TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners have shelved, at least for now, a plan to overhaul the structure of the commission, likely averting a political fight along party lines.
Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman on Wednesday withdrew her proposal to eliminate countywide seats and, instead, create nine single-member districts. The idea, which required approval by voters, was opposed by Democrats on the commission who saw it as a political move to protect the Republican's majority on the board.
But the commission is pushing ahead with a proposal to switch from partisan to non-partisan the elections for sheriff, property appraiser and other offices established in the state Constitution.
This move also was opposed by the commission's two Democrats, Les Miller and Pat Kemp, and passed with votes from the commission's five Republicans. If ballot language is approved by a majority of commissioners later this month, the issue will go to voters in the November general election.
It was Murman's single-member district plan that most alarmed Democrats.
Hillsborough's 1.4 million people now are represented by seven county commissioners — four elected in equally apportioned single-member districts and three elected countywide. The mix of district and countywide seats was intended to give residents a say in both their local communities and the county as a whole.
Citizens now vote in four of the seven commission races, equivalent to a majority of the board, but under Murman's plan would vote for just one candidate for a board of nine members.
Murman called the move a response to the county's fast-growing population. In her District 1 seat, which covers South Tampa and western Hillsborough County, she represents some 400,000 constituents. She would like to see each commissioner represent no more than about 150,000 residents.
Her plan was blasted by the Hillsborough League of Women Voters as too transforming to rush onto the November ballot, as Murman planned.
The group also warned that commissioners would end up clashing over projects in their respective districts without focusing on the county as a whole and that allowing the commission the final say on district boundaries would amount to a conflict of interest.
Murman acknowledged at the board meeting Wednesday that her idea still needed some work.
"It appeared to me there might have been some confusion about what it all means," she said.
She still plans to push for a change in the makeup of the commission to present voters as early as 2020, taking effect after data is available from the 2020 Census for redrawing existing districts.
"We need to bring districts closer to the people," Murman said.
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A public hearing will be held June 20 on the plan to make the county's constitutional offices non-partisan and on Miller's proposal to raise the percentage needed for a countywide referendum to pass to 60 percent. If both proposals go to a referendum, they would need only a simple majority to pass.
The countywide races for tax collector and sheriff often are used by political parties as proof of their support in the community and to build momentum. In 2016, Democrats won all four countywide races on the general election ballot, with victories for incumbents Bob Henriquez in the property appraiser's race and Clerk of the Court Pat Frank and a surprise victory in the state attorney's race for newcomer Andrew Warren.
The offices of state attorney and public defender would remain partisan races under the proposal the county is advancing.
Kemp said she voted against switching to non-partisan races because people tend to be more engaged when party affiliation is declared on the ballot and the process produces better candidates.
She also noted that there has been no call from the public for a change and questioned why Republicans want to make it possible for their candidates to run for office without a party label.
"I imagine at one time identifying as a Republican may have helped you in that position and maybe no longer does," Kemp said.
Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan said the idea has always made sense to him.
"I do not understand the relevance of a partisan tax collector or sheriff," he said. "I certainly do not want a partisan elections supervisor."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.