TAMPA — Norma Reno struggled to regain her composure Wednesday after Hillsborough County Commissioners killed her hopes of adding a Hispanic-leaning commission district through a voter referendum.
“We knew this didn’t mean we would get a district,” Reno said, wiping away tears, “but we’ve been fighting so hard. This was one more step we needed.”
Four Republican board members _ Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman, Victor Crist and Al Higginbotham _voted against putting a redistricting proposal on the November 2014 ballot. The proposal, by Commissioner Les Miller, would have added a fifth single-member district to the commission, eliminating one of the three at-large commission seats, which are elected in a countywide vote.
Miller needed five votes to send the district proposal to the voters but got only three _ his own and those of fellow Democrat Kevin Beckner and Republican Mark Sharpe.
“I can’t for the life of me understand why this commission will not allow the people that elect you to decide how to elect ... to have what they want,” an exasperated Miller said as he saw his chance for passing the measure evaporate.
It was the second time Miller had tried and failed to get the measure passed. In 2011, commissioners voted 5-2 against even holding a public hearing on the issue. Both times, Hispanic groups rallied their supporters to attend public hearings, but to no avail.
Hispanics hoped Miller’s proposal would lead to a district with 35 percent or more of Spanish-heritage residents who could coalesce to elect one of their own. The ordinance the commission voted down included language about increasing the “opportunity for representation ...that reflects the diversity of the citizenry of the commission.”
Reno, who said she is a Republican, blamed the defeat on the tea party’s influence and the conservatism of the board’s GOP members.
“They’re afraid of change; they listen to the party,” Reno said. “They are thinking about votes. Maybe when we start voting, they’ll listen to us.”
Several commissioners said they disagreed with a provision in the ordinance calling for the city-county Planning Commission to draw the new voting lines should voters approve the change. Beckner pushed to have the provision inserted to prevent the kind of political gerrymandering he said Republican commissioners engaged in after the 2010 census.
Murman said she didn’t believe it was the commission’s job to draw new districts so soon after the 2011 redistricting process. She said any proposal to add or subtract districts should come from the county’s charter review commission.
“I believe ... if you keep going outside your process, it will really dilute our authority and power up here,” Murman said.
Other commissioners voting no said they wanted to preserve the present system that allows every voter to cast ballots for a majority of the commission _ one commissioner who lives in their district and three members who are elected in a countywide vote.
The vote came after commissioners heard nearly an hour’s worth of public comments. More than 20 people, mostly Hispanics, spoke in favor of putting the district proposal on the ballot. Many speakers pointed out that Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the county, making up 25 percent of the population. Yet there are no Latino commissioners in Hillsborough County.
“How are you going to know about the real issues of 25 percent of the population if they are not properly represented?” asked Maria Asuncion Lopez, president of the Hispanic Alliance of Tampa Bay.
A few speakers opposed the idea of carving out voting districts to favor any ethnic or racial group.
“This board at times seems preoccupied with discriminating policies that identify us as anything but citizens, that set us apart from one another, serve only to divide us,” said Ken Roberts. “I think we should avoid them.”
Miller said he originally proposed the change to create smaller districts that would bring county government closer to the people. Each of the four district commissioners now represents 307,000 people. Adding a district would reduce the number of people represented by a commissioner to 247,000.
Edwin Enciso, who spoke in favor of Miller’s proposal, added some perspective. He said each member of the U.S.House of Representatives represents 721,000 people, less than the 1.2 million represented by each of the at-large commissioners.
“These at-large commissioners can be elected without any Hispanic support,” Enciso said after the vote. “That’s the reason we want them broken up - we want to have representatives closer to where we live.”
After the redistricting proposal was defeated, commissioners unanimously passed a motion by Miller to have the county’s charter review board take up the redistricting proposal when it meets again in 2015. The charter board, by a two-thirds majority, can put charter changes on the ballot.