A county mayor is great, except…

By Sue Carlton, Times Columnist

Published Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When Mary Ann Stiles asked the Hillsborough County Commission last week to let voters decide whether to elect a county mayor, I'm pretty sure she did not expect a sloppy group hug in return.

Rest assured, none was forthcoming.

Stiles, a lawyer-lobbyist, spoke of checks and balances in government and letting the people be heard. (Unspoken was that, well, yes, adding a chief like this one would also strip much of the commission's power.)

Their reaction to her pitch?

She might as well have been talking to the boys of Mount Rushmore. I swear, I heard crickets.

Okay, hard to blame commissioners for not voting to pull the rug out from under their own selves. Still, the slog for this good cause pushes on, with true believers thinking that electing a county CEO is an infinitely better idea than appointing one, given the messy internal politics that can entail. (See: Bean, Pat.)

It may have taken them years to get this far, but do not be surprised if they get the more than 40,000 required signatures to put this on the November ballot.

If that happens, voters who have been witness to the recent onslaught of embarrassing county-related headlines might decide they like the idea of putting a grown-up in charge. Pinellas, by the way, also is noodling over the county mayor concept.

Why is this a good idea? Exhibit One in Hillsborough is the current version. An elected county mayor would replace the appointed county administrator — at the moment, Bean, suspended amid allegations of let-them-eat-cake raises and politically motivated e-mail snooping, stories that add a new level of dysfunction to a government already known for it.

It's bad news that could not have come at a better time for the county mayor cause.

The problem with the current setup: An appointed administrator answers to the seven-headed monster that is the commission, with its assorted conflicting pet projects and constituent concerns. When the administrator must keep a majority of commissioners happy to keep her job, the place can get thick with politics and the trading of favors.

An elected county mayor means commissioners won't be serving as seven mini-mayors. The mayor could veto commission decisions, though a vote by at least five commissioners could override a veto.

Now here is the part that is not all rainbows and sunshine, should this makes it to the ballot and pass. After that, you get who you elect.

Okay, so we'll just elect somebody really good, right?

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and former state Sen. Tom Lee are rumored possibles, assuming the job exists, for 2012. Commissioner Mark Sharpe gets mentioned. We've even heard Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee — and wouldn't that put a little law and order in those wild west commission meetings — but Gee says while it's nice to be thought of, no.

Now, imagine your least favorite, most damaging politician — c'mon, you can think of a couple — in charge of the whole shebang. Around here, we do like to recycle.


So assuming the county mayor question makes it to the ballot, the key will be that single, steady hand at the wheel.

Because we have a pretty good idea of where things can go without one.


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