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County commission votes to place two charter amendments on the ballot – Alachua Chronicle
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County commission votes to place two charter amendments on the ballot

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the June 9 Alachua County Commission meeting, the commission voted to place two charter amendments on November’s ballot.

Land Use Planning

The first one changes Section 1.5 of the charter (“Land Use Planning”) as follows:

  • Establishes a “Rural Area” of Alachua County within which the County’s Comprehensive Plan and land development regulations would govern land development regardless of whether those areas are within a municipality.
  • The Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) may remove property from Rural Area by ordinance with supermajority approval.
  • BoCC may enact implementing ordinances which would prevail over municipal ordinances.

The “Rural Area” would be the green area in the map above. The commission voted unanimously to put the amendment on the ballot unless the Charter Review Commission (CRC) places a “substantially similar” item on the ballot.

They also agreed that if either this item or the CRC’s item is placed on the ballot, the County is authorized to hire Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson, PA to challenge SB 410(2020) at $300/hour for senior attorneys and $275/hour for associate attorneys. SB 410, which was sponsored by State Senator Keith Perry, requires governmental entities to respect private property rights in local decision-making. The bill has not yet been signed by Governor DeSantis.

Equity

The Equity Charter Amendment, if passed by a majority of the voters, would add Section 1.8 (“Identify and Mitigate racial, economic and gender bias”) to the charter.

The BoCC considered the following proposed ballot language: “Shall the Alachua County Charter be amended to require the Board of County Commissioners to examine County policies for elements of racial, economic, and gender bias in the design and delivery of County programs or services; to identify and act to mitigate and improve upon the effects, patterns, and disparities imposed by said bias?”

Director of Growth Management Missy Daniels reminded the BoCC about actions the County has already taken in response to the Friendship 7 “Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County” study. The BoCC instructed Growth Management to incorporate a number of points into the Comprehensive Plan, and they’re moving forward on that. As policies and programs are introduced and updated, they are examined through an equity lens. They also have a Diversity and Inclusion Plan that requires using an “inclusion lens” in everything the County does, and a new position has been approved to head up the Diversity and Inclusion Programs of the County.

At the May 26 meeting, the BoCC directed staff to join the Government Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE), which provides racial toolkits for governments to use when making decisions. Daniels said equity is a big part of the planning profession and is embedded in their code of ethics, and they have an equity planning toolkit they use.

Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson said the “aspirational” language of the amendment is important to have in the charter because it “provides some guidance for when we are developing Comp Plans and things like that.”

Commissioner Mike Byerly disagreed: “We don’t have any idea what it commits us to, Hutch… putting this language in the charter is a well-intentioned bad idea.” He said the Comprehensive Plan is the place for that kind of policy language.  

Commissioner Ken Cornell said they should try to eliminate racial and gender bias, not mitigate it, and he wanted to remove the part about economic bias: “I think racial and gender has a legal status that we could refer to and defend, whereas the economic for me was just too soft. It was too subject to interpretation.”

Cornell proposed new language: “The Board of County Commissioners shall annually examine policies for all County operations and endeavor to eliminate all elements of racial and gender bias in both the design and delivery of County programs and services.”

Byerly continued to argue against the amendment: “Well, it has been basically made inoffensive, this language, and I don’t think it will really obligate us to do very much or change anything at all… It’s just going to clutter up our charter. I guess I’m looking forward to reading in the paper tomorrow that I’m against gender and racial equity, but I’m opposed to putting this language on the ballot and asking our voters to put it into our charter because it’s bad government.

“This is not the way to address these problems, and not least because it gives us a false sense of having accomplished something. If we really want to address some of these issues, the way we do it is in our budget and in our day-to-day land development regulations and in our policies, and we can default to this now and pat ourselves on the back, but it’s going to accomplish nothing.

“We need to be talking about reallocating law enforcement spending and helicopter spending to issues that address what this language is intended to address. Real issues, real action that we’re not going to take, because every year we do the same thing, and… we’ve now watered it down. I’m not sure whether I like this language less or the other language less. At least the other language was dangerous. It was scary because I had no idea what it would make us do and how much it would cost. And it didn’t seem wise to me to put that in our charter, but at least it felt like it might do something… It will accomplish nothing and I don’t believe it belongs in the charter.”

Chestnut said Byerly had asked him to come up with examples of bias; he couldn’t find a good definition of economic bias, but “it all led back to historical stuff, you know, slavery,… Jim Crow laws, all the things that came down in terms of education, job opportunities. When you talk about economic bias, it stated more about job disparity, wage disparity, some of the racial bias that comes in… making decisions in terms of making hiring and that kind of stuff, so it was a an array of issues that were talked about.

