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Local bill for a referendum on single-member districts approved by legislative delegation

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Today the Alachua County Legislative Delegation voted 3-1 to file a local bill that, if passed by the legislature, would put a referendum on the November 2022 ballot to create single-member districts for the Alachua County Commission.

The meeting began with a 3-1 vote to take up the local bill, which would change the Alachua County Commission from five at-large commissioners to seven commissioners—one each from five districts and two at-large commissioners. Senator Keith Perry, Representative Chuck Brannan, and Representative Chuck Clemons voted in favor of considering the local bill, while Representative Yvonne Hinson voted against it.

This is not about a Tallahassee takeover; it’s not about an edict from the legislative delegation; what this bill would do… would allow people in Alachua County to rest the question of… whether or not the status quo is what they want.” – Representative Chuck Clemons

Clemons briefly introduced the bill, saying that, if passed by the legislature, it would put the proposal on the November 2022 ballot, where all county residents would have the opportunity to vote on whether to change the governance structure. He said, “Frankly, I don’t know what the will of people is in Alachua County. What this local bill would do, if it’s placed on the ballot next November, it would allow the electorate in Alachua County to say that the status quo is exactly what we need to do, and we’d like to keep that. Or it’s an opportunity for the electorate in Alachua County to say no, that we feel we would get better representation by having a designated area of the county, that that designated area of the county would elect their county commissioner to represent them… This is not about a Tallahassee takeover; it’s not about an edict from the legislative delegation; what this bill would do… would allow people in Alachua County to rest the question of… whether or not the status quo is what they want.”

Clemons emphasized that the current bill will be considered by legislative committees, with public input, and it could be amended before the full legislature votes on the final bill. 

Hinson said, “From what I’ve heard you say, there is a small group of disgruntled people. Do you believe a small group deserves the right to put a referendum on the ballot?”

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Clemons said he doesn’t know how many people will support the local bill, but the referendum vote will provide that information. Hinson responded, “My question still is the small group. How many people would you say are disgruntled, that would create such a situation that would call us all together and put this on the ballot?” Clemons repeated essentially the same answer. 

Clemons added, “I would think even the opponents of this bill would feel gratified if this fails miserably at the ballot box because it probably would never, ever rear its head again.” Hinson nodded and said, “That would be great.” She then added that Clemons is “recommending the destruction of the current county.”

Clemons responded that this has “nothing to do with the destruction of anything,” pointing out that putting this to a vote is democracy, “and to say, or allege, that this is going to destroy a county—frankly, it’s absurd.”

In 1984, I initiated single-member districts while serving as Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and the reason… is because the City of Gainesville system at large was broken, and it was broken because black voters could not elect a representative of their choice although they won in overwhelming black precincts. When the votes were counted at large, their votes were diluted. So I guess the question before the delegation is, what’s broken?” – Rodney Long

During public input, former Gainesville City and Alachua County Commissioner and current State Senate candidate Rodney Long said he was “the first single-member district commissioner elected in Gainesville City history in Alachua County… In 1984, I initiated single-member districts while serving as Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and the reason… is because the City of Gainesville system at large was broken, and it was broken because black voters could not elect a representative of their choice although they won in overwhelming black precincts. When the votes were counted at large, their votes were diluted. So I guess the question before the delegation is, what’s broken?… So I’m concerned that if this should pass… I’m very concerned about the impact it will have on minority access. There is no way that you can draw a district in Alachua County that would have a… majority access of African-Americans because African-Americans live all across Alachua County.” He said that achieving small-city representation would require “a donut drawn around Alachua County, which would be illegal and violate the Voter Rights Act… This is another example of government overreach out of Tallahassee, and I would ask that you all vote no.”

School Board Member Tina Certain, who said she was speaking as a citizen because she sees the initiative as “an encroachment on local authority and home rule. It is a preemption of the will of the citizens that live here in Alachua County… For me, what is really troubling is, that it was spoken of by Representative Clemons that we will know the will of the people if we put it on the ballot.” She said that a petition would be a more appropriate process. 

NAACP President Evelyn Foxx asked, “Is it broken? Our commissioners don’t feel that way.” She also said that adding two more commissioners would be a tax burden to the citizens of Alachua County. 

County Commissioner Ken Cornell repeated some of the content of his letter to Representative Clemons and added that the petition process is the “most important way” to change the County’s Charter. “And yet Representative Clemons, with a wave of his hand, wants to give this small portion of his base a pass on doing the hard work… This cavalier approach is… unbecoming of a State Representative… I had a report yesterday where Representative Clemons stated ‘What’s Cornell afraid of?’ Let me be clear: I’m not afraid of anything, and I trust our Alachua County voters.” He said the referendum “would require, as you all know, a long and time-consuming education campaign to counter the misinformation that will surely follow this bill.”

