Six weeks after Tampa Bay— like the rest of the country— plunged headfirst into pandemic control, how have the region’s largest counties handled the crisis politically?
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long praises her six fellow commissioners for speaking with a unified voice when deciding to shut down the county’s world-famous beaches, issuing a safer-at-home order and keeping the county’s parks open. Looking across the bay, Long doesn’t see the same political cohesion.
In Pinellas, unlike Hillsborough, nobody seeks the limelight or “goes off the reservation to support ideas not backed up by facts and data," she said.
Hillsborough’s Emergency Policy Group initially disagreed over when to impose a countywide safer-at-home order. Then the group set a curfew by a 5-3 vote, only to rescind it three days later. In March, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor threatened to issue a citywide safer-at-home order until the policy group agreed to a countywide order. Last week, Castor’s proposal to require residents to wear face coverings in public didn’t even get a vote from the eight-member body.
“The rancor that exists is not helpful,” said Long. “And I’m not confident the citizens appreciate it. Citizens are crying out for leadership for things to get done. People are scared.”
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller, who is also chairman of the county’s Emergency Policy Group, said he didn’t want to get in a “tit for tat” with Long. But he defended his group’s actions and the often-spirited discussions that preceded them.
“I don’t know where she gets this ‘limelight’ from or ‘going off the reservation,’” Miller said. “We’re going to have our opinion on things. But at the end of the day we all come together. There’s been no stepping out in the limelight.”
Miller points to the different structure of the two counties’ emergency response groups.
In Pinellas, an executive policy team including the county’s public health director, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and County Administrator Barry Burton advises the seven commissioners about the pandemic. But county commissioners have the final say.
In Hillsborough, Miller and two other county commissioners have seats on the policy group. But so did the mayors of the three cities in the county as well as Sheriff Chad Chronister and School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively. They all have a vote.
“I think it makes the group have more aspects of opinions coming from different parts of government. I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Miller said. “I know that our board gives us a total representation of everything that’s happening in Hillsborough County. That’s the best way to get it done.”
The mayors of the region’s two largest cities weighed in recently on Castor’s Facebook Live show.
Asked by a Tampa Bay Times reporter why Pinellas appeared to be more unified, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Pinellas, with 24 municipalities — compared to three in Hillsborough — has often kept Burton, the county administrator, busy juggling conflicting priorities.
“To look like we’re getting along better is, in some ways, ironic,” Kriseman said.
Kriseman said he appealed unsuccessfully to the county commission for a tougher stay-at-home order, but he said it’s important to realize that politics is an imperfect art.
“Sometimes things align perfectly. Sometimes they align pretty good,” he said with a nod to Castor. “You and I have both been frustrated.”
Castor agreed, saying: “Ultimately, everyone is passionately fighting for the best interests of their community.”
Charlie Miranda, a Tampa City Council member who has been involved in politics since the early 1970s, said he doesn’t see any political dysfunction in Hillsborough.
“Just because you have a debate doesn’t mean you’re not trying. If not, you’re not a board, you’re just one person," he said.
Both counties have had their internal spats. North Pinellas has often resented the flow of bed taxes and services to St. Petersburg, for instance. And Tampa and Hillsborough have battled over hurricane orders and a host of other issues over the decades.
That’s politics, Miranda said, and has to be framed in a wider historical lens.
“One chapter of the book doesn’t make it good or bad,” he said.
Across the country, states are creating partnerships with other states to restart regional economies as the pandemic decreases. In the West, California, Washington and Oregon joined forces. Other partnerships have formed in the Midwest and Northeast.
Could Pinellas and Hillsborough come together to propel an economic rebound? Not likely.
In 2017, then-Commission Chair Long tried getting Hillsborough commissioners to hold a joint public meeting so both boards could discuss regional issues that could improve each county. Pinellas commissioners publicly supported the idea, but Hillsborough leaders balked.
While watching policies develop and falter in recent weeks in Hillsborough and Tampa, the leadership differences stand out, Long said.
“It doesn’t appear that they are ever unified,” Long said.
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