Mitch Perry's Top 10 stories of 2015 in Hillsborough politics - Florida Politics

Mitch Perry’s Top 10 stories of 2015 in Hillsborough politics

As first said by Greek philosopher Heraclitus, in the universe change is the only constant. Nowhere was that more applicable than in Tampa Bay during the past 12 months.

From the much-ballyhooed dismissal of MaryEllen Elia as Hillsborough County School Board District superintendent to redistricting and the rising (and falling) fortunes for hizzoner Bob Buckhorn, many of the leading political issues of the year centered on shaking up the status quo.

With that, here are Hillsborough County’s top ten stories in 2015:

1) MaryEllen Elia canned by Hillsborough County School Board.

For most of her decadelong tenure as Hillsborough County School Board District superintendent, Elia enjoyed a glorious run, beloved by the local media and recognized by her peers across the nation as one of the top public school instructors in the country.

But there are always issues simmering below the surface that actually wasn’t that hidden for those who followed the 2014 Hillsborough County School Board elections, where Elia was referred to critically by many if not most of those running for office.

Elia clashed severely with two school board members for years: April Griffin and Susan Valdes. After last fall’s school board election, which included the stunning upset victory by Sally Harris over establishment favorite Michelle Shimberg, Elia was in more trouble than she could have ever imagined.

In January, the school board on a 4-3 vote shockingly fired Elia.

One of those school board members who opposed her, Cindy Stuart said that some incidents had eroded the board’s trust, including one in which the board did not learn for 10 months about a special education student who had a medical emergency on a school bus and later died.

It all ended up well for Elia. In addition to costing local taxpayers more than $1 million to break her contract, four months later, she was named New York state Education Commissioner.

2) Guido Maniscalco stuns Jackie Toledo, Tampa establishment in runoff City Council race.

In this three-way race to succeed Charlie Miranda in Tampa’s City Council District 6 contest (Tommy Castellano was the third candidate), Republican Jackie Toledo had the financial edge and was embraced by the business elite in Tampa who welcomed a fellow “R” on the otherwise all-Democratic Council.

But as the campaign continued, Toledo suffered serious negative fallout. Some of that had to do with the actions of her campaign manager Anthony Pedicini that Toledo never addressed.

But some of it was on her, such as her weak response when it was learned that her campaign had failed to get permission from the Florida Department of Transportation to shoot video in a restricted construction zone for a television ad.

Nevertheless, Toledo won the plurality of votes on primary Election Day in April, garnering 46 percent of the vote, to Maniscalco’s 29 percent (Castellano received 25 percent).

Saying he was offended by her campaign, Castellano endorsed Maniscalco that evening, and local Democrats worked the streets to ensure that the council remained all Democratic in party registration.

In the runoff, Maniscalco narrowly won, 51-49 percent.

3) Uproar over Citizens Review Board for Police in Tampa.

The Tampa Bay Times report in April that Tampa Police had written more than 2,500 bike tickets over the past three years: more than Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando combined. They also reported that nearly 80 percent of the citations in the city went to blacks.

That report — along with some problematic issues within the department — resulted in community activists calling on the City Council and Mayor Bob Buckhorn to create a Citizens Review Board to monitor police procedures and policies, something that most major cities in the country have, but not Tampa.

The controversy hit “Def Com 5” the day Buckhorn — initially resistant to the idea — announced an executive order creating such an agency, giving himself the power to name all but two members to the nine-member regular board with two alternates.

That led to a prolonged battle with the City Council over who had jurisdiction to name members of such a board. Activists also wanted the board to have subpoena power, something that no council members was even calling for.

4) Redistricting changes everything — David Jolly leaves the 13th Congressional District seat for a U.S. Senate run, Charlie Crist enters the race.

In Tampa Bay, some of the greatest political changes can be summed up in one word:  redistricting. David Jolly had been part of one of the most expensive congressional races in U.S. history in early 2014 when over $12 million was spent altogether for the Pinellas County District left open after the death of longtime U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

A little over a year later, Jolly announced he would leave the seat in 2016.

That’s because, during the summer, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the Florida GOP-led Legislature had violated the state’s constitution by gerrymandering eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts in 2012. The result was a newly drawn up CD 13 that, on paper anyway, made it much less possible for Jolly (or any other Republican) to hold on to the seat.

So, exit Jolly from local politics (he’s now running for U.S. Senate), and say hello (once again) to Charlie Crist, whose political career seemed to have ran out of options less than a year earlier after his narrow loss to Rick Scott in the incredibly bitter contest for governor.

Crist is running for the Democratic nomination in CD13 against Eric Lynn, the St. Pete native who began working for then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama right before the Illinois lawmaker announced his run for president. Lynn served for six years in the Pentagon, before announcing earlier in 2015 that he would challenge Jolly.

Jolly’s out, but Crist is in, and his overwhelming advantage in name recognition has made him the prohibitive favorite in the race, but Lynn has refused to be cowed by his much more famous challenger.

5) Jim Norman attempts a return for local politics.

The jury is still out on how significant development this actually is, but what is newsworthy is that Jim Norman opted to come out of hibernation and attempt a return to the place he served for 18 years.

The former County Commissioner says he’s been exonerated for the ethical issues involving the vacation home involving one of his benefactors, the late Ralph Hughes. He remains the odds-on favorite to capture the GOP nomination for the District 6 countywide seat next year, but it’s not known if the electorate overall will be that forgiving.

6) Kevin Beckner challenges Pat Frank in Hillsborough County Clerk of the Court race in 2016.

The biggest game of “he said/she said,” in local politics, Kevin Beckner ended up alienating some of the Tampa Democratic establishment by challenging Pat Frank, but it was never intended to be that way.

