TAMPA — A political fight over the makeup of Hillsborough County government could be heading to voters to decide.
After a discussion divided along party lines, commissioners voted 5-2 Wednesday to move ahead with a plan to overhaul the structure of the Hillsborough County Commission including the addition of two seats. If approved by commissioners at an upcoming public hearing, the measure would go to a countywide referendum in the November general election.
The proposal is being pushed by Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said the county has become too large for commissioners to serve constituents effectively. Hillsborough's 1.4 million residents are represented by seven county commissioners — four elected in equally apportioned single-member districts and three who are elected countywide.
Under Murman's plan, countywide seats would be eliminated and the commission would be made up of nine single-member districts. Citizens who now vote in four of the seven commission races would vote in only one.
The commission's two Democrats voted against Murman's plan. Commissioner Pat Kemp said the move is aimed simply at protecting Republican controlled at-large seats in what political pundits predict may be a tough election year for the GOP.
"This is in my mind raw partisan politics," Kemp said. "This is commissioners trying to draw districts for themselves to keep themselves on the commission."
Murman's proposal would give her more options to stay in office.
She was re-elected in 2016 to a four-year term in her District 2 seat, but has filed to run for an open countywide seat this year.
But she could withdraw from the countywide seat and avoid running this year then run again in 2020 for a seat drawn to include her south Tampa home.
Asked three times at an earlier meeting, Murman would not commit to staying in the countywide race if her proposal advances. On Wednesday, she said her intent was to give local communities more say on the board.
"Our county is growing so fast, is getting so large, this is the best thing for fair representation throughout the whole county," she said.
Les Miller, the commission's other Democrat, has proposed smaller districts twice in the past, in part because he wants more representation for minorities — especially the Hispanic community. Murman was among a majority of commissioners who voted down the proposal in the past.
This time, Miller voted "no" because of concerns that new districts would be drawn up to guarantee Republicans a large majority.
Under the plan, the nine districts would be created by the county planning commission. But commissioners would have the final say and could alter district boundaries, raising the prospect of gerrymandering, Miller said. He also questioned why the county wouldn't wait for the 2020 Census when new districts are traditionally redrawn.
"This board will put the politics back in it," Miller said.
As evidence, Miller said he was contacted in November by Republican consultant Anthony Pedicini and asked if he would support for single member districts. Miller told him the district boundaries would need to drawn by a neutral organization.
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Earlier this year, Miller said, Pedicini called him back and said he could broker a deal that would guarantee two Democratic districts, leaving Republicans with the other seven seats.
"They would have a super, super majority," Miller said.
Contacted after the meeting by the Tampa Bay Times, Pedicini denied having that conversation and said he is not being paid to consult on the issue. But he said he did talk to Miller about single-member seats as an interested Hillsborough resident.
"I have not drawn any maps to make a promise like that," Pedicini said.
Hillsborough's current commission structure was set in a home rule charter proposal passed by voters in 1983 and adopted two years later. The mix of district and countywide seats was intended to give residents a say in both their local community and the county as a whole.
Other large Florida counties have only single member districts including Miami-Dade, which has 13, and Broward, which has nine.
Both also have a county mayor, however. In Miami-Dade, the position is elected. In Broward, commissioners appoint the position.
In Pinellas County, three members of the seven-member board are elected countywide and four from single-member districts.
Kemp said the proposal would pit each district against the others for the county's limited resources. And commissioners would only be answerable to voters within their districts with no incentive to champion issues outside them, she said.
Some of the Republican commissioners who supported Murman's plan also expressed concerns.
Commissioner Stacy White said he would make a final decision on how to vote after hearing from the public.
"That will give us a good gauge on how people feel about this ," he said.
Commissioner Victor Crist said he hoped the public would come up with more ideas.
"This process was designed to give every community an opportunity to get a majority vote on this board," he said.
Commissioners on Wednesday also tackled other issues that could result in significant changes to the way county officials are elected.
They asked county staff to draft an ordinance to limit service on the board to 12 consecutive years. That would prevent commissioners from bypassing the current eight-year term limits by running for a different seat.
They also voted to look again at making the election of constitutional offices like property appraiser and tax collector non-partisan. The idea was voted down in a recent meeting.
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.