TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has had her battles this spring as a member of Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group.
Her early advocacy for a countywide safer-at-home order initially fell on deaf ears. And her call for a mandatory face-covering order also failed to gain any traction among the voting members of the group. More recently, she was the lone member who voted to keep meeting twice a week, arguing that the pandemic’s unpredictability and the state’s recent reopening made twice-weekly meetings necessary. Her seven colleagues disagreed.
Originally formed to deal with emergency situations like hurricanes, the coronavirus pandemic was a new challenge to the group, and it become the focal point of the county’s response to the crisis and has exposed fault lines between Tampa, the county and its two smaller cities.
On Wednesday, Castor said it should be restructured to give Florida’s third-largest city more power, responding to a question asking if Tampa should have more representation on the board.
"I do agree that after we go through this COVID-19 situation and make it safely through hurricane season that we should revisit the number of individuals on there, " Castor said during a virtual Tampa Bay Chamber event. “For us to have 400,000 in our community and Plant City and Temple Terrace have around 80,000 combined residents, I think we should just discuss the structure.”
Plant City has 39,794 residents and Temple Terrace has 26,639 residents, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Tampa has 399,700 residents.
Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Temple Terrace acting Mayor Andy Ross have frequently been on opposite sides of debates from Castor, but the mayor told the chamber audience that she has good relationships with everyone on the panel.
Unlike Castor, who is a strong mayor under Tampa’s charter with vast powers, Ross and Lott serve in city-manager form governments where the city manager runs the day-to-day operations of the city.
Castor said, overall, the group has worked well.
“Some individuals may have perceived friction, but I just see that as a passion for your particular community,” Castor said.
Ross, the Temple Terrace acting mayor, said he understood Castor’s desire to have more control of what goes on in her city, but that’s something state legislators would have to fix. Under state law, he said, counties are given the emergency powers during a local crisis.
If the group were to be apportioned by population, it would be nearly 60 members and unworkable, he said.
“I don’t know how you do such a thing without completely writing Temple Terrace and Plant City out of the equation,” Ross said.
Plant City’s Lott said he’s always open for discussion, but thinks the current composition has served the county well and has the right make-up. He pointed out that he and many other local officials serve on countywide boards like the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
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“Instead of just the county commission and sheriff, we have the good fortune to have a blend of all of our local governments and the school board. We have eight different informed views to come to a consensus," Lott said.
Castor isn’t the first Tampa politician to call for more seats. City Council member Luis Viera, who just finished his year as chairman, made similar comments earlier this year, drawing the same comparison with Temple Terrace and Plant City.
Aside from the mayors of the county’s three incorporated cities, three county commissioners are voting members of the group, along with Sheriff Chad Chronister and School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively.
The group’s next meeting is Thursday. Castor’s spokeswoman, Ashley Bauman, said after the event that the number of seats that Tampa should have is “up for discussion amongst the group.”
Any change to its membership would have to be approved by the County Commission. Hillsborough is one of just a few Florida counties that has delegated emergency powers to another body when it formed the group in the 1990s. In Pinellas County, the county commission still acts as the equivalent of the emergency policy group.
The last change came in October when Snively was added as a member, said county spokeswoman Liana Lopez.
Lopez added that most of County Commission Chairman Les Miller’s district lies within Tampa, and County Commissioner Kimberly Overman occupies a countywide seat.