How would county like a Mayor Storms?

Published March 28, 2006

Does Hillsborough County need an elected county mayor?

How about Pinellas County, for that matter?

There's a push under way in Hillsborough. The idea is for a full-time chief executive to run the county government.

There still would be a seven-member Hillsborough County Commission.

There still would be an elected sheriff, property appraiser, tax collector, clerk of court and elections supervisor.

The county's three cities, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, wouldn't lose any power.

The only big change is that the county mayor would replace the existing county administrator, who is hired (and fired) by the County Commission.

"This issue is important, it's ready and it's necessary," Mary Ann Stiles, the Tampa lawyer who is spearheading the campaign, told the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa on Friday.

The idea is that a single elected leader would provide stronger leadership. Stiles' campaign is a rebuke to the Hillsborough County Commission, which has spent a lot of its time worried about gay pride displays and nude dancing clubs.

Yet the commission is the governing body for a county of nearly 1-million people. What about transportation? What about planning? What about vision?

"I can't believe we haven't moved forward in this county," says Stiles, who is trying to get the idea on the ballot by petition.

Naturally, the County Commission is opposed to the idea, especially its leading decency crusader, Ronda Storms.

The commission even ordered its hired help, County Administrator Pat Bean, to "inform" the voters what a lousy idea an elected county mayor would be.

(Typical. No one at any level of government, whether liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, can resist the temptation to use the power of that government to "inform" voters on which way to vote.)

I kinda like Stiles' idea, but feel compelled to point out it basically attempts an end-run around the same County Commission that the voters elected.

In recent years the commission's elections have been dominated by anticity, antigovernment, probusiness forces. They have been brilliantly successful at electing exactly the kind of board that they want.

It's not just parochial east Hillsborough either; three of the current seven commissioners were elected by the entire county.

Instead of "taking back" the commission the hard way, winning seat by seat, the county-mayor movement seeks to trump the commission by electing a countywide mayor. Unspoken is the assumption that the mayor would be more "progressive" than the commissioners have been.

This assumption prompted Tiger Bay gadfly Lee Drury DeCesare, during the question period after Stiles' presentation, to ask a question that I loved:

What if the voters chose Ronda Storms as county mayor? Stiles didn't really answer.

* * *

You could make the case that Pinellas County needs an elected mayor even more than Hillsborough. Pinellas has 24 cities, compared to only three in Hillsborough, even though the county populations are roughly the same.

Talk about fractious! Those 24 cities are a handful, from the biggest in the pack, St. Petersburg, to the collection of beach towns that have banded together in common interest.

That leaves the hired county administrator, Steve Spratt, as the de facto "mayor" of the unincorporated remainder of the county.

Whereas Hillsborough still has countryside, Pinellas is almost entirely urban. The unincorporated county is really just one more "city," except that it lacks an elected chief executive to deal head-to-head with the others.

Here's one thing Pinellas and Hillsborough have in common, though. Whenever you mention the idea of a county mayor, opponents immediately smell a conspiracy: Who are you trying to benefit? Nobody in either county, I swear. Honest. Just mentioning it, is all.