TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Charter, approved by voters in 1983, set up the county’s current governing framework including the method by which commissioners are elected.
That structure — four commissioners elected from districts, and three elected at large — has weathered major demographic changes, including a doubling of the population to 1.2 million people.
On Wednesday, however, commissioners could decide to let voters revamp the system. An ordinance sponsored by Commissioner Les Miller would put a measure on the 2014 ballot to add one single-member district while eliminating an at-large seat.
Miller, a Democrat, said adding another geographically defined district would decrease the number of residents represented by each of the district commissioners, thus bringing government “closer to the people.” He pointed out that large Florida counties such as Miami-Dade, Orange and Broward have done away with at-large districts.
“The districts we have now were established in 1983 when the county only had 600,000 people,” Miller said. “Now, we’re the only county with more than a million people that still has at-large districts.”
That reasoning doesn’t make sense to former Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt, who is considered by many to be “mother” of the county charter.
“If that argument held sway, then Congress would be expanded and the (Florida) Legislature would be expanded,” Platt said. “You can’t just keep letting government grow because the population grows.”
Platt’s objective in pushing for three at-large seats was to allow every county voter to vote for a majority of the commission — a district commissioner and the three at-large members.
“Each voter now votes for a majority of the board, but that will no longer be the case if this happens,” Platt said. “It will weaken the power of individual voters throughout the county.”
Miller also had another goal in mind in pushing for the new commission structure. If voters ultimately approve the ordinance a year from now, the restructured commission could include a district with Hispanic population of 35 percent or more. In fact, the ordinance commissioners will vote on today after a 2 p.m. public hearing specifically mentions increasing diversity on the commission.
Hispanic groups have been lobbying the commission since 2011 to create a district that would increase their chance of electing a Hispanic commissioner. They accused commissioners of weakening Hispanic voting power after the last census with a redistricting plan that reduced the Hispanic population in District 1 from 35 to 32 percent.
“Out of 1.2 million people in Hillsborough County, we have 300,000 Hispanics,” said Victor DiMaio, vice president of the Hillsborough Hispanic Coalition. “But right now on the Hillsborough County Commission, we have no Hispanic commissioner.”
This is Miller’s second attempt to create another single-member district. In February 2012, commissioners voted 5-2 against even setting a public hearing to consider the idea. All five Republicans voted against setting the hearing, with only Kevin Beckner, Miller’s fellow Democrat on the board, voting yes. That led to charges by Miller that the county’s Republican Party pressured GOP commissioners to protect party majority on the board.
This year, the board voted 6-1 to set the public hearing, with Republican Victor Crist voting no. That vote bolstered Miller’s hopes he might succeed in getting a measure on the ballot next November. Like any other proposed changes to the county charter, it will take five of the seven commission votes to pass the ordinance.
Crist voted against setting the hearing because of a provision that calls for the city-county Planning Commission to draw the new district lines. Commissioners would only be able to comment on the proposed maps in a public setting.
“I think it’s important that those who represent the districts at least have a role in the process of crafting those districts,” Crist, a Republican, said. “We have to serve those constituents; we know what the issues are and how challenging it is when you split a neighborhood in half. Communities need advocates.”
Republican Commissioner Al Higginbotham also expressed doubts about using the Planning Commission to draw new districts.
“I have some concerns about whether the planning commissioners are the right people to boot our responsibilities to,” Higginbotham said. “Should this be delegated to a body that’s not elected by the public?”
It was Beckner who pressed for the Planning Commission to draw the new district maps if the plan goes to voters. Beckner, a Democrat, couldn’t get a single vote for a redistricting map he submitted in June 2011 that would have boosted the Hispanic population in Republican Sandy Murman’s District 1 to 35.7 percent.
Instead, commissioners approved a map that lengthened Murman’s district to include heavily Republican areas in Keystone-Odessa in the north to the Little Manatee River in the south.
“It’s when the politicians and the local officials get involved in drawing maps that causes problems we have at the local level as well as the state and federal levels,” Beckner said. “It’s important to have a non-political body like the Planning Commission objectively draw the lines that serve the interests of the people, not just officials.”
Beckner pointed out that the language in the ordinance allows commissioners’ input, as long as it’s in a public setting. That would prevent the “back door dealing” Beckner said occurred in 2011 as commissioners pressed county mapmakers for changes in private.
The public hearing starts at 2 p.m. Wednesday on the second floor of the Frederick B. Karl County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Ave.