Joe Henderson: Changing Hillsborough Commission makeup worth a look


2 hours ago


You could say Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman was thinking outside the box when she proposed a major change Wednesday to how that governing body is chosen.


On the other hand, you could say it was all about the box — the ballot box, that is.

You probably would be correct on both points. It also doesn’t mean she was wrong to argue that the Commission should eliminate countywide seats in favor of single-member districts.

It also is a fact, though, that commissioners have used countywide seats as a way to stay in power.

Doesn’t that trump everything?


Hang with me for just a bit.

Hillsborough’s charter, approved by voters 35 years ago, provides for seven county commissioners. Four of them represent a single district; three are chosen countywide.


The rationale behind that is that voters will always have a say in the majority makeup of the board.

In 1983, when the referendum passed creating the current setup, Hillsborough’s population was a little over 700,000. Today, it is 1.4 million and expanding rapidly.


In the Tampa Bay Times story about Murman’s proposal, she made the point that the county has more people than 10 states.


I looked it up. She is correct.

There are more people here than in Alaska, Delaware, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. For good measure, we’re about equal with Hawaii.

Another fun fact: Hillsborough’s population has jumped by about 200,000 since 2010. To put that in perspective, basically, the population of Richmond, Va. moved into Hillsborough County.

By the year 2030, only 12 years from now, that number is predicted to increase by another 300,000 — roughly the population of Cincinnati. If that happens, I hope they’re thoughtful enough to bring more Skyline Chili outlets here, but I digress.

Murman argues that changing the commission makeup to single-member districts — and maybe expanding the board by two members — makes sense because Hillsborough is too large for anyone to effectively represent everyone in the county.

That point is worthy of discussion.

But critics were quick to pounce on Murman, and they had a point too. After all, she plans to run for a countywide seat this fall even though voters in District 1 elected her in 2016 to a four-year term.

With a big, blue Democratic wave forecast for November, Murman, a Republican, might face a tough battle in a hotly contested countywide race.

If her idea passes, though, she could suddenly have a change of heart and stay in District 1 until 2020. There’s a good chance new boundary lines would leave her in good shape to win another election.

Such intrigue.

Let’s be honest, though. Commissioners have been using these countywide seats to bob and weave around term limits. We’re seeing that play out again this fall.

Commissioner Victor Crist can’t run again in his single-member district because he has served the maximum of two consecutive terms. Ah, but he can run countywide and start the clock over.

That’s what he is doing.

Ken  Hagan, who has served two countywide terms, is running for Crist’s District 2 seat.

Crist is running for Hagan’s countywide chair.

See how this works?

Yes, voters have the final say whether that tactic is successful, but generally, incumbents and familiar names have a great advantage in these situations.

I doubt Murman’s gambit will be approved, if the initial reaction from the board means anything. It was tepid, to say the least.

Since five of the seven members would have to approve putting the idea on the ballot, and then voters would have to decide, getting enough support is a long-shot.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

Just look at the mishmash way the Commission has handled the county’s already-explosive growth. Then imagine what we’ll look like when Cincinnati moves to town little more than a decade from now.

Traffic will be worse than we can imagine. Sprawl, already a major problem, could reach nightmare proportions.

Having a more-nimble Commission that represents smaller parts of the county isn’t the worst way to think about dealing with this.