The two Hillsborough Dems acknowledge they had a conversation, where Beckner talked about his interest in running for the race. They disagreed on what was actually said at that meeting. Beckner said Frank told him she would be stepping down in 2016, suggesting he consider running for the office.

Frank vigorously denied that, saying she told Beckner she hadn’t made up her mind yet.

“I never said I wasn’t going to run,” Frank told this reporter. “I said I hadn’t made up my mind yet. And I never said that I would endorse him or anything of that sort. In fact, he did say to me, ‘If I do run, could you support me?’ And I said, ‘I’ve gotta be honest with you, the person who would stand first in line with me would be Harry Cohen.’”

7) Frank Reddick becomes Tampa City Council Chair/Les Miller ousts Sandy Murman as Hillsborough Board of County Commission Chair.

There was a changing of the guard in local leadership.

In Tampa, Charlie Miranda was expected to be re-elected by his colleagues once again as chair. In fact, Mayor Bob Buckhorn predicted it. But in a rare sign of flexing independent muscles, something they would do again later in the year, a majority of the council opted instead for another choice, Frank Reddick, probably the mayor’s biggest critic on the board.

In November, two Republican Hillsborough County Commissioners (Victor Crist and Ken Hagan) joined Democrats Kevin Beckner and Les Miller to select Miller as Board Chairman, ousting former chair Sandy Murman.

It was a stunning move, which had many people wondering how it had happened.

While there were a few scenarios presented, it seems apparent the vote against Murman had nothing to do with her counter proposal to fund transportation projects in the county.

That offer, using the framework a plan worked on by both Sierra Club and Tea Party members, employs a variety of courses (such as mobility fees and a gas tax), and received poor reviews when Murman announced it, although she still expects it to get a hearing in 2016.

8) Go Hillsborough effort rocked by WTSP Channel 10 story.

Speaking of Go Hillsborough, the fate of that possible county transportation tax remains unresolved as of this posting. Go Hillsborough is the collective work effort of the county initially presented last summer as a plan to go before voters in 2016.

With transportation taxes going down in the Tampa Bay area in 2010 and 2014, the pressure is on Hillsborough to finally break the losing streak and get something — anything — passed. Or, at least, that’s the way it looked like to Tampa residents — a plan tailored for the rest of Hillsborough County (outside of Tampa) and heavy on adding or improving roads, with little devoted to transit.

Then Noah Pransky‘s story on WTSP hit in early September. It sought to enlighten the public on the power public relations consultant Beth Leytham held within the county’s corridors of power but exposing serious questions about how the contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff was selected to work on the project. Parsons then hired Leytham as a subcontractor.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee has been investigating some of the questions presented by Pransky — his findings have yet to be announced (as of this posting). Some say it doesn’t matter, and the project is now doomed to fail — again. Others say it could be ready to make a comeback.

9) Bob Buckhorn’s bad summer

Bob Buckhorn started off 2015 in grand fashion, seeming to have found his footing at the end of last year. But in late summer, the mayor definitely encountered the most turbulence in his four-year-plus tenure.

It began with winning re-election by the margins usually tin-pot dictators, taking 96 percent of the vote.

That would be the highlight. For a while, anyway.

As noted above, the Tampa Bay Times reported that blacks had been disproportionately cited by the TPD for bike citations. Police Chief Jane Castor and Buckhorn initially pooh-poohed the report, but it opened the floodgates for critics of the police department, who held a host of meetings decrying their treatment by police, along with the seeming lack of concern by the mayor.

Buckhorn and Castor asked for assistance from the U.S. Justice Department, which sent its Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS) program to investigate the TPD; that report is slated for the end of the year. (Critics say it will be a whitewash, and that the DOJ should have instead sent itsCivil Rights Division to investigate.)

Critics then began demanding the creation of a Citizen’s Police Review Board, something the mayor initially said wasn’t needed. He came around to the idea, but alienated members of the City Council when he signed an executive order allowing him the power to choose nine of the 11 total members. Council members objected, but Buckhorn’s initial stance was that the City Charter allowed him to name all 11 members. He dismissed the critics who attended council meetings who criticized him, saying they were part of “fringe groups.”

Buckhorn also played a supporting role in the WTSP report on Leytham, providing the mayor one of his least flattering on-camera moments ever when he responded to Noah Pransky’s queries.

After fundraising slowed for his political action committee, which was designed as a vehicle for him to travel around the state broadening his profile for a potential 2018 gubernatorial run, questions began percolating that Buckhorn dropped the idea. He hasn’t.

However, Buckhorn acknowledges that it will involve a major undertaking on his part, something he says he’ll definitely decide by the end of 2016, if not earlier.

10) TBX Express is coming to Tampa

For nearly two decades, the Florida Department of Transportation has been invested in what it calls the ultimate downtown interchange: widening both I-275 and I-4.

And what that meant was for years, the FDOT did nothing except buy and move historic structures in Ybor City and Tampa Heights, part of the purchase of rights of way for road widening.

But earlier this year, when the FDOT finally announced plans for the ultimate downtown interchange, many members of the local Seminole Heights/Tampa Heights community were less than impressed.

The plan calls for express toll lanes to run along Interstates 275, 4 and 75, and would cost up to $2 per mile to use. On I-275, TBX would go south from Bearss to the I-4 junction, west to the Westshore area, and over the Howard Frankland bridge to Pinellas County. The price tag would be $3 billion.

Community activists say it could destroy the progress, particularly that made in Seminole Heights, citing what FDOT did to the city when the interstate was constructed in the 1960s.

Supporters of the plan, like Bob Buckhorn, say it’s a new FDOT, which is more sensitive in how they go about construction projects, and it intends to be more cooperative with neighborhoods.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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