State officials voted to move forward with a bill at a special legislative session at Santa Fe College on Tuesday morning that would put an option before Alachua County voters to restructure the county commission.
State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-District 21, presented the bill to the Alachua County delegation that includes state Sen. Keith Perry, R-District 8, state Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-District 20, and state Rep. Chuck Brannan (R-District 10).
The bill will now work its way through the Florida Legislature once it reconvenes in January. If passed, it will return to Alachua County voters on the Nov. 8, 2022, ballot.
The question voters will have to answer is whether or not to expand the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) from five to seven members with two at large seats and five single member districts.
Currently, the board seats five commissioners, each living in a separate district of Alachua County but voted on by the entire county.
Clemons said he had received letters and calls about the possibility of moving to single member districts, where voters from each district only vote for their district commissioners and the two at large seats.
He said some people feel the current system is best while others say the proposed change would be better.
“Frankly, I don’t know what the will of the people is in Alachua County,” Clemons said.
But he said letting the electorate of Alachua County vote on the issue will put the question to rest.
At the start of the meeting, Hinson, the only dissenting vote, asked how many disgruntled people are needed to cause a process like this and if a small group deserves the right to put a referendum on the ballot.
Clemons said he had no idea how many people would or would not vote for the change. But after the referendum, the county will know if it was a vocal minority, silent majority or silent minority who wanted the change.
“It’s not for me to judge,” Clemons said. “What it is for me to do is proffer this idea and have the electorate in Alachua County judge.”
During public comment, former Gainesville and Alachua County commissioner Rodney Long noted that the county itself has multiple ways to change its charter and move toward the new system if it wanted.
The BOCC authorizes a charter review committee every 10 years. That committee can recommend the switch to the commission. Or citizens can go to the BOCC and ask it to pass a resolution that would put a referendum on the ballot for the citizens to decide on.
Citizens can also directly place a referendum on the ballot by collecting petitions from citizens, skirting the BOCC.
“I guess the question before the delegation is: What’s broken? Or, what is it ya’ll trying to fix,” Long said.
Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell also pointed out the other ways an amendment can be made.
“And yet, Representative Clemons with a wave of his hand wants to give this small portion of his base a pass on doing the hard work when it comes to the county charter amendment process,” Cornell said during public comment.
Cornell added that the BOCC voted unanimously on Monday to oppose the bill and called it a “thinly veiled attempt” to gerrymander the county and allow someone from Clemons’ base to gain a seat on the commission.
“Representative Clemons’ bill is a political assault on the Alachua County Home Rule Charter and our citizens,” Cornell said. “The bill seeks to create a larger local government that would cost the taxpayers more money and reduce each citizen’s representative voice.”
In a letter to Perry on Monday, Cornell said the new system would “reduce each citizen’s representation and voice” by having only three commissioners accountable to each voter instead of all five.
Some said the extra money to support two additional commissioners is worth the price.
“I’ve heard that it’s going to cost more for seven [commissioners] than for five,” High Springs Commissioner Linda Jones said. “In my opinion and the opinion of many others, it will be money well spent.”
After public comment, Hinson voiced her opposition to the bill saying if a group wants to change the charter they can start raising petitions.
“The majority of Alachua Countians voted for the Alachua County charter, and now here we are trying to do what? Use the voice of a small group of disgruntled people to silence the voice of the majority?” Hinson said.
Brannan spoke after public comment and said he’d heard a lot of views during the meeting and that he’d heard a lot about the importance of home rule.
“What better way of having home rule than letting voters decide,” Brannan asked.
He said he’d heard a lot about this being a Tallahassee, state-run approach.
“I don’t understand that argument if voters of Alachua County and only the voters of Alachua County will ultimately decide this,” Brannan said.
He said he’d heard about the cost of putting the referendum on the ballot.
“There will be an educational campaign, but those monies ought to be raised privately,” Brannan said. “That’s not public dollars. If it is, that’s wrong.”
Ultimately, Brannan said he’d vote to let Alachua County’s voters decide, siding with Perry and Clemons to move the bill to the Florida Legislature.