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Murman again named Hillsborough chair two years after controversial ouster over transportation

TAMPA — Two years after her unexpected ouster, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman is once again the board's chairwoman.

The seven-member commission chose Murman on Thursday over Victor Crist, who has never led the board during his seven years in office. Murman cast the clinching vote for herself.

"I did not see that coming," Murman said after she was selected. Murman represents District 1, which spans from Keystone to Ruskin and includes south Tampa and most of the county's coastal regions.

The chair conducts the bi-monthly meetings, but their vote doesn't hold additional weight and they cannot make decisions without their colleague's approval. However, it comes with a 10 percent pay bump and stately duties like ribbon cuttings that can be beneficial during campaign season.

Murman and Crist are running for reelection in 2018, with both looking to jump from their single-member districts to county-wide seats. Commissioners make $99,997.

Despite the ceremonial nature of the job, the process of selecting the chairperson can be rife with infighting and behind-the-scenes jockeying.

Murman was on the wrong end of the political upheaval in November 2015 during a contentious debate over raising the sales tax to pay for transportation projects. On the eve of a critical vote, Murman, then the board chairwoman, surprised her colleagues with an alternative plan to pay for the needed upgrades without a tax increase. The proposed sales tax increase ultimately failed.

A week after that 2015 vote, Murman was denied a second term as the board's leader. She was visibly displeased at the outcome, declining to open a gift from her colleagues. Commissioner Al Higginbotham accused his colleagues of a coordinated effort to punish Murman.

Commissioners instead named Les Miller chair. That decision was not without controversy, either. Miller is a Democrat and the board then and now is led by a five to two Republican majority. The decision to elevate Miller angered prominent local GOP donors.

This time, Miller nominated Murman to chairperson, with Commissioners Pat Kemp and Higginbotham concurring. Murman voted for herself. Commissioners Stacy White, Ken Hagan and Crist did not vote for her.

"A lot of people call it a ceremonial position, but it's not," Miller said. "You represent this county and the 4 million people in it. And I think that we need someone that's going to guide this ship in the right direction."

Commissioners selected Crist as vice chairman over Miller and named White, the outgoing chairman, as chaplin.

Despite the divided vote, the outcome was reached quickly and without debate. When the meeting ended, Murman cried out, "What just happened?" As he left the dais, Crist kissed Murman on the top of the head.

Murman, a Republican, was first elected to the county commission in 2010 and most recently won reelection in 2016. She previously served eight years in the Florida House of Representatives.

In the next year, commissioners face a vote on how to pay for a ballpark in Tampa if the Tampa Bay Rays decide to move to Ybor City, as well as decisions on affordable housing and how to thwart increasing encroachment from Tallahassee on local government powers.

Murman anticipates the ongoing transportation quandary will dominate the dialogue once again, and she hopes the board has put past quarrels behind them.

"We've had our peaks and valleys," Murman said. "We started out so collegial. All of the sudden it turned. I think we're swinging back to the old collegial ways."

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