Voters to decide Alachua County Commission structure

Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell (left) and state Rep. Chuck Clemons (right).
Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell (left) and state Rep. Chuck Clemons (right).

Local voters are set to decide if Alachua County will retain its at-large system, allowing every voter to elect all five of the county commissioners, or if the county will change to single-member districts where only voters in that district vote for their commissioner. 

The referendum was put on the ballot after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill sponsored by Rep. Chuck Clemons that allows the vote. Depending on the Nov. 8 vote, Alachua County could mirror a structural shift that took place in Sarasota County in 2018, moving from the at-large to the single-member system.  

The Florida Association of Counties reports that 40 counties in the state have at-large districts, while 20 counties have single-member districts, and seven counties have a combination of the two.  

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“The purpose of House Bill 1493 is just to call a referendum by the voters of Alachua County to decide if they, and they alone, would like to change the Alachua County Commission from its current five-member at-large to a five-member, single-member districts,” Clemons told a House committee in February. 

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) unanimously opposed the bill in December 2021 and throughout its journey through the legislative process. The BOCC, then composed of five Democrats, called the bill a Republican attempt to circumvent the citizens and gerrymander the county.  

Recently, BOCC Commissioner Ken Cornell has urged citizens to vote against the ballot measure because it will reduce their representation on the county commission. 

He used the argument at a meeting about land use at the West End Golf Course, when residents showed up en masse to oppose the land use change. Cornell said each of those citizens could hold each commissioner accountable for their vote under the at-large system.  

“The voters will have an opportunity to determine if they want to reduce their voice,” Cornell said in a June phone interview.  

Under single-member districts, Cornell said if a commissioner disagrees from constituents, then those voters would have no voice on the BOCC because the other four commissioners wouldn’t be elected by the entire county.  

Sarasota Republicans used the same reasoning to oppose switching from at-large seats to single-member districts. With 67% voter turnout, 59% of Sarasota County voters approved a change to single-member districts in November 2018—a midterm election like the one approaching next month. 

The issue returned to the Sarasota ballot last March, less than four years after the decision, and voters again confirmed they wanted single-member districts.  

Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler, also vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, opposed the single-member districts in 2018 and 2022.  

“Everyone lost 80% of their representation and 80% of their accountability,” he told Florida Politics. “They lost the right to vote for four of five county commissioners, and you need a majority to get anything done.”   

Both Cornell and Ziegler have pushed for voters to keep at-large districts and higher levels of representation. However, the demographics of the counties differ.  

Sarasota County reports 44% registered Republican voters to 29% registered Democrats. Alachua County reports almost the opposite: 48% registered Democrats and 27% registered Republicans.  

Clemons said concerns about adequate representation explain how the bill started.  

“This was brought to me from people, primarily in the west part of the county, who feel they have not been represented satisfactorily,” Clemons said in a June interview.  

At a committee hearing in February, Clemons pointed out that nearly “10,000 people have signed a petition to literally secede from Alachua County”—a reference to the effort to create Springs County out of the western part of Alachua County.  

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said he supports the ballot measure.  

“While single-member districts will not solve every problem we have, there has been enough public interest to warrant a vote,” Marlowe wrote in a text message. “Single-member districts would also encourage more residents to run for public office, which gives us a wider range of thought from across the county.”  

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TeachYourChildren

To quote Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Zieglar as being against the Single Member District representation is misleading unless you include the next statement in the Florida Politics article “Of course, Ziegler’s no disinterested party in that matter. The one district where Democrats may have a chance is his.” Ziegler is/was against the referendum because he is in a District where the Republican:Democrat numbers are close enough that he could lose his Commissioner position, whereas if all Republicans in Sarasota County were able to vote for ALL commissioner positions, he’d stand a MUCH better chance of keeping office, LIKE CORNELL. Like Cornell, Ziegler is trying to get reelected next month.

Bottom line is that voters need to vote for candidates who have the best interest of the MAJORITY of county residents (this should NOT include the UF temporary student or faculty population)! As an Independent Voter, I want local government representatives (Democrat or Republican) working for the majority of residents, not just the city of Gainesville!

TeachYourChildren

This is an extremely left leaning article, of course Main Street Daily News is left and they censor any dissenting comments, and use only the parts of quoted articles that support the message they want readers to believe. This is the 2nd time I have submitted this comment, the first one disappeared into Main Street Daily News censorship hell!

The “Florida Politics” article they use to quote the Sarasota County Commissioner Ziegler being against Single Member Districts, explains WHY he is/was against the Sarasota County referendum. His Sarasota District is more balanced between Democratic and Republican voters so he stands more of a chance of being voted out of office than the other four commissioners. Here is the very next sentence from the article, “Of course, Ziegler’s no disinterested party in that matter. The one district where Democrats may have a chance is his.” If one wants to get the whole story and gist of the article, one must go to the source. Cornell is against Single Member Districts for the same reason, he may stand to lose his cushy part time job spending the taxpayer’s money on pet projects instead of roads, fire stations, and police precinct buildings!

The Ziegler comment, “They lost the right to vote for four of five county commissioners, and you need a majority to get anything done.”, is very true! It is called bi-partisan government and the idea is compromise to work for the good of the majority of constituents, not just a few!

Alachua County is more than 50% Democrat right now. Constituents don’t have a voice at all if they are Republican or Independent voters. Basic services should NOT be based on party line! AC voters have the opportunity to change this obvious group think mindset due to AC BOCC (with the exception of one appointed member) all being Democratic Party operatives.

Regardless of your political party of choice, If you are tired of poor to terrible roads, lack of fire stations close to county areas outside the GNV city limits, as well as police station precinct buildings, take this opportunity to change the landscape of AC BOCC and vote for candidates who have your neighborhood’s best interest in mind when they start spending your extremely high tax money!

Oh yes, and please vote NO the new infrastructure tax! This is the current AC BOCC Group of 4 looking to shake down the taxpayers for an additional 1/2¢ they “say” they will use to improve roads and fire and police departments capability! Cornell (along with sketchy Wheeler and Alford, and Prizzia) will never vote to fix roads, add transportation capacity, or fire and police stations! Ask them how the current approximately $17M a year county gas tax is spent!

Linda Jones

Thank you, Seth for keeping the public informed. Many of us have been fighting for just the right to vote on this measure and appreciate Rep Clemons getting this issue on the ballot. The Alachua County Charter Review Commission not only denied putting this issue on their agenda for discussion, they were rude and demeaning to those making the request, including commissioners and mayors from the smaller cities in Alachua County.

TeachYourChildren

This is selective journalism, much like mainstream news! This article leaves out the real reason the Sarasota County Commissioner Ziegler doesn’t support Single Member Districts. Read the entire Florida Politics article and you will see he lives in a district where voters are primarily Republican, but not so Republican that Democrats couldn’t unseat him if they got out the vote! This is the same reason Cornell doesn’t support the referendum!

Vote YES to this referendum!

M Wallis

Hi Seth, if I was your Mom I will be proud that you wrote a published article like this. It was very well written and researched. But, as a taxpayer and a resident of Alachua City, your article seems a bit biased. You used the Sarasota argument of their Republicans but missed to represent how the outlying residents of Alachua County feel. This isn’t a Democrat vs Republican issue. At its heart; it is about representing the underrepresented. Amplifying the voices of the minority. There is still time to publish an article that represents both sides of the argument; more of what the residents feel. The east side, for example, is neglected. Waldo is not receiving the same attention that the area around the college does. If a resident there has representation, they can make sure the commission prioritizes them. If all the votes come from the most densely populated areas; fair representation from the outlying areas cannot be expected.