BOCC reform bill clears committee amid resistance

A bill that amends the Alachua County Home Rule Charter cleared another hurdle on Monday, moving one step closer to a vote for Alachua County citizens to decide whether they want to elect county commissioners on a district-by-district basis.

Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-District 21, proposed House Bill 1493 in December, and it has since made its way through two committees. It now needs to clear the State Affairs Committeeheads before heading to the full House and Senate for approval.

At first the bill included a provision that would have added two at-large seats to the five-member Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), but Clemons amended it to eliminate two proposed at-large seats on the BOCC, leaving only five seats that voters would decide on a district-by-district basis. The House Local Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee promptly approved the bill as amended.

On Monday members of the Public Integrity & Elections Committee listened to presentations from BOCC Chair Marihelen Wheeler, Newberry Commissioner and Springs County advocate Tim Marden, state Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D-District 20, Alachua County Legislative Affairs Director Mark Sexton and Clemons before voting on the measure.

Rep. Chuck Clemons

Hinson told the committee she was speaking as “a citizen of Alachua County” in opposition of the bill.

“It would make commissioners accountable only to residents in their district,” Hinson said. “It ignores the amendment process spelled out in the Alachua County Charter, which is the equivalent of the county’s U.S. Constitution.”

Hinson said it was an attempt to gerrymander a district, and added that, “In three state elections Clemons has not won his home county election.”

Hinson said there were more important items for the county to work on, such as broadband and food insecurities.

“This will do nothing but cost us money and put staff at work at things that we don’t need,” she said.

State Reps. Spencer Roach, R-District 79, and Blaise Ingoglia, R-District 35, asked Hinson about current minority representation in Alachua County. Hinson said minorities make up about 25 percent of the county population and the commission currently has one African American commissioner and three females.

But Ingoglia wasn’t convinced that keeping the current at-large election process would harm the ability for minorities to be represented fairly.

“Why would a single-district change BOCC makeup?” he asked.

Hinson, Wheeler and Sexton all advocated that the state stay out of the county’s process. Each brought up that there are three ways to have an initiative added to the November ballot: By charter review commission adoption, by having the BOCC vote, or by gathering 10 percent of the voter population’s signatures on a petition.

Wheeler told the committee members that she was “embarrassed that this has come before you.”

“This is a local issue,” she said. “Every time we put it before the voters, it’s no. It will be voted no—you will have wasted time and taxpayer money.”

Wheeler blamed the bill’s impetus on those who have pushed for dividing Alachua County and carving out a new Springs County.

“A few folks are disgruntled…that wanted to separate from Alachua County,” she said.

Newberry Commissioner Marden accused the county of spending taxpayer dollars to lobby against Clemons’ idea. He said the core of Democratic voters in Gainesville has a hold on ruling the entire county.

“This is not representing the entire county—it is far from it,” he said. “[The bill] simply gives voters the chance to weigh in.”

State Rep. Susan Valdes, D-District 62, asked if any other counties in Florida were single-member districts.

Clemons said 24 counties out of 67 have single-member districts, six are mixed at-large and single-member, and 37 are at-large—including Alachua County.

After Sexton stated that the county charter was established in 1990, Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-District 17, noted that Alachua County’s population had grown by one-third since then.

“The people will know the best decision to make,” she said, while adding that she understood it was difficult for the county to take the order from the state.

One by one, more committee members commented on their support for the bill. Committee Vice Chair Rep. David Smith, District 28, said he had seen the bill three times as he sits on all three committees that reviewed it.

“The bill passed the first committee unanimously,” he said. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

After a roll call vote with at least three committee members absent, the attending committee members all voted in favor and the bill passed.

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