meeting is just a formality," she said. "We've progressed beyond that."

• • •

The new commissioners recall their legislative days more fondly. Between the three of them, they flaunt their statehouse chops an average seven times a meeting.

If their comments sound gratuitous at times, they say they're only highlighting long-term interest in issues now before them as commissioners.

"I make them as a footnote of experience," Murman said

Crist leads in experience footnoting, with 37 instances found in commission meeting transcripts. Even Murman and Miller exchanged a look recently, when Crist referred to Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank as senator "because I always have and that's your highest title."

Crist said he was just trying to show respect. And he said he probably talks about his past the most because he jumped to the county directly after serving 18 years in the House and Senate.

Murman, a fellow Republican, left the House in 2004 after eight years there. Miller left the Senate five years ago.

"I'm just transitioning," Crist said. "You probably see more out of me than them because it's so fresh."

• • •

All three say this is new to them. And they insist it's natural to draw on past job experiences.

That's why all say they'd like the county's budget to look more like the state's. But Beckner says Miller went too far by suggesting in March that commissioners should help oversee their own slices of county spending.

Miller said he was not copying the state, where powerful appropriations committee chairmen determine what projects get money and reap campaign cash from political donors. He said he thought it would help commissioners forge areas of expertise.

"That seems to me to be creating fiefdoms," Beckner said of the proposal Miller ultimately dropped.

Crist says he is borrowing from the state in suggesting commissioners have their own financial analyst. Experts beholden to legislators enable them to challenge the governor's annual budget proposal for a more effective check and balance, he says.

The difference is legislators can't fire the governor. Commissioners hire and can fire the person who crafts their budget — the county administrator.

Crist said an analyst would help ensure that the administrator is not gaming his numbers in ways they can't detect.

"We have to rely on the staff of the administrator," he said. "Sometimes the staff are not as forthright as they should be."

Even the commission redistricting process drew some been-there, done-that comments from the former lawmakers.

As the redistricting got going in April, Miller noted he served on a Senate committee that reconfigured congressional and state districts. Murman chimed in that she was chairwoman of her chamber's committee. Crist? Well, he's been through it twice.

All three said they should follow the legislative lead and invite political consultants to help with a process widely derided by the minority party. You can't take politics out of an inherently political exercise, so you might as well be open about it, Murman reasoned, though the idea was subsequently dropped.

• • •

Her fellow state alums say openness is the hardest part of their new government jobs.

Miller says the Senate didn't take public testimony. People didn't know his record and looked surprised when he got home from a session.

"Why aren't you in Washington?" they asked.

Today, angry e-mails arrive moments after a vote. A regular speaker calls him an idiot.

"The first time it happened, I was like, 'We've got to take this?' " Miller said.

He pushed for more civil speech, to little effect.

Crist says he finds it frustrating not to be able to talk business with his colleagues in private like he could in Tallahassee. The result: long, awkward public debates on thorny issues.

He and Miller made a procedural move to end a June 2 debate about firing then-County Attorney Renee Lee once it became clear a majority was willing to negotiate a graceful exit. Beckner and Republican Mark Sharpe still wanted to speak.

"All I know is I was getting ready to hear the same argument for the third time," Crist said. "We would never have gotten our business done."

Sharpe wasn't happy. Commissioners must conduct business publicly, and the board traditionally has erred on the side of letting every member make his or her best case.

Still, he said the new board members have brought a tonal change to a board known for backbiting and dithering. And they've brought a seriousness to improving a government body that is rarely cited as a model.

"I just think there's that shaking out period where they've got to realize they're here, not there." Sharpe said.

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

Tallahassee to Tampa: New Hillsborough commissioners bringing Capitol's ways to county government 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 6:19pm]
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