Tampa attorney Mary Ann Stiles has spent the past five years working to create an elected countywide mayor in Hillsborough. She and her organizing committee make a compelling argument that a strong chief executive could accomplish more than the appointed county administrator and seven elected county commissioners who run the county now. It is a serious, timely proposal, and commissioners should put the referendum on this year's ballot.
It may seem hard to imagine that commissioners would do anything to advance this idea. A county mayor, after all, would strip the commission of most of its powers. Under the change, a mayor would replace the county administrator as head of the executive branch. The mayor would prepare the budget, run the bureaucracy and be the public face of the county. The commission would have veto power over some decisions. But commissioners would play a largely advise-and-consent role and act as sounding boards for their communities.
Stiles will ask commissioners today to place the question on the November ballot. That is a reasonable request that would save time and money and give voters more time to debate the substance behind the proposal. It would spare Stiles the time and expense of collecting nearly 40,000 signatures under the citizen petition process. Should the commissioners refuse, Stiles' group would likely work through July collecting petitions, leaving little time to debate the pros and cons of a charter change.
Commissioners should be clear: The issue here is not the merits of creating a county mayor, but the right of voters to exercise control over their government. Stiles is not looking for the easy way out. Had a former county elections supervisor not mishandled the petitions process in 2006, voters likely already would have settled the matter. Stiles successfully put a charter change on the ballot in 2008 that gave veto powers to a county mayor, and voters approved that referendum 53 to 47 percent even though a mayor does not yet exist.
The petition process gives citizens direct access to the charter. It is not meant to foreclose the commission from using its direct authority to place a question before the voters. While requiring a minimum number of signatures is a good way to keep silly questions off the ballot, the petition threshold is not the only means of testing ballot questions for reasonableness. The county mayor proposal has been one of the highest profile public policy debates in Hillsborough since 2005. Its backers include some of the county's most prominent political and civic figures. This is hardly a half-baked idea floating under the radar.
Placing the charter proposal directly on the ballot also will spare the elections office from having to process thousands of petitions. It is a more efficient use of taxpayers' time and money that will enable Hillsborough voters to cut to the heart of the matter — whether the county would be better off with a mayor. Commissioners should put the question on the ballot and let the public decide.