Hillsborough Commissioners consider adding a single-member district, hope to represent Latinos

11/10/11 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough has more residents in each of its four single-member districts than any other county in the state. That’s why in a workshop yesterday County Commissioners considered adding a fifth single-member district to better represent their minority constituents.

Commissioner Les Miller spearheaded the discussion about creating five single member districts without increasing the size of the board. Miller said his plan is in response to an outcry from the members of the Latino community who feel they are not adequately represented.

“If we pass a referendum and it’s placed on the ballot in 2012 and it’s passed by the voters, it would take effect in 2014. Prior to the 2014 election, district 7, which is currently at-large, would become a single member district because it’s up for election in 2014 anyways. It would become a single-member district and therefore we would have 5 single-member districts. It wouldn’t affect any of our terms and all of us would have the fortunate opportunity to be re-elected again. The county is never too old to change and the time has come for change.”

Commissioner Kevin Beckner supported the plan because of its ability to give a stronger voice to minorities, but was concerned the initiative would eventually lose sight of its original goal.

“If it’s the intent to represent the Hispanic population and make sure that it represents the Hispanic voice and is not turned to represent a further gerrymandered district that would solely represent a party affiliation. So, I wanted to see what could be written into the ordinance or statute to make sure that that intent is preserved for future boards and when these maps are drawn.”

The county’s senior assistant attorney, Debora Cromartie-Mincey said Beckner’s concerns would be addressed through appropriate language from county staff.

“Absolutely, we would ask that you allow us to work on some maps, work on some proposals, to make sure that the numbers jive, to make sure that there is some concentration of minorities in some other area. Just to make sure that going forward, before we place this before the voters and absolutely before we go to justice for per-clearance that everything is in the right place.”

The board directed staff to draft an ordinance to re-structure commission districts. If approved, the issue will go on the 2012 ballot. Commissioner Victor Crist said he thinks the plan will stimulate beneficial conversations in board meetings.

“I’ve always been the guy fighting for the underdog and looking at, generally, those who haven’t had the sizable voice to be seen or heard in the process. And I see this 5-2 distribution as providing for better dialogue for insuring that projects and/or interests of large special interest groups are more openly deliberated because there is no easy street to a successful vote.”

Commissioner Mark Sharpe challenged Beckner’s request that ordinance language be written to ensure political gerrymandering be avoided. He said creating a district specifically to include Hillsborough’s Latino population does exactly what Beckner hopes to avoid.

“The challenge with taking the politics out is the moment you start drawing the maps to try to include certain individuals on whatever basis, you get into gerrymandering. And you can gerrymander for good or you can gerrymander for bad. So, you give us the power to do it for good we can turn around and pretty soon – it’s very difficult to take the politics out. I’ve always liked, in fact I was at odds with my own party because I supported amendments four and five – I like square box districts. You know, lay it out. I don’t care, lay a box out and then I get a mix of everyone.”

Both Sharpe and Commissioner Sandra Murman agreed that if the county redraws its commission districts the process will have to run more efficiently than the state’s current redistricting procedure. Commissioner Ken Hagan voted to move forward with drafting an ordinance, but maintained his stance that the public needs to be heard before final actions are taken.

“I do like the current system and the fact that each resident is represented by four commissioners, a majority of the board. I do like that. However, whenever we’re going to consider, the board’s going to consider potentially changing a charter, I do feel that the public should have the right to weigh in and be heard on the issue. Of course I want to reserve the right to review the referendum language and specifics of the ordinance before I commit one way or the other. But, I think a change of this magnitude warrants having the public have the right to weigh in on it.”

If Les Miller’s proposal makes it through public hearings, board approval and is passed by voters in 2012, it will still be subject to review by the Department of Justice because Hillsborough is one of five Florida counties with a history of voter discrimination. Further discussion of this topic has not yet been scheduled.

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