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A ripple of change could stir stagnant commission

If you like your local politicians focused on stuff like sin and naked people, as opposed to big-picture things like, say, a vision for the community's future, then the Hillsborough County Commission is right up your alley.

That board's record of silliness, avoidance of tough issues, dalliances with righteousness and squabbling is unmatched over the past decade. Do the math. The commission represents nearly 1-million people. So its per-capita value has been close to nil.

Here's the interesting part: This is no accident. The commission is weak because plenty of people like it weak.

For years, the seven-member body has been dominated by a me-first suburbanite vote, marshaled by a few business interests preaching the twin mantras of No New Taxes and No Higher Impact Fees.

From this point of view, the best kind of government is a government left in the ditch with two broken legs and an empty wallet.

This year, four of the commission's seven seats are up for election. Two of the four will almost certainly be refilled by their current occupants. The question is how much the two other races will change things.

In District 2, covering the suburban north county, incumbent Ken Hagan, a Republican, faces a Democrat named David Cutting and a write-in named Don Fulmer. Hagan is backed heavily by builders and real estate types, and he returns the love, having rarely met a new development he didn't like.

In District 4, representing the rural and suburban east, the incumbent is the fabulous Ronda Storms, also Republican. She has a no-party opponent named Jean Batronie.

For my money, Storms is the best elected official in Tampa Bay when it comes to looking out for the taxpayers' dollar. Unfortunately, she also is prone to bouts of shrieking yahooism over, you name it, gays, black people, shiftless poor folk, the sick, evil pornographers and anybody else who didn't Earn It Like She Did. Her district loves her.

This leaves two seats with fairly competitive races. Both are countywide seats being vacated by veterans. (If you're keeping track, the three commissioners on the sidelines this year are two Democrats, Kathy Castor and Tom Scott, and Republican Jim Norman.)

Jan Platt is leaving office after more than two heroic-but-inflexible decades. The Democrat seeking her seat is Bob Buckhorn, the veteran former Tampa City Council member, trying for a comeback after not being elected mayor. He has the most experience of any candidate and would be a grownup, except when he (ironically, like Storms) occasionally yearns to ban something.

Buckhorn's GOP challenger is Brian Blair, a former wrestler, gym owner and candidate from two years ago. Blair has improved his presentation greatly. His campaign goes beyond the no-new-taxes stuff to talk (to talk, at least) about better planning, reclaimed water and so forth.

The second countywide seat is being vacated by Democrat Pat Frank, who is running for clerk of court. This lively race features Denise Layne as a Republican-turned-Democrat, former congressional candidate Mark Sharpe as the Republican, and the always-interesting Joe Redner as an independent.

Most of the District 2, 6 and 7 candidates showed up for a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa meeting on Friday, except for Buckhorn, who was attending a funeral, and the debate-avoiding Hagan. (During the Q&A period, one club member facetiously posed a question to Hagan to emphasize his customary absence.)

The most interesting disagreement was on higher impact fees, with Cutting and Redner strongly in favor, Sharpe and Blair strongly opposed, and Layne strongly in favor of something, though I'm not sure exactly what.

Redner, of course best known for his nude-dancing empire, was the most blunt of the lot. Afterward I heard someone say they should give Redner a seat up on the commission dais even if he isn't elected. I agreed, and said they should broadcast his running commentary on the second-language channel, sort of like the director's cut of a DVD.

Anyhow, let's say a couple of fee-raisin', future-lovin' newcomers got in there and kicked new life into the two existing Democrats. Instant majority! Or, more likely, there's a strong-headed Republican supermajority that has to sort itself out. So you can see how people are interested in how it all turns out.