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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014
Commentary

After zoning scandal, Hillsborough government revamped

Published:

In 1973 Hillsborough County adopted the county administrator form of government. The problem was, someone forgot to tell the majority of the county commissioners.

Commissioners had a management mindset, and with no clear understanding of the delineation between administrative and legislative roles, county staff twisted in multiple directions. Meddling in the work of the administrator was the rule, not the exception.

First there was Rudy Spoto, then Picot Floyd, then Bill Tatum. Each administrator tried to establish a professional government. All three were thwarted by a majority of the commission intent on consolidating political power through favoritism and side deals.

Through most of its history, each commissioner had control of a Road and Bridge District - there were five commissioners and five districts - and at budget time commissioner swapped money and projects to benefit their own district.

In 1973, then-County Commissioner Betty Castor objected when another commissioner put pressure on county engineers to place an excessive number of roads in the budget for his district. "We've got to get away from building roads for one commissioner," she lamented. But the system never seemed to change, and various commissioners browbeat the administrator every time he tried to move decision-making to a more professional level.

The problems accelerated as the growth accelerated; new housing subdivisions were being built at a dizzying pace. There were progressive members of the board who were sometimes successful in modernizing the government. In the 1970s and early 1980s the county created a unified water and sewer system, as well as a countywide parks department. Tampa General Hospital was moved out from under the Hospital and Welfare Board to a free-standing institution that didn't report to the commission. But the progressive members were never a majority. The majority wanted to call the shots from hiring to purchasing.

Add corruption to the mix, and you had a mess.

In my last column I detailed the bribery scandal of 30 years ago that snared three of the five county commissioners who routinely traded votes for bribes to rezone parcels of land. Their arrests in February 1983, and subsequent convictions, marked a turning point, ushering in the professional county government model we enjoy today.

In the aftermath of the arrests, Gov. Bob Graham set the tone by appointing three individuals with spotless reputations to serve as interim commissioners until the next election. The three: Matt Jetton, the developer of Carrollwood and staunch supporter of a professional planning process; E.L. Bing, a retired longtime Hillsborough County educator; and John Paulk, a retired Air Force general. They joined with the remaining Commissioners Jan Platt and Rodney Colson to revamp county government through a series of unprecedented initiatives.

In short order a land development code was enacted, calling for a zoning hearing master to impartially weigh evidence in the rezoning process. Impact fees, paid by developers to help pay the cost of infrastructure, were approved. An electronic voting system was installed so commissioners all voted at one time, without the benefit of advance knowledge of knowing how others cast their votes.

The most significant change came in September 1983, just seven months after the arrests, when citizens urged the commission to put before the voters a home-rule county charter proposal. The voters said yes.

Under the new charter, the role of the commissioners was clearly delineated for the first time. They were to be strictly policymakers and could not interfere in the day to day operation of the county. The charter made it clear: commissioners were not management.

Additionally, the commission expanded from five to seven members, with four of those elected in a single-member district instead of countywide. This allowed for a couple of firsts. Rubin Padgett became the first African-American elected to the county commission, and later the first African American chairman. The election of Jim Selvey from South County produced another first - a Republican.

At age 25, I entered the political arena, running for the single-member district that covered the northwest and northeastern parts of the county. Would the voters possibly consider electing someone with so little experience? Not to worry, said my friend Fran Davin. "The voters have had enough of 'experience.'?"

The new board of Padgett, Selvey, Ron Glickman, Pick Talley and I, along with sitting commissioners Platt and Colson, took office in May 1985, and a new era of county government began.

As a footnote: I received many emails after my last column, which detailed the arrests of commissioners Bowmer, Anderson and Kotvas. One was from Earl Grantham , one of the four members of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce meeting with Kotvas and Anderson the morning of their arrests. The chamber wanted the board to consider alternative sites for the Resource Recovery Plant planned to be built on Falkenburg Road. They were astonished when their meeting with Anderson ended abruptly as an FBI agent entered the office and announced, "Gentlemen, it is imperative that we see Commissioner Anderson - now!"

Grantham spent a lot of time reflecting on the corruption that pervaded the courthouse during that era. His conclusions are worth sharing.

"I choose to remain trustful of others until they prove themselves not to be trustworthy. This is better than becoming suspicious of everyone. I became much more involved in the political process of screening candidates to ensure their intentions for seeking office are honorable, and that they are honest-to-the-core, not just on the surface."

No form of government is perfect. Our elected officials sometimes fail us. Ultimately, it is our level of involvement in the political process that determines its quality.

Pam Iorio is the former mayor of Tampa who

is currently a speaker and author. Her email is

pam@pamiorio.com

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