Hillsborough County commissioners killed a plan today to create a fifth single-member district, a measure backed by Hispanic advocacy groups.
All five Republican commissioners voted against setting a public hearing on creating the new district, a first step toward putting the measure on the November ballot. Commissioner Les Miller, who sponsored the motion, said he was frustrated that voters would not get to decide whether the measure has merit. He blamed the Republican Party for opposing the new district to protect the party's majority on the board.
"There've probably been some discussions with their party," Miller said. "They told them not to vote for this."
The commission currently has 4 single-member districts with each member representing a geographic area. The other three commissioners represent the whole county.
Miller tried to sell his idea using two lines of reasoning. One was that the current populations in each of the districts, about 307,000, are too large for effective representation on the local issues that routinely come before the commission. Reducing the number of people in each district to about 240,000 would bring government "closer to the people," Miller said.
At the same time, Miller said a newly created geographic district could be drawn to give Hispanics a better chance of electing one of their own to the commission. Though Latinos constitute nearly 25 percent of the population, none of the commissioners is of Spanish descent.
Miller showed the board three sample maps drawn up with the help of county staff that would create a fifth district that included all of Town 'n Country and parts of West Tampa west of Armenia Avenue.
"We need to have diversity on this board," Miller said, "and the lack of Hispanics on this board, where Hispanics make up a fourth of the population, it's taxation without representation."
But it was evident during a brief board discussion that Miller would get no support beyond fellow Democrat, Kevin Beckner. Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he generally favors smaller districts and also supports diversity. Sharpe said his ancestors include Greeks, Spaniards, Germans and Irish.
"I just don't like dividing us along those lines," he said.
Commissioner Ken Hagan said he likes the present system because every resident is represented by a majority of the commission — his district commissioner plus the four countywide members.
Commissioner Sandy Murman, whose District 1 includes much of the area that Miller wanted to put in a new district, did not comment.
Members of the Hispanic Alliance of Tampa Bay who attended the meeting said they were not surprised by the vote. Norma Reno, an officer with the group and a Republican, said she thought the outcome was determined by party.
"I'm a Republican by heart and I'm a Republican by business principles, but I do not agree with what they did today. It's unfair," Reno said.
The only audience member to speak against creating the new district, activist Marilyn Smith, drew some gasps and wide-eyed looks when she suggested Miller's motion would "ghettoize" the county. Smith said if the measure passed, soon Lithuanians, Koreans and Chinese are "going to want their own districts."
Miller apologized to black and Hispanic members of the audience for Smith's comments, calling them derogatory.
"That cuts deep," he said.