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Local bill for county commission single-member districts clears final committee stop on party-line vote

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Representative Chuck Clemons’ (R-21) local bill placing a Single-Member District Charter Amendment on Alachua County’s November ballot (CS/HB 1493) made its final committee stop on Monday at the House State Affairs Committee, passing by a vote of 15-7 and going next to the House floor. The bill was introduced to the committee by Clemons, who said the purpose of the bill “is just to call for a referendum by the voters of Alachua County to decide if they and they alone want to change the Alachua County Commission from its current five-member at-large to five-member single-member districts.”

Rep. Yvonne Hinson (D-20), who sits on the State Affairs Committee, told the committee that the vote at the legislative delegation meeting was not unanimous among the three members present. Clemons responded that all four members were present and that the vote was 3-1, with Rep. Chuck Brannan (R-10) and State Senator Keith Perry also voting in favor of the local bill. Hinson said she didn’t think Brannan was there, but our reporting concurs with Clemons’ account of the meeting. 

Hinson also said, “You are asking us to go from at-large member districts to single-member districts” and asked Clemons why he was not requesting that the two other counties he represents move to single-member districts.

Clemons said he welcomed the opportunity to “put some of these myths aside.” He said that the bill does not itself change the county commission but puts a referendum on the November ballot that allows the voters of Alachua County to decide whether to move to single-member districts. He said that 24 of Florida’s 67 counties have single-member districts.

Clemons added that nobody in Dixie or Citrus Counties, which he also represents, have come to him asking for single-member counties, “unlike Alachua County, where I understand that it is reported that up to 10,000 people have signed a petition to literally secede from Alachua County because they are disgruntled and they don’t feel that they are being adequately represented.” As Clemons said this, Alachua County Spokesman Mark Sexton can be seen on camera behind him, shaking his head, rolling his eyes, and sighing. 

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Hinson, in a follow-up question, said that if there is a petition with 10,000 signatures, “that’s enough to get it on the ballot locally from our Alachua Charter.” Her premise is incorrect because the charter says that a petition to amend the charter must by signed by 10% of the number of electors qualified to vote in the county as a whole in the last preceding general election. As of today, that number would be 18,317. Clemons, however, said that “is not the issue before us today… This is one of the valid ways for a referendum of a ballot to go before the voters.”

The chair of the committee gave Hinson a third question, but she repeated the second question, and Clemons said the question had been asked and answered. 

Ranking Member Carlos Smith (D-49) asked whether the Alachua County Commission supported the bill. Clemons responded, “Based on the propaganda they’ve been putting out for the past two weeks since this bill has passed unanimously with bipartisan support in the first and second committee stops—they produced a video yesterday—obviously they are vehemently opposed to having the voters in Alachua County cast their ballots to say if they’re satisfied or not.”

Smith then asked how many municipalities in the county have taken a position in favor of the local bill. Clemons said he didn’t know the positions of those bodies and said that this will go to a vote of the people, not the city commissions: “I don’t know if this will pass or not, but I am not going to stand in the way because… certain people stand against this. I believe that the people should be able to vote for it.” 

Smith then asked whether people had signed a petition for single-member districts or a petition to “secede from the county,” laughingly mocking the idea. Clemons responded, “There are a good number of people in Alachua County who are disgruntled… whether they want to secede from the county or otherwise… I’m going to do everything I can so that the people can put that question to rest, then we will not be arguing [about it].”

Rep. Kevin Chambliss (D-117) asked about the other ways the county’s charter can be amended, and Chair Ralph Massullo (R-34) said they’re “probably not germane to this bill.” Chambliss asked if anybody giving testimony could answer the question, and Massullo said he didn’t know. Hinson said, “Mr. Chair, I can provide it,” and Massullo cut her off, saying, “All right, we’re going to move to public testimony.”

Public testimony

Massullo then read through the list of people who were waiving in support or opposition to the bill (“waiving” is a term describing those who filled out a form to speak but wanted to simply express their support or opposition instead of speaking in person). They included Mark Sexton, who was there but did not speak; they also included several people who gave their professions but not their locations and also opposition from a number of people who were not from the area, including a representative from Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, two representatives from Osceola County Education Association, someone from St. Lucie County, and a representative from Hernando Classroom Teachers’ Association. 

Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden again spoke in favor of the local bill, “here on behalf of myself because our commission has not had a chance to entertain this formally on our dais, and none of the other smaller municipalities have, either, as far as I know.” He pointed out that the bill had passed through two committees unanimously, with bipartisan support. He also said that Alachua County has been calling on citizens to oppose the local bill, including on social media, “in which they do not allow the public to make comments. You can look it up for yourself… on their Facebook page.”

Marden also pointed out to the representatives that they all represent single-member House districts–“people in Alachua County don’t vote for representation in Miami or Jacksonville.” 

An “intimidating letter”

Hinson was recognized for a question and told Marden she had received a “rather intimidating letter from you to my home address, even though I have two offices and a P.O. Box.” She asked Marden whether his intent was to be intimidating.

Marden asked her to remind him of the content of the letter. Hinson said, “It was intimidating in the fact that it was restating what went on at the [legislative delegation] meeting, it was challenging me on majority rule, it was asking me about my position about the petition, about many things, not just—it did not intimidate me, clearly.”

