Hillsborough to consider expanded county commission again

Commissioner Michael Owen suggests nine, single-member districts be included in a 2024 referendum.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Michael Owen is proposing expanding the county commission to nine, single-member district seats. Voters would need to approve the charter change.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Michael Owen is proposing expanding the county commission to nine, single-member district seats. Voters would need to approve the charter change. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published June 7|Updated June 8

Hillsborough County Commissioner Michael Owen wants to see more people join him on the dais as elected commissioners.

Owen resurrected a frequently debated topic of adding two seats to the County Commission and eliminating the three at-large, countywide seats and replacing them with commissioners that represent specific areas of the county. Under a timeline Owen proposed Wednesday, voters would consider the charter change needed to make it happen in 2024 and, if approved, the nine, single-member districts would become effective in the 2026 election.

“It’s time,” said Owen, a Republican elected in November 2022 to the sprawling District 4 seat in south and east Hillsborough that stretches from Apollo Beach to Plant City.

“You just look around and you see you can’t effectively represent 1.5 million people. We’re not Congress. We’re local home-rule politics,” he said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

“I just believe in how the county is growing and is going to continue to grow that we need local representation that is very specific to a district.”

It will be the fourth time in eight years the idea has been kicked around by commissioners or the appointed Charter Review Commission, which meets every five years to consider amending the county charter. The panel is scheduled to reconvene in 2025.

A charter committee considered — but abandoned — the idea of expanding the commission in 2015. Then-Commissioner Sandy Murman resurfaced, then retreated from her own plan in 2018 that would have set nine single-member districts. A different charter committee debated the suggestion again in 2020 but did not support it. At the time, the committee pondered two ideas: nine single-member districts and a mix of single-member and at-large seats that also would total nine elected commissioners.

In earlier debates, advocates suggested single-member districts would lead to a Hispanic-majority district. Others criticized it as a Republican power grab to hold onto a commission majority.

“I’ve been through this before. It’s been rejected before. It keeps coming up,” Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat, said Wednesday after the commission meeting.

The commission’s current form has existed since voters adopted the charter in 1982. It is designed to give the public the ability to vote for a majority of commission members — their own district commissioner and all three at-large seats. All single-member districts would mean voters could select only their district commissioner, one of nine elected commissioners governing the county.

“Every resident can hold only one commissioner accountable. Right now, every resident can hold four commissioners accountable. They have a majority of the commissioners they vote for. To me, that is more democracy,” Kemp said.

Her comments mirrored the previous objections to single-member districts voiced by the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee.

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“We see nine single-member districts as being a form of voter suppression and suppression of citizen representation,’’ Ione Townsend, Democratic Party chairperson, said during the 2020 debate.

Expense is another consideration. In 2015, the charter committee learned adding two commissioners and accompanying staff members could cost $700,000 annually. Under the current rules, the financial impact of a proposed charter amendment must be included with the ballot question.