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Single-member districts threaten status quo

OPINION

BY LEN CABRERA

A few months ago, Alachua County residents who pay attention got to witness two of the many faces of then-County Commission Chair Ken Cornell. On September 27, Cornell was humble and polite while presenting funding requests to the county’s legislative delegation at Santa Fe College. During the county commission meeting the next day, Cornell was arrogant and dismissive of Senator Keith Perry’s suggestion of considering single-member districts for the county commission and of Representative Chuck Clemons’ idea of consolidating the City of Gainesville and Alachua County governments (3:17:14 in this video). The seemingly split personality shows the difference between his attitude when facing no opposition from the dais versus being a subject of those who control the purse strings. It also exposes the source of power of the increasingly authoritarian, intolerant utopians racing to fundamentally transform our community before the next election.

Perry’s introduction of the possibility of a local bill for single-member districts (now scheduled for discussion at the Alachua County Special Legislative Delegation Meeting on Tuesday) and Clemons’ suggestion of five single-member seats with two at-large seats were not entirely out of left field. Florida law is ambiguous on the election of county commissioners. The Florida Constitution (Art VIII, 1(e)) says there will be five or seven county commissioners, each “residing in each district… elected as provided by law.” The law (Statute 124.01) then specifies five county commission districts “as nearly equal in proportion to population as possible” with commissioners “elected by the qualified electors of the county, as provided by s. 1(e), Art. VIII of the State Constitution.” Useless, circular-referencing laws like these are why courts end up legislating.

Since “qualified electors” could be interpreted to mean single-member districts, Statute 124.011 was added to specifically address single-member representation. This is where the 5 + 2 idea comes from, although it is again ambiguous because (1)(b) says “The board of county commissioners shall be increased from five commissioners to seven commissioners,” but the statute later gives ballot language for both five- and seven-member commissions. It would be nice if state legislators could clean up the garbled mess that forms our state laws. Fortunately, they work slower and don’t have as much power over our daily lives as county commissioners do, as we sadly learned last year. That’s why the method of electing those commissioners is a big deal.

As soon as Cornell brought up Perry’s single-member suggestion, he laughed at the idea and then lied by saying “the Charter Commission has had extensive discussions about this idea.” There were no “extensive discussions.” When the Charter Review Commission met in January 2020, nearly 1 in 4 suggestions from county residents were on the topic of single-member districts (although there were many other topics), and a large number of people showed up for public comment when the proposed amendment for single-member districts was scheduled to be discussed. However, the Charter Review Commission did not even discuss the topic. Commission Member Joe Little made a motion to move the proposal forward, but Kristen Young immediately substituted a motion to remove the proposal from consideration. Ironically, multiple Commission Members claimed single-member districts are a form of voter suppression while prohibiting Alachua County residents from voting on the issue.

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There is no shame from Cornell, a politician with the hypocrisy to complain about others not paying enough property taxes while taking full advantage of tax rules to cut his own taxes. It’s just like former School Board Chair Leanetta McNealy forcing kids and parents to wear masks while she goes maskless in a crowded O’Connell Center event.

Cornell tried to convince Alachua County citizens who feel unrepresented by current commissioners that the status quo is for their own good because they can vote for all five county commissioners instead of just one. He conveniently ignores the fact that having even one commissioner share their views and values would be an improvement over the current echo chamber that simply mirrors the Gainesville City Commission. Having all five commissioners elected at-large places the veneer of representative government on the iron-fisted rule of the majority. It allows the residents of the City of Gainesville (51% of the county’s population) to determine county policy while ignoring outlying areas that do not have a voice in county government.

During the 2020 Charter Review, proponents of the status quo argued that everyone in the entire county should vote for all the commissioners because the commissioners’ decisions impact the entire county. By that argument, the entire county should also vote for the City of Gainesville Commissioners, as well as county commissioners from surrounding counties, state representatives and senators from other districts, and U.S. representatives from other districts and other states.

The point of representative government is to have multiple voices representing multiple views and interests. Having all five commissioners elected by the same electorate does not ensure diversity of voices.

Speaking of diversity, Cornell couldn’t bring himself to play the race card, so he passed the buck to Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, who pushed stereotypes and contradicted the argument that single-member districts are a form of voter suppression.

Chestnut argued that single-member districts require “a large concentration of African-Americans or Hispanics or what have you, or Asians in an area to make single-member districts work. But you can’t do that in Alachua County.” He is likely misinterpreting the vote dilution provision of the 1973 Voting Rights Act, but he’s assuming people vote solely based on their skin color or ethnicity. Even if Chestnut’s stereotyping is correct, blacks are less than 21% of Alachua County, so how are their views represented by commissioners elected at-large? Arguably, if any single district has more than 21% black voters, then single-member districts will give them a stronger voice in county government.

In Federalist 10, James Madison specifically says the purpose of representative government is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” He specifically warned against forms of popular government that allow the “overbearing majority” to sacrifice “both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” He also wrote that “by enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representative too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests.” He said “a greater variety of parties” provides security “against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest.”

Madison could have been writing in favor of single-member districts in Alachua County. Cornell, Chestnut, and the rest of the ruling majority of Alachua County recognize that single-member districts will take power away from them, so they must fight it at all costs, even if it means mocking the state legislators that provide the grant money that funds their utopian fantasies (but only when they’re not in the room).

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