Anyone looking to make Hillsborough County government bigger, costlier, more dysfunctional and less of a regional force should love the idea that Commissioner Sandy Murman rolled out this week. She proposes enlarging the seven-member board to nine, electing every commissioner from single-member districts and doing away with countywide seats. The Republican-led board, which voted 5-2 along party lines to pursue the idea, should see this as a terrible idea that would lead to millions in wasteful spending and ward politics at their worst.
Murman said Hillsborough’s population of 1.4 million makes it too hard for the seven-member commission to serve its constituents effectively. Expanding to nine, with all being elected in single-member districts, would give local communities greater sway, she said. And smaller districts would enable commissioners to be more responsive. She neglects to mention that it would throw any countywide vision out the window and pit every district against the others for money and influence.
The existing system is fair and more than adequate. The seven-member board includes four from single-member districts and three elected countywide. That gives all voters regardless of where they live the opportunity to elect a board majority — their own district member and three elected countywide. The makeup ensures distinct neighborhoods are represented but also brings a balance by having countywide members who are supposed to see the bigger picture.
Opponents see the change as a Republican bid to hold seats that might swing Democratic, but the political motives are secondary when balanced against the substance of such a regressive approach. Every county voter would lose influence at the polls, getting one pick instead of four in choosing who leads a multibillion-dollar operation. Having all commissioners from single-member districts would pit neighborhoods against each other. The question won’t be who needs a fire station or park but which commissioner has the most political juice. Adding two members to the board would easily cost county taxpayers an additional $500,000 or more a year in new personnel and office expenses. And it would only increase the drama at County Center, where commissioners already trip over themselves to compete for the staff’s time and public attention.
The argument also ignores the reality of what commissioners do and the genuine weaknesses in county government. Too many of these commissioners are paid full-time for part-time effort. The heavy lifting that some complain about falls not to the board but the professional staff. The board is supposed to set policy, but time and again, on every major issue — transportation, the budget, land use — this commission has dodged the tough decisions. No wonder the county is choking on congestion and sprawl, and facing serious monetary challenges in the years ahead. Having all single-member districts also would encourage the county’s elected leaders to look inward, causing Hillsborough to withdraw from its role as a leader across the Tampa Bay region.
The problem in Hillsborough is not the quantity of commissioners but the quality. And comparing Hillsborough to other counties goes only so far. Do backers really want to hold up Miami-Dade and Broward counties as examples of model government? This proposal would ease the workload of commissioners, but it also would create the worst possible environment for Hillsborough to address its growing pains and role in the region. The measure will come back to the board for a public hearing as early as late spring, and if approved it would go to the voters in a referendum in November. Hillsborough residents should be expressing their concerns now.