Ron Thornton said the existing county commission hasn’t “served all of the people of the county, and the best example I can give you is the roads… What we want is adequate representation, and we’re not getting it.”

County Commissioner Anna Prizzia said, “To address the roads issue, we have put more general fund money into roads than any other commission in the past. We have almost $4 million in our general fund for roads, and we… are hoping to budget up to $15 million in new funding annually for our roads over the next several years… We’ve worked really hard to build better relationships with our rural areas and our small cities, and because I represent every single neighbor in our entire county, I have the opportunity to bring all their issues to the dais and make sure that their voices are represented.”

Tim Marden said, “It’s no secret that I’ve spearheaded the Springs County effort, and it’s just a disclosure here: I have not coordinated with Representative Clemons to bring about single-member districts for the benefit of Springs County. And we are not a small minority; we have over 10,000 petitions looking to create Springs County at this point. I support single-member districts; the at-large system is antiquated, it serves the political elite and does not serve the people. I will also concede that this commission currently seated at the County is better than the ones who have been in the past.”

At-large voting does nothing except dilute the rights of the minorities by injecting the power of the majority. And the minority could be rural, it could be black… It’s about time that we get some representation that reflects the diversity of Alachua County.” – Marlon Bruce

Marlon Bruce said he supported the local bill because “at-large voting is racist… It’s a relic from the Jim Crow era, and it’s astounding that so many people in this room… are so hell-bent on keeping this in… At-large voting does nothing except dilute the rights of the minorities by injecting the power of the majority. And the minority could be rural, it could be black… It’s about time that we get some representation that reflects the diversity of Alachua County.”

Former Gainesville Mayor Mark Goldstein said that “things began to happen different” when the City of Gainesville went from five to seven commissioners, “and that’s what concerns me the most about it.” He said it became difficult to get four votes to fire bad charter officers, for example. “I understand people are frustrated… but changing the structure to increase the number is not a cure for this disorder, and too bad you don’t have control over the seven downtown who are running away with the utility and everything else, because if you did, you could return Gainesville to a government of the people.”

Pretty soon, and we’re getting there, the counties and the cities will cease to exist, and we will be governed completely by one man in the state, the governor. Is that what we want?” – Representative Yvonne Hinson

During the debate among the legislators, Hinson said, “I’m going to admit the roads in many areas of Alachua County are abysmal, but help is on the way. Joe Biden just brought billions of dollars to the infrastructure plan, but I know the roads are abysmal, and that is the problem, not the structure of the county commission… Last I checked, in a democracy, the majority rules, just like on the House floor. The majority of Alachua County [Charter Review Commission] has voted, and now here we are, trying to do what? Use the voice of a small group of disgruntled people to silence the voice of the majority, to change our whole charter that has been voted by CRC three times not to be changed… Now you’re proposing to establish a system that’s identical to the city commission, of which none of you are happy with. Clearly, this is another power grab, another preemption, of which we already have over 13. Pretty soon, and we’re getting there, the counties and the cities will cease to exist, and we will be governed completely by one man in the state, the governor. Is that what we want?”

“I’ve heard it’s gonna cause money to do this. Well, yeah, there’s two sides; there will be an educational campaign, but those monies ought to be raised privately—that’s not public dollars. If it is, that’s wrong.” – Representative Chuck Brannan

Representative Chuck Brannan said he doesn’t live in Alachua County, but he represents a rural portion of the county. “I heard that maybe small groups shouldn’t have the right to do initiatives, but I guess here in Florida, we have the one of the most amendable constitutions in the country. Small groups amend our constitution all the time… I’ve heard about home rule. What better way to have home rule than letting the voters decide, right here in Alachua County? I’ve heard this is being done on the state level. I don’t understand that—the voters of Alachua County, and only the voters of Alachua County, will ultimately decide this. I’ve heard it’s gonna cause money to do this. Well, yeah, there’s two sides; there will be an educational campaign, but those monies ought to be raised privately—that’s not public dollars. If it is, that’s wrong.”

Brannan asked who would draw the districts if the referendum passed, and Perry said they would be drawn by the sitting county commission.

Perry said all the legislators took notes during public comment and that the bill can be amended during the legislative process. 

The local bill was recommended on a 3-1 vote, with Hinson in dissent.

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