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Extreme Makeover: Local Government Edition

The new year will bring a new cast of characters to Hillsborough County politics, from county administrator, tax collector and clerk of courts to a new school superintendent.
Hillsborough County Center, located at 601 E Kennedy Blvd. in downtown Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA  |  Times]
Hillsborough County Center, located at 601 E Kennedy Blvd. in downtown Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Nov. 28, 2019

TAMPA — They promise it wasn’t planned. And if it was, no one is claiming credit.

But keeping up with the key players in Hillsborough County politics may soon feel like a game of Guess Who — with a number of top officials readying to leave office due to retirement, health, term limits, open elections or untold political aspirations.

Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank [OCTAVIO JONES | Tampa Bay Times]

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” said Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, who leads the exodus of key officials retiring over the next year. Frank, 90, will conclude nearly 50 years in politics in January 2021.

“Experience is really going to show through this election," Frank said. "It’s going to make all the difference.”

Next year, the county will be in the market for a new court clerk, a county administrator to replace the retiring Mike Merrill, a tax collector to replace the also-retiring Doug Belden, and two county commissioners to replace outgoing board chairman Les Miller and Sandy Murman — career politicians whose shared work history spans decades in state and county government.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill [Tampa Bay Times]

When those new players are picked to lead Hillsborough County government, they’ll be working alongside Tampa’s four newly-elected city councilmen, new chief financial officer, new city attorney and new mayor, Jane Castor, who is seven months into the job.

Add to that uncertainty the pending investigation into the new chief executive for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county’s mass transit agency. After only seven months on the job, CEO Ben Limmer was placed on paid leave earlier this month pending an investigation into a whistle blower complaint involving the agency’s purchasing process.

And in the county’s public school district, a national search is underway to replace retiring superintendent Jeff Eakins. A nearly 30-year veteran educator in Hillsborough, Eakins was hired to lead the nation’s eighth-largest school district after the school board abruptly fired longtime Superintendent MaryEllen Elia in 2015.

Related: RELATED: Everybody has an opinion about the next Hillsborough superintendent

The University of South Florida recently said goodbye to another pillar of the county’s institutional history. After 19 years at the helm, USF President Judy Genshaft retired in July, handing the job off to Steven Currall, former provost and vice president of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Related: RELATED: At USF, a formal welcome for the new president

For open seats without incumbent candidates running for re-election, newcomer candidates have been quick to make their intentions clear. And Frank says party politics may play a roll in who does and doesn’t run.

“I think a lot of it is a matter of timing; I’m retiring because I’m old, and others have health problems or are in jobs that don’t typically last very long,” Frank said. “But I also think it’s partisan because there is a very strong Democratic presence in the electorate today and the Republicans are wondering whether it’s a good time for them to be running in a blue county.”

Democratic Commissioner Pat Kemp has already launched her campaign to fend off challengers for her countywide seat, as have State Attorney Andrew Warren and Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Warren, a Democrat, won the job in 2016 from incumbent Republican Mark Ober, who had served as Hillsborough’s State Attorney since 2000.

Chronister, a Republican and veteran of the department, replaced 14-year Sheriff David Gee when Gee retired in 2017. Chronister entered the job as an interim appointee of the governor, but validated his hiring with a victory in the following election.

Related: RELATED: New sheriff won over those in power. The voters? They don’t get a say

For the first time in nearly two decades, Democrats claim a 4-3 majority on the county commission, a majority in the county’s legislative delegation and a majority of the county’s constitutional officers. In Tampa, the mayor and every city councilman are Democrats.

But not all jobs in local government rely on party politics, said tax collector Belden, a Republican who plans to retire at the end of this term from the job he’s held since 1998.

Instead this election will be a battle between past public officials running on name recognition and first-timers working inside the departments they hope to lead.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden [Courtesy of Doug Belden]

“My office, the clerk, the property appraiser – we’re not voting on policies, we’re simply following statutes and doing the job,” Belden said. “I think voters will be looking more for stability, ethics, (and) customer service during the election - not what party you represent.”

Outgoing commission chairman Les Miller said the key lesson he’ll take away from his more than 50 years in public service is that collaboration across the aisle will make or break any candidate.

“I’ve always said that the only way to be successful in politics is to compromise, and right now we’re not there,” Miller said. “I’m going to try my best, with the Lord’s help and prayers, to try to bring some collegiality back to this board and back to this county before I leave. Our success depends on that.”

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