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Local bill for single-member districts clears second legislative committee despite pleas from County representatives

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Yesterday in Tallahassee, Representative Chuck Clemons’ (R-21) local bill placing a Single Member District Charter Amendment on Alachua County’s November ballot cleared the Public Integrity & Elections Committee. This was the second of three committee stops so far in the session for CS/HR 1493.   

The bill was previously heard on February 2 in the Local Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee. In both bipartisan committees, the votes to approve the bill were unanimous. The bill’s next stop will be the State Affairs Committee; the date for that hearing has not been set. 

Rep. Yvonne Hinson (D-20), Alachua County Commission Chair Marihelen Wheeler, and Alachua County Spokesman Mark Sexton all appeared in person to oppose the measure. Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden spoke in favor of it. A full video of the hearing is posted on The Florida Channel (beginning at time stamp 4:25).

If the measure clears the legislature and is passed by a majority of Alachua County voters in the fall, future county commissioners will be elected solely by voters who live in their specific district. Under the current “at-large” system, all voters can vote for all the commissioners. Commissioners technically must reside in their district starting from the day they take the oath of office, but existing advisory opinions use the words “establish a residence,” which has been loosely interpreted. As a 2011 Gainesville Sun article stated, “But court rulings and Florida Attorney General opinions have been vague in addressing what residing in the district involves. Frequently, candidates and commissioners register to vote at a property in a district they are running for or represent, even if they live elsewhere. Two current commissioners — DeLaney and Susan Baird — have homesteaded properties outside the current boundaries of the districts they represent.”

Because of the way Alachua County districts are drawn in wedges radiating from the center of the county, Gainesville voters make up a majority of every district. A recent Gainesville Sun op-ed by County Commissioner Mary Alford (“Local bill is a political assault on the Alachua County Charter and voters“) falsely claimed that single-member districts are “nothing more than an attempt to gerrymander a district that would ensure a far-right conservative is elected.” In fact, the districts would be drawn by the sitting county commission before the first single-member district election. Thus, proponents of the bill, who argue that at-large voting disenfranchises residents in rural parts of Alachua County, many of whom are minorities, concede that single-member districts may not change existing political dynamics.

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During the hearing, several committee members from both parties observed that regardless of the outcome, Alachua County voters should be able to vote on the matter; the county commission has unanimously voted to oppose the bill.

Hinson, who said she was “speaking as a citizen of Alachua County,” read Alford’s op-ed, word for word, with minor changes and a few inserted comments. When she read the paragraph about Clemons never winning Alachua County in his House elections, she was asked to stay on the topic of the local bill (Hinson replied, “I’m sorry, I’m reading talking points. I’ll skip over that, you’re right”).

Hinson finished her statement with, “If you pass this today, it will do nothing; it won’t succeed. It will cost us money; it will put our staff at work at things that we don’t need. We need them dealing with our constituents… We do not need to distract our staff from doing the work of the people. Those are my words.”

Rep. Spencer Roach (R-79) said it looked like Hinson had read from Alford’s op-ed. He asked, “Were those truly your words?” Hinson replied, “They were Commissioner Alford’s words, edited by me so that I could say what I want to say in certain places.”

Wheeler said she was there “on behalf of the Alachua County Commission, to oppose this bill.” She said all the commissioners represent all the citizens of the county and are comfortable going into any district. She said she trusted the voters to put “a caring group of people” on the commission to represent them. She continued, “I am frankly embarrassed that this has come before you. We feel like this is a local issue… your taxpayers’ money is going to be wasted on an issue that is a done deal in our county. We’re happy with the way that we are working there; there are a few folks that are disgruntled… I just want you to know that the people in my county are cared for and attended to by everyone that’s on our board right now… We have major issues that we need to tackle, and we really do not have the time and energy to put towards this bill.” She falsely said that this issue has been voted down every time it has come before the voters; Sexton later had to correct her, saying it had never come before the voters.

Things heated up around the 55-minute mark of the hearing when County Spokesman Mark Sexton became visibly rattled by questions from Rep. Blaise Ingoglia (R-35) about Sexton’s stance that the County only participates in educational campaigns and not advocacy campaigns. 

Rep. Ingoglia was trying to confirm that the County would not be spending taxpayer resources to advocate for or against this bill. He said, “You [Sexton] spoke about educational campaigns. I’ve seen some of these educational campaigns by governments. And they are very slick because you can’t have express advocacy, obviously, because then you get into the political realm of saying vote against or vote for something… It is a political campaign, wrapped in an educational campaign. Can you tell me right now that your county will not engage in that type of communications… that tax dollars will not be used in any way, not only for express advocacy, but… trying to advocate for the way you want this to turn out?”

Sexton responded, “Speaking of slick. That was a very slick question. If you want to talk about some slick campaigns, let’s talk about some of the State Constitutional campaigns–.”  Committee Chair Daniel Perez (R-116) then jumped in, cutting Sexton off: “Answer the question, sir.”

Sexton responded, “The County always follows the letter of the law when deciding whether or not to do an education campaign.”

Notably, this post appeared on Alachua County’s Facebook page before the hearing. The official post said, “We urge citizens to call or email the Committee members and ask them to vote NO on HB 1493.”

Multiple Democratic representatives talked about the benefits to minority communities from single-member districts. Rep. Allison Tant (D-9) said, “My county and my city are single-member districts, and as a result, we are very diverse on our county commission, and the issues that are brought from the various different parts of the community are very different, and they are fiercely advocated for. And it brings a great deal more information and richness to the considerations of our commission, both in the city and county level.”

The vote to approve the bill was unanimous, and it will be heard next by the State Affairs Committee.

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