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Storms, lobbyist argue county mayor proposal

Ronda Storms: It would cripple the commission, weaken representation. Mary Ann Stiles: It would give badly needed focus.

Published January 18, 2006

TAMPA - Hillsborough Commissioner Ronda Storms, who is running for state Senate, made clear Tuesday she'll also be campaigning vigorously on another potential ballot issue: She'll try to defeat a proposed elected county mayor that may be headed for the ballot.

Storms claims the position will give citizens less access to their elected leaders by concentrating power in one person who will be more responsive to monied interests.

Defending the proposal Tuesday was Mary Ann Stiles, a workers' compensation lawyer and lobbyist who is pitching the county-mayor idea and planning to collect signatures to put it on the ballot.

Storms and Stiles were addressing the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County Tuesday for what they billed as a "discussion" rather than a debate on the elected mayor proposal. It was the first time proponents of the measure have had the idea publicly tested.

The restructured government will cost more, Storms argued. And it will make government less transparent to citizens, turning the commission into an irrelevant rubber stamp board that doesn't set policy but reacts to it.

She said the proposal is being driven by power brokers who don't get their say with the county commissioners when they pitch new spending plans.

"You say that's a failure," Storms said. "I say that's victory."

Stiles depicted the proposal as an effort to give citizens an extra voice in addition to commissioners. Under her plan, an elected county mayor would replace the county administrator in running the day-to-day operations of government.

Stiles started the effort after resigning as a lobbyist for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority in protest over what she deemed meddling in the agency by the commission.

She said the county mayor would not just be an administrator, but also set a vision for the county on big issues, such as transportation, which is hard to do now, with seven people setting the agenda - three elected county-wide and four representing different regions. Commissioners would have veto power over the non-partisan mayor's initiative, with a super-majority five-person vote.

As it stands now, Stiles said, commissioners can get lost on minor issues, such as anti-nudity ordinances, that her polling indicates few people identify as a top concern.

Storms, who represents eastern and southern Hillsborough, said she is eager to visit places such as Sun City Center, Balm and Riverview, to emphasize how they could lose access to commissioners, or see them become irrelevant: Forget talking to an elected official who can do something to help you and is willing to meet with people like school bus drivers and mothers.

"What are they going to be?" Storms asked about commissioners. "Ribbon-cutters?"

She also hinted that she will have plenty of fodder to use as an example of what having an elected mayor would be like. When Stiles mentioned her commute times from North Tampa, Storms quickly pointed out she was talking about an area largely within city of Tampa limits.

Mayors may set a vision. But they also can have their own priorities, Storms said, suggesting that is why Tampa is considering steep hikes to address stormwater needs and noting an average $1,500-per-unit city water fee that it was sprung on developers without notice.

Storms also noted Tampa's streetcar effort - which she called a two-mile, $56-million boondoggle in the guise of a transportation solution.

[Last modified January 18, 2006, 01:09:07]

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