Hillsborough charter panel considers expanded commission

A citizens group is weighing options to add two more county commission seats.
The Hillsborough County Charter Review Board is scheduled to meet July 21.
The Hillsborough County Charter Review Board is scheduled to meet July 21. [ C.T. Bowen ]
Published July 20, 2020

TAMPA — Some citizens want there to be more Hillsborough County commissioners.

But some don’t.

“What is it we’re trying to fix?‘' asked Dr. Liana Fernandez Fox.

For the third time in five years, there is a movement to expand the current seven-person commission to nine members. The Hillsborough County Charter Review Committee, 14 citizens appointed by commissioners, is kicking around the idea as part of the once-every-five-year exercise of studying the charter and potentially asking voters to amend it.

Related: Hillsborough shelves plan for nine-member commission

Fox is one of the committee members, and she posed her inquiry at the group’s July 7 meeting. A different charter committee considered — but abandoned — the idea of expanding the commission in 2015. Commissioner Sandy Murman resurfaced, then retreated from her own plan in 2018 that would have set nine single-member districts.

The committee is scheduled to consider two ideas during a virtual meeting Tuesday. If either plan gains a supermajority of 10 votes, then public hearings will be held Aug. 4 and Aug. 17 before a final vote on whether to send one of the plans to the November ballot.

Related: Seven or nine commissioners in Hillsborough County?

One plan mirrors the current set-up of a mix of at-large and single-member districts, with a new make-up of five district commissioners and four countywide seats. The other, more controversial proposal calls for blowing up the status quo of three at-large seats and four single-member districts and drawing the county into nine single-member districts.

The committee’s two most vocal advocates for an all single-member commission are James Scarola, appointed by Murman, and Eric Johnson, appointee of Commissioner Stacy White. The county’s population of 1.4 million makes it difficult for the four district commissioners to stay in touch with 350,000 constituents, they said, and the county’s geography leads to far-flung gerrymandering.

Apollo Beach is represented out of south Tampa, said Scarola, and Wimauma and Sun City Center are represented out of northwest Hillsborough.

Others are skeptical of the plan.

“We see nine single-member districts as being a form of voter suppression and suppression of citizen representation,‘' said Ione Townsend, chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee.

The party’s steering committee voted this week to support the nine-member commission mix of single-member and at-large members.

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.

“Why does it make sense for us to reduce voting power for the public?‘' asked charter board member Belinthia Berry.

The single-member district plan also is raising fears of a commission that would be guided by provincialism and proverbial horse trading to benefit individual districts rather than the county as a whole.

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Check the Hillsborough Emergency Group — consisting of three commissioners, three municipal mayors, the chair of the school board and the Hillsborough County sheriff — for a prime example, said attorney Stacy Yates, a member of the charter committee. There, she said, votes on countywide public health policies reflect parochial concerns and the political self-interests of individual members.

Committee member Edith Stewart, appointed by Commissioner Mariella Smith, was even more blunt about an all single-member district commission.

“It leads to terrible things,‘' she cautioned.

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.

Former state Rep. Mary Figg, a committee member appointed by Commissioner Pat Kemp, questioned the timing of the proposed referendum considering looming financial constraints from a pandemic-damaged economy.

“This might not be the best time for expanding the county commission,‘' she said.

She and others questioned what they perceived as a rush job to get the initiative on the the 2020 ballot, particularly since county districts will be reapportioned for the 2022 election cycle following completion of this year’s census.

Part of the accelerated pace can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The group first convened its monthly meeting schedule in February, but then had to cancel its sessions in April and May. The July 7 meeting was just the fourth time the group had met. Language for a ballot referendum must be provided to the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office by Aug. 18 to be included on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Figg, Stewart, Yates and former state Rep. Sean Shaw voted against a resolution asking the county attorney’s office to draft a proposed charter amendment creating nine, single-member commission districts. Johnson was the only dissenter when the board also asked for a draft amendment calling for five district commissioners and four at-large seats.

The charter review committee has no hand in drawing district boundaries. That chore remains the purview of the elected county commission. But how single-member districts would look troubled some committee members. Shaw said he couldn’t support advancing a plan without seeing potential district maps.

The lack of information disturbed others, too.

“We’re in an area,‘' said Figg, “where we don’t know what we’re talking about.‘'