Hillsborough commissioners’ question on term limits: What about us?

Closing a charter loophole that allows commissioners to serve more than two terms could be on November ballot
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith shown on HGTV during a May 2021 public hearing. On Wednesday, she suggested closing the charter loophole that allows commissioners to circumvent term limits.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith shown on HGTV during a May 2021 public hearing. On Wednesday, she suggested closing the charter loophole that allows commissioners to circumvent term limits. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 14, 2022

TAMPA — Hillsborough Commissioner Gwen Myers wanted to increase public participation on the litany of county advisory boards by installing term limits to ensure more people get a chance to serve.

The idea, raised Wednesday near the conclusion of a nearly day-long commission meeting, triggered another response among commissioners: What about us?

“One board that I think could really use an overhaul of their term limit policy is the Board of County Commissioners,” Commissioner Mariella Smith said.

Board members laughed.

“Just going to put that out there,” Smith continued. “I think we should seriously have a two-term limit and you sit out, as Commissioner Myers suggested, for a year or two before you hop back and forth.”

Following the guffaws, the notion drew bi-partisan support

“Ditto on the county commission,” said Commissioner Stacy White, a Republican. “I’ve always said I’d like to see a 12-year limit. Twelve years and you’re done. I think that would be a perfect amount of time.”

White is leaving the commission after the November election because of term limits. Commissioner Pat Kemp also agreed with Smith. Commissioners instructed the county legal staff to research the issue and report back to the board in February.

Related: Term limits loophole for Hillsborough commissioners could be closed

The county charter, approved by voters in the early 1980s, limits commissioners to two consecutive four-year terms in the same seat. There is an allowance in redistricting years that allows some commissioners to serve 10 years instead of eight.

But a loophole also permits sitting commissioners to serve more than two full terms by switching between district and at-large seats. The seven seats on the commission include three elected countywide and four that represent individual geographical districts.

Closing the loophole isn’t a new idea. Kemp, a Democrat, suggested a change in 2018, but her idea gained little traction from a then-Republican majority commission.

The county’s Charter Review Board, 14 citizens meeting every five years to consider potential changes to the charter, debated the issue extensively in 2020. The effort was thwarted, however, by the group’s frequent inability to cobble together an in-person quorum during the pandemic.

Related: Hillsborough government charter remains unchanged

On the current commission, only Commissioner Ken Hagan has bounced between district and at-large seats. He is beginning his 20th year as commissioner and is running for re-election in November for his seat in District 2. He did not comment on Smith’s proposal.

Other commissioners have failed to duplicate Hagan’s career track. In the past two election cycles, former commissioners Victor Crist and Sandy Murman, both Republicans, made unsuccessful runs for countywide, at-large seats after term limits forced them to leave their district positions.

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.

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The Charter Review Board’s debate in 2020 highlighted the opposing positions. Some members said voters should be allowed to vote for whomever they want and others lamented the loss of institutional knowledge when experienced commissioners leave office.

But, Sean Shaw, a former state representative who ran for Florida attorney general in 2018, called the district switching a game of musical chairs that “flies in the face of what voters voted on.”

Any proposed changes to the Hillsborough County charter must be approved by voters. To be included in a November referendum, commissioners would have to provide ballot language to the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office by Aug. 23.