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Alachua County representatives pledge to legislators that they won’t use taxpayer money to fight single-member districts – but they already have

Alachua County Spokesman Mark Sexton

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At yesterday’s Florida House Elections & Public Integrity Committee meeting, representatives from Alachua County pledged to not use taxpayer money or staff resources to take any position on a referendum on single-member districts that will be on the November ballot if it clears the legislature.

However, many of the concerns in their statements to the committee were about how they would need to spend staff time and money to defeat it, and it turns out that Alachua County had already asked citizens to call the legislators and ask them to vote no, indicating that before the pledge was extracted, Alachua County and the county commission had every intention of working to defeat the referendum. In addition, County staff instructed their lobbyist to work against it, the County sent a staff member (County Spokesman and Legislative Affairs Director Mark Sexton) to Tallahassee to oppose it, and a county commissioner submitted an op-ed to the Gainesville Sun (calling the bill a “political assault“) that was at least partially written by Sexton. Sexton also sent emails to city commissioners and County employees, asking them to contact members of the committees hearing the local bill.

Statements from representatives

During the hearing, Rep. Yvonne Hinson (D-20) told legislators: “What we’re trying to prevent is the time and money and effort it’s going to take away from our constituents to do this.”

Alachua County Commission Chair Marihelen Wheeler said, “We really do not have the time and energy to put towards this bill. We have not put forth any–we don’t have to work to fight this bill. We don’t have to fund any–I’m surprised–This is news to me… I have been following this. None of us–and I’ve been at every commission meeting… we have said nothing about this bill, in terms of how we would defeat it. We don’t have to. We just don’t want to be bothered by having it on… a ballot that’s not really worth our time.”

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County staff asked citizens, city commissioners, and County staff to oppose the bill

However, four Alachua County commissioners, including Wheeler, strategized about their plan to fight this local bill in the legislature just last week. Not only did they ask their lobbyist to contact every committee member, the County posted a “CALL TO ACTION!” asking citizens to call legislators and ask them to vote no on the local bill. This was posted by an Alachua County staff member on Alachua County’s official Facebook page:

Sexton also sent an email to all Gainesville City Commissioners and undisclosed others before the first committee hearing, urging them to “contact the members and ask them to vote this bad bill down.”

On Friday evening, February 11, Sexton sent an email to County employees from his official alachuacounty.us account:

County commissioners talked about their plan to oppose the bill last week

At the February 8 meeting, County Commissioner Ken Cornell said, “Unless there’s an objection, what we would like to do is send my December 6 letter, the FAC supporting letter, a letter that was written by the chair of the Charter Review Commission, Former Commissioner [Penny] Wheat wrote a letter, and I understand [Commissioner Alford is] doing an op-ed?… If we say that’s okay, then Tom [Alachua County’s lobbyist] is going to begin working his magic with each of those committee members, so any objection to that?”

The others all said, “None,” so Cornell said, “So Mark [Sexton], you have your marching orders.”

Sexton added, “We also spoke about beginning a very deliberate online campaign to increase citizen awareness of this local bill, and we would include in that the members of the committee, their phone numbers, their emails, and we would encourage our residents to reach out to these folks as well.”

County Commissioner Mary Alford later thanked Sexton for his help writing the op-ed she submitted to the Gainesville Sun: “I just wanted to thank Mark [Sexton] for his help on writing this op-ed. You know, he’s such an invaluable employee and supporter of the commission.”

All of this is in the following video:

Sexton also sent Alford’s column to the Gainesville Sun:

Wheeler: “we have said nothing about this bill, in terms of how we would defeat it”

After Wheeler told the committee, “we have said nothing about this bill, in terms of how we would defeat it,” Rep. Blaise Ingoglia (R-35) followed up by asking Wheeler why she was up in Tallahassee lobbying against the bill when she said they didn’t need to fight it. She said, “Why waste our time and your time putting it on the ballot when we have a process?… This is not important to the general population of our community.”

Ingoglia then asked Wheeler if she would pledge that the County would not use any tax dollars or staff time on defeating any referendum that’s going to be on the ballot. Wheeler responded, “Yes, sir.”

Sexton also said that Alachua County would not spend money opposing the bill, but only “educating the voters.”

Legislators seemed satisfied with the pledges, made “in the sunshine, where your constituents are listening,” but Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden, who also attended the hearing, said, “I know they’ve already broken that promise. It will be interesting to see if this gives them any pause moving forward or if they will revert back to their old tricks.”

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