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Single-member district proposal on the table

By Staff | May 8, 2010

The Lee County Commission will vote Tuesday on whether to place on the November ballot a proposed charter amendment that would change the way commissioners are elected.
Commissioners are currently elected in a partisan election on a countywide basis. The proposed amendment would make it so commissioners would be elected by only the voters who live in their district, also known as single-member districting. The change would go into effect beginning with the 2012 election.
At a special hearing at 5 p.m. Tuesday, the board will discuss the proposed amendment change and take public comment before voting on whether to put it on the ballot. If the amendment goes to ballot, Lee County voters will have the final word on whether the county changes to single-member districts.
One supporter of the proposed amendment is the Coalition For Common Sense Government. According to Chairman Ray Rodrigues, the coalition is comprised of members of a former Lee County Charter Review Committee who have come together to get the amendment on the ballot for voters.
Rodrigues, also vice chair of the Lee County Republic Executive Committee, said the amendment should go on the ballot because “charter counties” can form their own constitution as long as an issue is not prohibited in the state constitution, while “non-charter counties” must stay within the state’s rule.
“We’ve been a charter county for 14 years and our citizens are still awaiting their opportunity to have a say on this issue,” he said.
Rodrigues added that voters should approve the amendment because the will of the district is denied under an at-large system. Starting with 1980, there have been 33 commission elections, not including five uncontested races. He said out of 33 elections, the will of the district was denied on 13 occasions.
“The will of the district, the choice of the district, has been denied 40 percent of the time,” Rodrigues said.
“The foundation of a representative democracy is that the people choose their representatives and that is not happening in Lee County,” he said. “And it’s happening in every district, it’s not just happening to one district.”
Rodrigues added that single-member districts would hold each commissioner more accountable to the residents who actually reside within their district.
One opponent to single-member districts has been District 3 Commissioner Ray Judah. Judah said he is “adamantly opposed” and has been since he first ran for office in 1988, adding that it could have “significant ramifications.”
“I firmly believe it’s very divisive and creates fiefdoms,” he said, adding that the districts may turn self-serving rather than maintaining a communitywide view.
According to Judah, residents can cast a vote for every commission seat under the current system which increases their chance of having officials in office who are looking out for their best interests. In the proposed system, voters would have a say on only one seat out of a five-member commission.
“Five to one of who’s going to represent your interest,” he said.
Judah added that, in turn, having only one commissioner on a five-member board representing a person’s interest could make it harder to get an item approved because the item would still require a majority vote of support by the commission to pass. He questioned if this is “greater representation.”
“It really begs the question, will a particular district be able to elect an individual who will be able to form a working majority with other districts that have no commitment (to that particular district)?” Judah said.
He pointed out that single-member districts have been brought up before.
In 2008, the Lee County Charter Review Committee did not reach the two-thirds majority needed — 10 out of 15 — to recommend the single-member districting referendum to the commission. However, the committee did vote to recommend that it be a commission with broader authority, Judah said.
The measure went to the ballot and was approved by the voters. In 2016, the Lee County Charter Review Committee will require a three-fifths vote to recommend moving an item to referendum to the commission. With a four-fifths vote, the committee can bypass the commission and go straight to referendum.
“That, in itself, would help get issues like single-member districting on the ballot,” Judah said.
Opponents of single-member districting have also noted that the issue could be put on the ballot through petition.
Rodrigues argued that the county commission is supposed to work on behalf of the residents and that a petition is the last method used when “you can’t get anyone to listen to you.”
“And to point a finger at the charter review committee is to abdicate the responsibilities that were given to our elected officials,” he said.
As for county business not getting done with single-member districting due to commissioners only be concerned with their own district, Rodrigues noted that 70 percent of the people in Florida live in counties with that districting.
“Show me the governments that aren’t functioning because of provincilism,” he said.
The Lee County Commission has until July 6 to notify the Supervisor of Elections Office that it wants to put the charter amendment on the ballot.
The special hearing will be held at the Lee County Commission Chambers, located at 2120 Main St. in Fort Myers.