Push for county mayor falls short

A Hillsborough group fails to collect enough signatures to make it a ballot issue.

Published August 9, 2006

TAMPA - A group hoping to put a mayor in charge of Hillsborough County won't be able to take the question to voters this year.

Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson said Tuesday that the group failed to collect enough signatures from registered voters to put the issue on the ballot.

Paid petition gatherers for the Taking Back Hillsborough County Political Committee Inc. fell about 3,000 signatures short of the 37,202 required. A second question seeking voter approval to give the mayor limited veto power over the seven-member County Commission fell short by about 3,700 signatures.

Taking Back Hillsborough leader Mary Ann Stiles said the group will now seek to put the issue before voters in 2008.

Stiles said she will have to collect fresh signatures on the mayor question because current wording on the petition includes dates that would need to be changed. But she thinks she can continue to build on the veto power signatures through October.

"I'm okay with it. I don't feel like we've lost," Stiles said. "I feel like we're halfway there."

Hillsborough commissioners reached Tuesday held up the signature shortfall as a validation of the job they're doing. All but one - Democrat Kathy Castor - have previously voiced opposition to the mayor proposal.

"I think the people spoke rather loudly," said Commission Chairman Jim Norman, a Republican.

"I'm not surprised," added Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan. "I think if Ms. Stiles is so interested in changing county government, she should consider running for office."

Early on, Taking Back Hillsborough County struggled to settle on ballot language, submitting and resubmitting it several times. When the petition forms finally got Johnson's blessing, Stiles' group was left with about three months to collect signatures and hired a firm to do so.

Johnson said initial batches turned into his office revealed a high percentage of valid signatures - only about 4 percent were rejected. But he said subsequent submissions were rife with signatures collected from people who could not be verified as registered voters.

In all, 17 percent of the petitions collected on the mayor question were rejected, as were 18 percent of the forms collected on the veto issue.

"The percentage (of verified signatures) has really dropped," Johnson observed at one point last week. "It's dropped precipitously. They should have started earlier."

Asked whether Stiles and her group must start from scratch collecting signatures or simply build on those already collected, Johnson said that's up to them to decide. He said he's simply in charge of approving the forms they submit, not the content of the question.

Stiles, a lawyer and lobbyist for the business-advocacy group Associated Industries of Florida, resigned as a lobbyist for the county's transit agency last year in protest of what she considered meddling by the county commissioners. She went on to form the Taking Back Hillsborough County Political Committee to champion the mayoral cause, saying the position was needed so that one person could take a leadership role in addressing pressing issues in the county, such as improved transportation.

The group has spent $190,925 on the campaign, much of it for brochures and petition gathering. Most of the money - $177,000 - came from Stiles, her family or her businesses in the form of cash or loans. Her law firm also contributed another $40,635 worth of in-kind legal work.

"I'm okay with it," Stiles said. "We're not going to stop until we get it on the ballot."

Jan Platt, a Democrat and former Hillsborough County commissioner, opposed the proposal. She said she was surprised at the group's missteps, including struggles over ballot language that she said ultimately remained flawed. She noted that signatures fell short despite heavy support from the Tampa Tribune, which ran petition forms on its editorial pages that readers could clip and submit.

"If that group couldn't make it with all the breaks they had this time, I don't see how they're ever going to make it," Platt said. "I think it's been ill-fated from the very beginning."

Stiles called that "cheap criticism with no substance."

Dottie Berger MacKinnon, another former commissioner who gave her name and money to the cause, noted that the group managed to collect 80,000 signatures - valid or not - in just three months' time. With that kind of support, she said, the group is duty bound to press on.

"I don't know if you're aware of how much support there is for this," she said. "There's an awful lot of support. I think the people would feel we let them down if we didn't continue the fight."