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Term limits loophole for Hillsborough commissioners could be closed

A proposal would eliminate the ‘musical chairs’ of county commissioners switching seats to get around term limits and extend their time in office.
The Hillsborough County  Commission listens during an August 2019 meeting inside the commission chambers.
The Hillsborough County Commission listens during an August 2019 meeting inside the commission chambers.
Published Dec. 2, 2020

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County citizens panel is reconsidering the term limits imposed on elected county commissioners.

The county’s Charter Review Board may ask voters to eliminate the loophole that allows sitting commissioners to serve more than two full terms by switching between district and at-large seats. The board is also considering extending the term limits to 12 years.

The charter board — 14 citizens appointed by county commissioners — is conducting its once-every-five-year review of the charter, and its focus now is on how long commissioners can serve in office. The commission consists of four members elected within geographical districts and three commissioners elected countywide. They serve four-year terms.

The county charter, approved by voters in the early 1980s, prohibits commissioners from serving more than two consecutive full terms in the same seat with exceptions made every 10 years when district boundaries are redrawn. They can run again for the same seat if they sit out a term. However, the charter does not address the frequent practice of an incumbent in one seat running for a different seat.

“It’s my belief the musical chairs between districts flies in the face of what voters voted on,” said Sean Shaw, a board member and former state representative who ran for Florida attorney general in 2018.

Related: Hillsborough commissioners tap Pat Kemp to lead them
The Hillsborough County Charter Review Board.
The Hillsborough County Charter Review Board. [ C.T. Bowen ]

On the current commission, only Commissioner Ken Hagan has bounced between district and at-large seats. He is beginning his 19th year as commissioner and can run again in 2022 for another four-year term.

Other commissioners have failed to employ that strategy. In the past two election cycles, former commissioners Victor Crist and Sandy Murman made unsuccessful runs for countywide, at-large seats after term limits forced them to leave their district positions.

Commission Chair Pat Kemp, who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times before Tuesday’s charter review meeting, said she favored eliminating the loophole.

“I don’t have a hard and fast opinion on how it should work, but the way it’s working now isn’t good,’' said Kemp, who defeated Murman in November.

Despite a spirited debate Tuesday night, the citizens committee could not vote on a term-limit proposal because it lacked an in-person quorum, The discussion mirrored many of the comments from a Nov. 10 board meeting when the charter panel also lacked an in-person quorum.

At that time, former state Rep. Ed Narain, the committee’s chairman, said the eight-year limit on serving in the Legislature resulted in a “power shift to the lobby corps and the staff which we all know wasn’t the intent.”

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“I think it’s important to let the voters vote for who they want,” said Mitchell Thrower, who recently lost a bid for a Hillsborough County School Board seat.

Others voiced concerns about the departure of institutional knowledge when commissioners leave office.

“Especially with our complicated land-use issues, six years (is) probably minimum before they’re really getting up to speed and even eight (years). It’s complex stuff,” said board member James Scarola, who serves as a zoning hearing master for the county.

“We have term limits, it’s called the ballot box,’' said former state representative and charter review member Mary Figg.

Shaw and Narain suggested capping service on the commission to 12 years maximum regardless of whether a commissioner switched between a district or at-large seat.

The proposals will be considered at the review board’s meeting in January. Under charter guidelines, any potential referendum must be subjected to two public hearings and receive support from 10 of the 14 committee members before it can go on the ballot.

Besides Hillsborough, 10 Florida counties with charter governments limit terms in office for commissioners. Broward County requires commissioners to leave office after a maximum of 12 years. The rest set two, full four-year terms as the limit.