TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners moved closer than they have in years Thursday to asking voters if they would support creating a political district that would make it easier for Hispanics to elect one of their own.
They also agreed to consider turning over the redistricting process that would kick into gear to appointed planners, instead of commissioners, in an effort to remove partisan politics from the map drawing.
Commissioners voted 6-0 to hold a public hearing Nov. 6 on whether to pursue reconfigured political districts. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan was absent. They voted separately 5-1 to consider turning redistricting over to the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, with Republican board member Victor Crist in dissent.
"I'm encouraged," said Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat who is pushing the issue. "I know there is still a lot of work to be done."
The County Commission currently has seven board members, three of whom are chosen in countywide elections. The other four represent specific districts around the county.
Under Miller's proposal, one of the so-called at-large commission posts, the one held by Democrat Kevin Beckner, would become a district seat if approved by voters in November 2014. The change would go into effect with elections in 2016, when Beckner will have to leave his seat because of term limits.
Miller has made the argument primarily on the grounds that the county has grown too big and each of the district commissioners represent too many people, about 307,000. If passed by voters, the new districts would have on average about 246,000 residents, bringing the county's elected leaders in those posts closer to the people they serve.
As a side benefit, Miller says it should be easier for the county to create a commission district with a sizeable enough proportion of Hispanic residents to create a greater opportunity for them to serve on the board. Currently, no Hispanics serve on the board though they are by far the fastest growing ethnic group, making up a quarter of the county's population.
Hispanic community leaders have pushed a variety of proposals aimed at increasing their chances to elect one of their own and many have rallied around Miller's proposal. Miller, who is black, serves in a district that includes central and east Tampa and was crafted to improve the chances of having an African-American serve on the board.
"I think our society has changed dramatically," said Maria Asuncion Lopez, a community activist. "At this point, there is a sense of consensus on need for this, for fairness."
Despite their shared party affiliation, Beckner has been one of the more vocal skeptics of Miller's proposal. He has said he is concerned the exercise could be used by Republicans to further solidify their 5-2 advantage on the board even though there are more registered Democrats in the county.
The proposal to have appointed planning commissioners draw new political boundaries was floated in part to address his concerns. The Planning Commission already draws political boundaries for Tampa City Council seats.
"They have an expert on staff who has done it," Beckner said. "I have a greater deal of comfort with letting the Planning Commission do it."
Crist argued that county commissioners should continue drawing political boundaries because they are better attuned to how neighborhoods should be grouped in political districts that reflect common interests.