tampabay.com

Real deal is hard to know with this bunch

By SUE CARLTON
Published December 12, 2007


So there you are, this Important Elected Official on this Important Board where you get to make all these Important Decisions for the whole county.

Unfortunately, your Important Board also has this reputation. Folks use the word "contentious" when they talk about you as a group. Also "dysfunctional."

So some rabble-rousing nosey-parker types come up with this idea of letting voters decide if they want to elect one more Important Official - a county mayor, who would weaken the board's powers.

We can't have this, Important Board members had to be thinking.

This would be...

Well, it would be...

It would be so unfair to minorities! Yeah, that's it!

Hillsborough County commissioners are sweating next year's ballot question on whether voters want an elected county mayor to replace their appointed county administrator. Recently, the commission made initial plans to file a formal objection with the U.S. Justice Department, contending a county mayor would weaken minority representation.

A little history here: With last year's exit of the two most polarized board members and the addition of three new faces, you might have expected more harmony, more focus.

Instead you got headlines. Commissioners took a pop in the chops for trying to ax local wetlands protection. A plan to cut a public meeting so a majority of them could go to an influential developer's memorial service was embarrassingly outed. One commissioner invoked the murder of a sheriff's deputy in a failed attempt to sully another. The longest-serving member stubbornly clung to a pie-in-the-sky, budget-be-damned dream of a $40-million sports park.

You can't fault commissioners for trying to protect their ability to represent the people who elected them from a county mayor plan that could strip some of that ability.

But the current argument goes like this: The seven-person board has but one black member. Black politicians have a hard go getting into office on a countywide vote, which is how a mayor would be elected. A black commissioner would have even less power with a mayor there.

Is the commission's objection an honest one, or is it a red herring, and a usefully hot-button red herring at that? Would giving voters one more choice really weaken the minority voice, or is this a distraction from the real question of whether a county mayor is a good idea?

And that is the question. Voters need to decide whether they want a system similar to how the strong Tampa mayor functions with the City Council. It all comes down to who gets the job, and there's a be-careful-what-you-wish-for element to that. Consider those who already know how to win countywide, among them Brian Blair, who gets my vote for Controversial Commissioner of the Year.

Could a county mayor help what ails this commission? Proponents think so, plowing on despite setbacks with the local elections office and an attempt by Blair to require county charter changes, which this proposal would be, to pass with at least 60 percent of the popular vote.

His attempt failed. Even Commissioner Jim Norman opined, "It looks self-serving."

Hey, Important Elected Officials, maybe that's a sentiment that bears repeating right about now.