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Hillsborough commission balks at term limit fix

A charter loophole will remain allowing commissioners to switch districts and serve more than 2 terms.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith, shown on HGTV in May 2021, sought a voter referendum to close the loophole in the county charter allowing commissioners to bypass term limits by switching between a single-member district and at-large seats on the seven-member board. It died Wednesday on a 3-4 vote.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith, shown on HGTV in May 2021, sought a voter referendum to close the loophole in the county charter allowing commissioners to bypass term limits by switching between a single-member district and at-large seats on the seven-member board. It died Wednesday on a 3-4 vote. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 19|Updated May 19

TAMPA — A loophole in the Hillsborough County government charter allowing elected commissioners to circumvent term limits won’t be closing anytime soon.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Mariella Smith resurfaced an idea the seven-member board had discussed in January. The charter limits commissioners to serving two consecutive four-year terms, but the provision can be sidestepped by board members choosing to switch election districts.

Smith asked the commission to instruct the county attorney’s office to draft ballot language that could be considered by voters in November after a future public hearing and commission vote. Scheduling a charter referendum requires a supermajority vote of at least five commissioners.

But the proposal failed to gain the blessing of even a simple majority. Smith and Commissioners Pat Kemp and Ken Hagan voted for the idea. Commissioners Harry Cohen, Gwen Myers, Stacy White and Kimberly Overman opposed.

“I think over the years that voters have showed they are perfectly capable of ending someone’s tenure on the County Commission as they are extending it,” said Cohen.

Of the current board, only Hagan has bounced between at-large seats, representing the entire county, and district seats. He is serving his 20th year in office and is running for re-election in November for his District 2 seat representing most of northern Hillsborough. His support came after he first expressed umbrage, hinting he was the plan’s intended target.

“I’m going to be master of the obvious and say we all know what this is about. Staff knows it. County attorney’s office knows it, and everyone on this board knows it,” said Hagan, a Republican.

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 citizens Charter Review Board also debated the idea during its once-every-five-year study of the charter in 2020, but failed to reach a consensus.

Related: Hillsborough government charter remains unchanged

White said he supported a 12-year limit on commissioners’ terms in office, but opposed the maneuver Wednesday. He said it was not a prudent use of the county staff’s time considering “frankly, it’s probably dead on arrival.”

Cohen and Myers cited another reason for opposing the referendum — the proposed sales tax for transportation that already will be on the November ballot.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea to start muddying up the conversation with other charter amendments and referendum-type question that take our eye off the ball of what it is we’re going to be trying accomplish with the transportation issue,” Cohen said.

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