Tampa attorney Mary Ann Stiles has spent a good deal of her own time and money during the past four years pushing to create a county mayor in Hillsborough. Done right, the move could inject some much-needed leadership into the fourth-largest county in the fourth-largest state.
But Stiles announced last week that she would change a key component of the referendum that may go to voters in November. Instead of the mayor being a nonpartisan post, the job would be decided by a partisan election.
The switch undercuts the strongest rationale for changing how the county is governed. The lack of vision and leadership under the current county commission-manager form of government is the result of too much political meddling — not a lack of it. Indeed, the last straw that led Stiles to conceive of the mayor initiative in 2005 was the smear job Republican commissioners launched on the county bus system — just before gas prices jumped and county bus ridership spiked to all-time highs.
Stiles still must submit the final ballot language to the county elections supervisor for approval, a process that starts the clock for her to obtain the necessary signatures to put the referendum on the 2010 ballot. Stiles said changing the job to a partisan post would likely blunt opposition by the local political parties and help the measure's chance for passage. She also said any race for mayor would likely evolve into a partisan campaign, anyway.
Stiles is right the change would bring about some intellectual honesty. Nonpartisan elections for strong, chief executives such as mayors are typically shadow contests between high-profile Democrats and Republicans. That was obvious most recently in November in the race for St. Petersburg mayor between Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford.
But the promise behind the idea from the start was the chance to move the center of power in Hillsborough away from big-money political bosses, Democrat and Republican. The commission has done a terrible job in recent years of managing growth, attracting good jobs and planning for the future because partisanship, not leadership, was the route to campaign donations and winning election.
Having nonpartisan language embedded in the county charter would act as a restraining belt to curb the worst partisan impulses of any mayor. The winner would face tremendous pressure to serve and appear evenhanded. It would widen the political base for the county's chief executive, which would moderate partisanship across the board in county government. And voters would not be confused by electing a nonpartisan mayor and partisan county commissioners on the same ballot. They do it already each general election, choosing candidates in both partisan races, such as state Legislature, and nonpartisan races, such as the school board.
Stiles has moved the county forward with her proposal by highlighting the leadership void. But should the referendum pass, whoever wins the office first will set a tone for future mayors. The winning campaign should appeal to the politics of inclusion. Stiles has the best chance of making leadership the front-and-center issue by keeping the mayor's job a nonpartisan one.