Hillsborough government charter remains unchanged as review closes

Panel had considered expanding the size of the commission and changing term limits before its work halted.
The Hillsborough County Charter Review Board is scheduled to hold its final meeting on Feb. 2, 2021.
The Hillsborough County Charter Review Board is scheduled to hold its final meeting on Feb. 2, 2021. [ C.T. Bowen ]
Published Jan. 25, 2021

TAMPA — A citizens’ review of Hillsborough County government is ending with no proposed changes even though some committee members want to close the loophole allowing elected commissioners to serve more than two consecutive terms.

“The shot clock ran out on us,’' said former state Rep. Ed Narain, chairman of the Charter Review Board.

Under county rules, proposed charter amendments require two public hearings and approval from 10 of the 14 committee members before being considered by voters. But with the one-year term of the Charter Review Board expiring Feb. 4, there’s not enough time to vet proposed ballot initiatives.

The coronavirus pandemic proved to be too big of an interruption to the group’s work. The board was unable to meet the state required in-person quorums in order to conduct official business for the past three months. Its final meeting is scheduled for Feb. 2.

“I think we all feel deflated,” said board member and attorney Stacy Yates. “We had fruitful discussions, but honestly, with the pandemic, it just stopped us in our tracks.”

Related: Term limits loophole for Hillsborough commissioners could be closed

Some of those discussions centered on how long commissioners can serve in office.

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 a term-limited incumbent running for a different spot on the commission.

Sean Shaw, charter board member, former Democratic state representative and 2018 candidate for Florida attorney general, called the seat-switching a game of “musical chairs’' that violated the voters’ intent when they approved the charter.

While debating the issue in November and December, other members of the citizens group said there should be no artificial limits and voters should have the ultimate say in electing commissioners. Not enough members showed up, however, so no votes could be taken in those meetings.

As a compromise, the citizens’ board had been prepared to consider a plan to limit commissioners to 12 years in office, regardless of which seat they held. But members didn’t get to discuss that plan because the group’s January meeting was canceled. The issue is not slated to be on the agenda for the Feb. 2 meeting.

“I am disappointed that we weren’t able to have a further discussion to prevent politicians from skirting the term limitation that the voters intended,” Shaw said last week.

Changing the charter should not be taken lightly and “it doesn’t make sense to rush something through,” said Narain.

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

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But the strategy hasn’t been successful universally. 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.

Related: Hillsborough charter panel considers expanded commission

The charter board also spent considerable time debating the nature of the seven-member commission. Some wanted to expand the commission to nine members and others said countywide seats should be eliminated and each commissioner should represent an individual district to better serve the county’s 1.4 million residents.

Proposals to schedule public hearings on those issues, in anticipation of putting the measures on the 2020 ballot, died on 10-3 votes in July. A push to resurrect the ideas of an expanded commission and single-member districts for the 2022 ballot never gained enough support in later meetings.

Narain pointed out the commission can offer its own ballot initiatives after public hearings and wouldn’t need to rely on a review board which is convened once every five years to study the charter.

Related: Hillsborough panel kills expanded commission proposals

That happened in 2018 when Murman, a Republican, proposed expanding the commission to nine, single-member districts. She withdrew the plan two months later amid party-line objections that the plan’s ulterior motive was to try to continue what was then a GOP majority on the commission.

There doesn’t appear to be much appetite on the current commission to resurrect that idea. Last week, the commission instructed its county administrator and attorney to begin the process of redrawing district boundaries once the 2020 Census data becomes available. There will be four single-member districts and three countywide seats.

That’s the same as there is now.