Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1493 on Monday, paving the way for Alachua County voters to decide in November whether to maintain the current at-large representation or switch to single-district commissioners.
“I’m very happy that the governor signed our local bill, and I’ll be very happy for the citizens of Alachua County to cast their ballot, either pro or con, on this subject,” state Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-District 21, said in a phone interview. “The Alachua County Commission has worked like hell to keep people in Alachua County from being able to vote their will on this issue.”
The bill started at a December 2021 county delegation meeting, when Clemons proposed the measure to state Sen. Keith Perry, R-District 8, state Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-District 20, and state Rep. Chuck Brannan (R-District 10). He said rural Alachua County residents do not feel their voices are heard under the current at-large county representation, so voters should decide whether each commissioner should only represent voters within their own district’s boundaries.
The delegation voted along party lines to move the bill forward, with Hinson opposed to the effort. The vote came days after the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) unanimously rejected the idea, led by then-BOCC Chair Ken Cornell, who blasted the bill as “a political assault on the Alachua County Home-Rule Charter” in a letter to Perry.
During the legislative session in February, Clemons introduced HB 1493 and passed it through three House committees, the full House on March 2, and then the Senate on March 10.
“The voters will have an opportunity to determine if they want to reduce their voice,” said Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell in a phone interview on June 8 after the bill went to the governor’s desk. “By voting yes for that ballot initiative, right now five of us represent them all, represent everyone, and this is an attempt to reduce that representation by only allowing folks to vote for one county commissioner instead of five.”
According to the Florida Division of Elections office website, the county’s current voting demographics show that out of 178,659 registered voters, 48% are Democrats (85,774), 27% are Republicans (48,088), and 25% are others (44,797).
At the time Clemons filed the bill, all five BOCC members were Democrats. But on June 9 DeSantis appointed Republican Raemi Eagle-Glenn to fill a vacant seat after Democrat Mary Alford resigned in mid May.
“Now I don’t know a lot of people that think that it’s better governance to have less representation, and by voting yes, that’s what that says,” said Cornell. “And one of the leaders in Newberry who’s been driving this, I mean they don’t even have single-member districts out in Newberry.”
An online petition created by Republican Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden in 2020 has netted 9,332 signatures to date for the creation of Springs County to incorporate the rural municipalities of Newberry, Archer, Alachua, High Springs, Jonesville and West Gainesville into its own county. No Florida county has successfully split away from another county since Gilchrist County separated from Alachua County in 1925.
The idea for the new county has since fizzled and Perry commented in February 2021 that breaking away from Alachua County would be way too expensive, costing taxpayers millions of dollars to incorporate infrastructure that would include a courthouse, school district and sheriff’s department.
For now, the focus is on HB 1493 setting up a vote in November. Clemons said he has no prediction on the vote’s outcome.
“No idea,” he said on how the initiative will go. “Local bills are originated in the House of Representatives, and I did my part. This was brought to me from people, primarily in the west part of the county, who feel they have not been represented satisfactorily.”
As for Cornell, he expects a battle between now and Election Day.
“I suspect there’ll be a well-funded coordinated campaign to misinform people,” he said. “I completely suspect that, and so our job is to make sure people understand what a yes vote means… It’s kind of a voter suppression ballot initiative. If people understand they would have less representation by voting yes, then the ones I talk to will absolutely be voting no.”
Clemons also expects people on both sides to wage campaigns. But he pointed to a newly enacted law that says local governments cannot use money, personnel or equipment from the county to sway voters on a referendum, which he said was needed to level the playing field.
“Government has no right to use public funds for a particular campaign,” said Clemons, a former county commissioner who said he has no plans to run for the BOCC again. “The citizens can’t use public funds to be for or against an issue. You’re giving the government a strong hand in determining the outcome of any referendum. They normally do it under the guise of, ‘We’re educating the public.’ And they are, but they’re usually only telling one side.”