Amendments would give Hillsborough a mayor, change how it's run.

Proposed amendments would give Hillsborough a mayor and change how it is run.

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer
Published March 2, 2008

TAMPA - The mayor of Tampa leads a city of 330,000 strong that is the region's economic engine, home to its major ports, sea and air. Her name is Pam Iorio. Maybe you've heard of her.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker represents nearly 250,000 people, oversees a $680-million budget and is credited with helping spur the rebirth of his city's downtown. He's pals with Gov. Charlie Crist.

A group of civic leaders is seeking to create a new mayoral job to shepherd a much bigger swath of turf than both cities combined. They want to have an elected, nonpartisan mayor for Hillsborough County.

A supportive vote by the public in November could dramatically reshape the political landscape in Hillsborough, and across the region.

"I think it's a huge deal," said Scott Paine, an associate professor of government and communications at the University of Tampa. "In a system that doesn't currently have a strong elected executive, you are going to introduce a strong elected executive."

That executive will be in charge, at least on paper, of the region's largest local government by far, not including the school district. The person will represent nearly 1.2-million people over 1,000 square miles, from the West Shore business district to the tomato fields of Wimauma.

The person who wins the job will craft a budget that currently consumes $4-billion in taxpayer dollars a year on everything from garbage pickup to road building, and pays a work force of 10,000 people.

And he or she will do so for a part of Florida that is growing quickly.

Given the stakes, a fierce battle will play out in the coming months between proponents of the measure and defenders of the status quo. Advocates on both sides already are taking up positions.

Backers of the measure say Hillsborough has reached a point in its growth that it needs a person, accountable to the people, to chart a course for the future. The elected mayor would replace the county administrator, who is appointed and fired by the county's seven elected commissioners, who often have conflicting aims.

Commissioners would still set policy meant to guide the mayor, and would have to approve the budget. But the mayor would have veto power over their decisions, assuming voters approve a companion ballot measure.

Commissioners would be able to override a veto.

"This is about checks and balances," said Mary Ann Stiles, who leads the group Taking Back Hillsborough County Political Committee Inc., which she formed to push the initiative. "It's about having a strong elected person at the other side of the table who can say no, and who can be a leader."

She describes an elected mayor as being the antidote to a commission that fails to address major issues facing the county and busies itself picking fights with other governments.

A vote of approval would change parts of the Hillsborough County charter, it's constitution of sorts. It would be the first major rewrite of the charter since it was created by voters 25 years ago in reaction to a vote-buying scandal that saw three commissioners arrested.

Predictably, opponents include members of the County Commission that could see its power diminish. They have voted to oppose the mayor and veto measures, though it's not clear yet what form their opposition will take.

Despite the board's media image, commissioners say Hillsborough County residents like their government. Commissioners say that has been proven on citizen satisfaction surveys that give county government high marks.

"They must be espousing what the people believe, otherwise how would they be getting elected?" said County Administrator Pat Bean, who would lose her job if the ballot questions pass. Commissioners have asked her to "educate" the public on the proposal.

Other forces are joining county officials, from a long-serving former commissioner to minority groups and advocates of the council-manager form of government that exists in Hillsborough today.

They worry that minority voices will be weakened, with county voters having almost no record of electing African-Americans in countywide political races. And the proposal could face legal challenges on those grounds.

More generally, opponents fear a general concentration of power that shuts off access to all but the wealthy, leading to cronyism and corruption.

"Why interject politics and popularity into something that ought to be skill-based?" asks Beth Rawlins, referring to the task of running the day-to-day operation - the appointed administrator's job. Rawlins, a Pinellas public affairs consultant, has worked with groups opposed to mayoral proposals in other Florida communities.

While proponents promote having a mayor accountable to voters, Rawlins notes that accountability comes only every four years, with plenty of time between then to do real damage. An appointed county manager can be fired at any time.

Former Commissioner Jan Platt, perhaps the most popular speaker on the antimayor circuit so far, helped write the current charter.

She said a county-mayor proposal was discussed then but was passed over in favor of a system that spreads power rather than concentrates it.

They opted instead for a system with three commissioners elected by all the county's voters, and four chosen in district elections. This gives every voter a voice in picking four of the seven board members.

Platt argues that the proposed change has problems that even mayoral advocates should fear. She says the ballot language has a litany of flaws that may undermine the mayor's ability to set an agenda.

In general, she says, it leaves key decisions, including the mayor's salary, in the hands of commissioners and other elected county officials. The mayor won't have any control over spending by the sheriff, whose office eats up more than one-third of county operating costs.

"There's going to be some expectation out there that the person has some power, when they don't have any," Platt said.

And so the battle begins.

Times staff writers Aaron Sharockman and Janet Zink contributed to this report, along with researcher John Martin. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or 813 226-3387.

See the text

To view the full text of both proposed charter amendments, as well as the full text of the charter, please visit tampabay.com.