“The things that I was talking about the last time was dealing with County contracts, stuff like that. Well, in some of the complaints I’d heard from minority businesses who bid for certain things and don’t get the bid, and… for instance, if a minority business bid on, say, getting vehicles repaired, and they were the lowest bidder but somebody came in and low-bid them, but then they came back and had a change order, where they said… this is… much worse than what we anticipated, so it’s going to cost more money to fix it. But anyway, that individual got the bid, but then he gets what he initially asked for by doing a supplement to it. “

He said sometimes businesses who win bids are asked to give a certain percentage of the work to minority and women businesses, but that doesn’t always happen. He said he was concerned the policies this commission puts in place could be reversed by future commissions because “we [can] basically see what’s going on nationally.”

He continued, “In terms of the George Floyd incident… I’m sure that a lot of people are upset because of the video that we all watched, I hope we all watched, and saw, in terms of how folks are being treated by law enforcement. But all law enforcement is not bad. But to me that was just the culture. I saw a culture of things that the police department allowed and let happen and no one speaking out against it.”

County Manager Michele Lieberman reminded the board that this amendment would only cover the actions of the Board of County Commissioners; it would not apply to the constitutional officers or the municipalities. She said that if their policies are not followed in the future, that’s a problem with the county manager, which they have the power to deal with. If a future commission doesn’t follow the will of the people, the remedy is to not re-elect those commissioners. She said her concern “is the language about acting to mitigate because I’m not quite sure what that is telling us we need to do, and I think it’s open to a large amount of interpretation that could be problematic for us.”

Hutchinson wanted to put it on the ballot because the Charter Review Commission might put their version on the ballot, and the BoCC could propose an amendment that is either “better or less worse.” He hoped the CRC would not put theirs on the ballot if the BoCC proposed a similar amendment.

Byerly continued to argue: “Racial and gender bias are very, very real. I’m not trying to downplay that, but… do you sincerely believe that County government is rife with these problems and that this charter amendment is going to cause significant change in how we operate?”

Hutchinson responded: “I think County policies have a problem as recently as the last agenda item: there is no affordable housing being put into those apartment units.”

Byerly: “You are largely describing one of the economic inequity problems, affordable housing. <crosstalk> come up with a better example than that.”

Hutchinson: “Economic and racial are almost inseparable. There’s a little difference there, but until that becomes not an issue, then I think you can talk about racial and gender bias as being economic disparity. Social justice.”

Byerly: “The economic part of it is the most powerful element of it–the inequitable distribution of wealth and income and opportunity that goes with this, which is not to say there is not racial bias in housing. I’m sure there is, but it’s dwarfed, dwarfed by the problems with income inequities… they don’t have the money. It’s an economic issue; if you’ve got the money, more than likely you can get the housing you want.”

Hutchinson: “I think economic equals racial when it comes to housing patterns.”

Marihelen Wheeler said they’ve been told by “very smart and experienced people who’ve been working on the CRC” that this doesn’t belong in the charter, but “we have a segment, we have a population of folks who’ve been working really, really hard to address the inequities in this community, and I feel like they have asked for us to address this in a more formal way that will commit the County to the work that the community has already started. And I would support putting it on there for that reason. To make sure that the voices of those people who are shouting at us to do something are heard. And that even if we don’t feel like it’s the right place to put it, at least we would be responding to the folks who’ve been working for the last 2 or 3 years on the inequities that we’re seeing in this community.”

Chestnut said, “I think it feels good, but it’s not doing much at all, in my opinion… it’s more like inspirational language. It doesn’t really get to the root of the problem… we’re not really being truthful about really having a discussion about race. And everybody feels uncomfortable to talk about race for some reason. You know, we don’t talk about the human element either, about individuals, period. But race seems to have a difficult way of communicating and discussing, and that’s just not in this community, that’s across America. And some people get uncomfortable when we talk about it. Some people, especially when we talk about the lynching, when we talk about Jim Crow laws, when we talk about slavery, we talk about all of the things, people get uncomfortable and don’t really want to discuss those issues, but those issues have psychological, physical impact on individuals, especially African-Americans, in terms of what they’ve been through and all of that stuff. 

“And how the federal government has done things to keep low wage jobs available, not unionizing low wage jobs for individuals, for instance a person who works in a restaurant, they don’t even make minimum wage, they make below minimum wage, it’s based off a tip, and it’s kept that way because the federal government won’t change its laws to make sure a waitress or waiter actually get minimum wage. They always get a percentage of it. But they also get tips, and so that’s the excuse they use to not pay minimum wage to those type of individuals. It should be minimum wage plus the tip. So that way they make a decent living. But that is not the case… But with this language, I just don’t know if it really gets to the point of the issues that we want to really bring out.”

The motion for a charter amendment with Cornell’s ballot language passed, 4-1, which places the amendment on the November ballot, unless the BoCC decides to remove it in the next few weeks.

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