Another district unlikely to improve county commission
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller wants to revamp the makeup of the board, and his colleagues last week rightly voted to review his proposal. Miller’s goals are admirable, and it is appropriate to investigate such voting concerns. But we remain doubtful about the plan to eliminate one of the commission’s at-large seats and make it a single-member district. The same proposal was floated a couple of years ago. The change would eliminate a key right Hillsborough citizens now enjoy — the ability to vote for the majority of the board.Under the current charter, three commissioners are elected countywide; four are elected from single-member districts. So each voter has the chance to choose four commissioners. Miller wants five single-member districts and only two at-large seats. He raises some good points. When the charter was adopted in 1983, Hillsborough’s population was about 646,000. It is now more than 1.2 million. The number of residents per single-member district has grown from 240,000 to 307,000. Miller points out that is far more residents per commissioner than counties such as Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange, though Miami-Dade and Broward have elected county mayors. And Broward’s scandal-plagued commission of nine single-member districts is hardly a model Hillsborough should follow. In fact, Hillsborough’s four-three commission was developed in response to its own corruption problems. Four commissioners — three in office at the time of their arrests — were convicted of selling their votes during the 1980s. Under the old system, five commissioners were elected countywide and appointed the county administrator. This made it difficult for minorities to be elected. The four single-member districts and three at-large seats made for a more diverse board but also guarded against the commission being consumed with parochial matters. Miller emphasizes that refashioning the commission would allow for the designation of a district more likely to elect a Hispanic. Supporters say Hispanics are underrepresented on the board. None now serve on the commission. That is a concern, and commissioners, when scrutinizing this proposal, should also consider whether there are obstacles to Hispanics being elected. But as we have stressed before, it is risky to equate an elected official’s ethnicity with effective representation. This suggests race and culture, not qualifications and outlook, should be the overriding factors in an election. Further, not all Hispanics — or members of any ethnic group — share the same views. Moreover, creating a Hispanic district could result in the other commissioners being less concerned with Hispanic voters. The current system is not perfect. But if anything, commissioners have tended to be overly focused on their districts, without a commitment to the entire county. This commission is much improved, but some past commissioners representing unincorporated areas have been virtually dismissive of urban needs. We doubt if adding a fifth single district would result in a more visionary commission. Unless upcoming workshops and public meetings provide compelling evidence that a fifth district would improve governance, the county should stick with a system where each voter has the opportunity to pick a majority of the board.