Hillsborough County redistricting disintegrates into salvos questioning motives

At the first public meeting to draw their own district boundaries, commissioners are criticized for timing, transparency and partisan politics
Hillsborough Commissioner Gwen Myers submitted her own redistricting plan for Hillsborough's four district commission seats. She is shown during the June 16 commission meeting on HGTV.
Hillsborough Commissioner Gwen Myers submitted her own redistricting plan for Hillsborough's four district commission seats. She is shown during the June 16 commission meeting on HGTV. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 8, 2021

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners took their first public stab Wednesday at drawing new district boundaries for themselves amid accusations of self-serving gerrymandering, indifference to minority communities and a lack of transparency.

Three of the seven commission seats are elected countywide, with the four others each having approximate populations ranging between 350,000 to 375,000 residents. The boundaries are being redrawn to reflect up-to-date population figures in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Related: Current Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners precinct map

The county staff released four draft maps Friday evening, and Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp and District 3 Commissioner Gwen Myers offered their own versions as well. The timing drew immediate criticism.

“It looks like the same kind of political maneuvering I’ve seen in Tallahassee,” said former state Rep. Ed Narain, who addressed commissioners during public comment period.

So, too, did Nicholas Glover, vice president of government affairs and strategy for the Tampa Bay Chamber.

Our concern is that the public has not had adequate time to weigh in,” said Glover.

But the sharpest criticism came from the commissioners themselves. Commissioner Ken Hagan said most of the maps, except Myers’ submission, were dismissive of the black community because some predominantly black areas, like portions of Progress Village, were split from District 3. That seat has been held by a black commissioner since Hillsborough became a charter government nearly 40 years ago.

“I wouldn’t go too far patting yourself on the back,” Hagan later told told Kemp after she pointed out her map showed District 3 with a 38.2 percent black population, a greater percentage than three of the four staff-produced maps.

Commissioner Mariella Smith defended Kemp.

“That’s out of line,” she told Hagan. “... Let’s all tread carefully in our accusations and work with the assumption that we are all rowing in the same direction.”

But Hagan wasn’t through. He accused Kemp of being guided by partisan politics for drawing a map that moved her own home in Seminole Heights from District 3 to District 1, now represented by Commissioner Harry Cohen.

Kemp, who will face term limits on her countywide seat in 2024, said after the meeting she had no interest in running for the District 1 seat. Both she and Cohen are Democrats. The district, which goes from northwest Hillsborough to Apollo Beach and includes South Tampa and the coastal areas in south county, “never made sense to me,” said Kemp, who was aide to then-Commissioner Kathy Castor when she held the seat from 2003 to 2007.

“District 1 is the most sprawling, nonsensical district,” Kemp said.

Myers championed her own proposal that pushed the District 3 boundary further south, to run parallel along both sides of Interstate 75. The district’s current southern boundary is just north of the Alafia River in Riverview. Her plan extends the boundary to include part of Gibsonton, Adamsville and an area south of Big Bend Road before stopping at the edge of Sun City Center. Her proposed district also would shrink from its current western and northern boundaries and would leave Apollo Beach and the coastal areas of south county in District 1.

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Her plan shows 130,350 people, or 38.5 percent of the district residents, would be Black.

“African-Americans are always fighting for a piece of what is right. We talk about inclusion, diversity and equity and we look at some of these maps and it just doesn’t show that like it should,” Myers said.

Her plan drew the endorsement of former Commissioner Thomas Scott, whom Myers defeated in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Commissioners agreed unanimously to eliminate three versions produced by their staff. The county will begin public engagement meetings the week of Sept. 20-24 to gain input on the three remaining proposals. The commission is scheduled to meet Sept. 29 to approve which maps will be the subject of public hearings in November.