Marden said he never intended “any sort of intimidation. I don’t think that’s needed.” 

“Ignoring the will of the people of Alachua County”

School Board Member Tina Certain said she was speaking as a citizen and opposed the bill, which she said was “troubling because it seems to be moving an issue that’s local to Tallahassee to be decided by our legislators.” She said she decided to seek election because she was “disgruntled… and I think changes to our local charter should be done at the local level through the ballot box… To bring this bill, our local delegation, in my view, they are ignoring the will of the people of Alachua County… For the people who are saying they can’t have representation in our county, I think that if their views are not appealing to the majority of the voters county-wide, I think to go back and restrict and disenfranchise us from voting on all five of our Board of County Commissioners to just one is not the way to go.” 

Rep. Anthony Rodriguez (R-118) asked Certain, “Is this something you don’t want the voters to have a voice in? I don’t understand how this disenfranchises the county in any way… I’m struggling with what’s so bad about having the voters decide?”

Certain replied that she thought it should be decided through the three methods in the Alachua County Charter (placed on the ballot by the county commission, placed on the ballot by the Charter Review Commission, or via petitions from 10% of registered voters): “It seems that so much of what happens at the local level gets pre-empted by Tallahassee, and I just think that’s a dangerous precedent that if someone is disgruntled, they go to the next level to do that. I’m not opposed to it being put on the ballot.”

“The voters have decided” (in 1986)

County Manager Michele Lieberman said, “The Alachua County citizens have decided; they have decided through their charter the manner in which they choose to select their form of government.” She said the local bill was an “unprecedented use of legislative process.” 

County Commissioner Ken Cornell said,  “It’s strange to have such opposition to a local bill, and that’s because there’s a lot of opposition to the local bill… The voters have decided. The voters voted on the Alachua County Charter. The Alachua County Charter is our community’s constitution… It shouldn’t be easy to change a local constitution.” The Alachua County Charter was approved by voters in November 1986. 

Cornell said that as he has talked with people about this issue, he tells them that instead of the current situation, single-member districts would change it from being able to “speak to five of us… to being able to speak to only one. It would reduce their representation.” He said he then asks constituents where they live, and if they don’t live in his district, he tells them that “this conversation perhaps couldn’t have happened because you’d have to reach your commissioner; they say, ‘I don’t want that.’”

However, there is no prohibition at any level of government against speaking to a representative of another district, and representatives are free to speak with any citizen.

Cornell told the committee that of the county’s eight small municipalities, “not a one of them have expressed support for this bill” but that the City of Gainesville and Alachua County Commissioners unanimously opposed it.

“You couldn’t draw a majority or minority access district because African-Americans live all across Alachua County.”

Rodney Long, who is running for State Senate, told committee members that he initiated the single-member district form of government for the City of Gainesville because it was “broken because black voters voted overwhelmingly for candidates of their choice in majority-black districts, but their votes were diluted when counted at-large.” He said the City put it on the ballot, and they did not have to ask the legislature to change their charter. He said that changing the County Commission to single-member districts would “impact minority access. You couldn’t draw a majority or minority access district because African-Americans live all across Alachua County. This would lead to retrogression.” 

Evelyn Foxx, President of the NAACP in Alachua County, also opposed the bill on behalf of the NAACP: “I’m just concerned why we want to go back to where we were in ’80… If this were to change to single-member districts, it would divide us. It would be very divisive.”

Committee debate – “Democracy dies in the darkness”

During committee debate, Hinson reversed her argument about the number of petitions and said that with a population of 269,000, the 10,000 petitions would only be 5%, “and that’s who’s disgruntled.” (In fact the required number of petitions is 10% of registered voters, not the population as a whole.) She continued, “I just don’t see why we’re here. It’s not what the people wanted, not the majority, anyway. Ask me, I know, I sit with a great minority on the House floor, so if a minority is going to rule, let us know, put it in writing, we’d like to know, can the minority rule?… Democracy dies in the darkness. It exists for the people, by the people, when its concepts like rule of the majority can’t be trusted.”

Massullo said, “Well, we’d like to think we’re in the sunshine right here, Rep. Hinson.”

Rep. Goff-Marcil (D-30) said she wanted to explain why she was changing her vote following a positive vote on a different committee: “I usually support local bills… but then I found out that it really wasn’t a local bill, because I don’t consider a local bill to be a local bill when the local people don’t support it.”

Rep. Jason Fischer (R-16) said, “This bill is about home rule… It doesn’t mandate on them what they get; that would be a pre-emption… We’re actually just giving them the option to vote for it. Another member said, ‘Democracy dies in darkness,’ but I think if you vote against this bill, you’re keeping this idea in the darkness.”

Vice-Chair Bobby Payne (R-19) reminded the committee members that no vote was cast against the bill in the other two committees He added, “The worst type of city or county commission you could have is [one that doesn’t allow a vote to go back] to the citizens.”

Clemons closed by saying the bill is consistent with the Florida Constitutions and that it does not take any power away from the people of Alachua County but actually puts power into their hands to vote whether they want to continue the current system or not. He added, “Not one single fact has changed since the first time this bill was heard by your colleagues… Let the people vote.”

The local bill passed on a party-line vote, 15-7, with two representatives absent. It goes next to the House floor for debate and a final vote.

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