TAMPA — Gerrymandered voting districts get some of the blame for the political gridlock that shut down large sectors of the federal government this week.
But in Tampa, Hillsborough County commissioners took a tentative step Thursday toward taking the politics out of a proposed redistricting plan that could go before voters in November 2014.
By a 5-1 vote, commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing Nov. 6, after which they will vote to put a new commission district plan on the ballot a year later.
The proposed redistricting would replace one of the commission’s three countywide seats with a new single-member district. If voters approve, five commission seats would be chosen by voters in geographic districts, and only two would be elected by voters countywide.
What was surprising about the Wednesday vote, however, was that commissioners agreed to let the city-county Planning Commission draw the lines if the matter goes on the ballot and voters approve it. County commissioners rarely give up such power, especially when it involves their re-election.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, one of the yes votes, said the last commission redistricting in 2012 was too political, with several commissioners participating in drawing maps they favored. Sharpe said he wanted the redistricting process freed from back-room, political arm twisting.
“What we’ve got in Washington and Tallahassee is a direct result of congressmen crafting their own districts so they win,” Sharpe said. “I think that whatever they’re doing in Washington, D.C., or Tallahassee, we ought to do the opposite.”
The Planning Commission has handled redistricting for the city of Tampa since the 1970s, said the group’s chairman, Ray Chiaramonte. Unlike the county, where commissioners decide the final district lines, Tampa’s City Council doesn’t get a vote. That decision is made by the Planning Commission, a group consisting of appointees from the county, its three cities, and other agencies.
Terry Eagan, also with the planning commission, said Tampa’s districts are more compact and contiguous than the county’s, which minimizes political maneuvering. Also, city council elections are non-partisan; county commission elections are not.
Victor Crist was the only county commissioner to vote against the measure. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan was absent.
Crist said professional planners, like those employed by the Planning Commission, don’t know residents’ concerns like commissioners do.
“To me the political chemistry isn’t the issue,” Crist said. “The issue is developing these districts so the population can adequately be served.”
Of course, the new voting plan may never make it to the ballot. An identical measure was defeated in February 2012 when all five Republican commissioners, including Sharpe, voted against putting it before voters.
Democratic Commissioner Les Miller, who proposed the measure on both occasions, said Republican power brokers pressured GOP commissioners into voting for the status quo last year. But Miller said he thinks the political pressure left a “sour taste” in some commissioners’ mouths, which they would like to erase by letting the people vote on the district plan.
“Between now and November 6 there could be a number of phone calls to try to change minds, but I would hope not,” Miller said after the meeting. “I hope they allow this process to take place; that it would be the people making these decisions, not just a segment of our community.”
The county’s charter requires a yes vote by five of the commission’s seven members to put a measure on the ballot. If Miller’s proposal passes that hurdle, and voters approve it, the commission must pass a resolution within 60 days of the November 2014 election laying out how the mapping process will take place.