With Election Day approaching next week, a ballot initiative that could change the way Alachua County residents vote for county commissioners is at the center of multiple controversies and accusations between elected officials.
The issue dates back to last year, when state Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, first proposed that Alachua County residents vote on whether to continue choosing commissioners on an at-large basis or to begin voting only on the county commissioner who would represent a particular area—a concept known as single-member districts.
The proposal met with immediate, unanimous pushback from the Alachua County Commission, which at the time was controlled by five Democrats, who called it a “political assault on the Alachua County Home-Rule Charter” and suggested Clemons was trying to carve out room for himself once he was term-limited out of his House seat in 2024. Clemons later said he has no plans to run for the commission.
The partisan rancor continued as the bill made its way through three committees, the Florida House and the Senate, but the animus has recently reached a new level.
On Oct. 20, the offices of Clemons and Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, emailed the state’s Office of Election Crimes and Security to request an investigation into “possible violation of campaign finance laws” connected to county advocacy against the referendum on single-member districts. The email cited newly enacted House Bill 921, which “prohibits the use of public funds by local government or its actors” to advocate for or against political issues.
In a phone interview, Perry said the Legislature passed HB 921 last spring partly in response to a video Alachua County produced in February that features local African American leaders speaking against single-member districts.
“They were not in violation of the law when they made it,” Perry said. “The fact that they are still running that is clearly against the spirit of the law.”
County spokesperson Mark Sexton, who led production of the video and a second one on the same topic, said the county has not sought to promote the videos, although local Democratic officials have shared it on social media.
“Since the passage of these bills, the county has expended no resources to repost or push these videos out in any way,” he said in a phone interview. “We have, however, responded to citizens’ requests to view these videos, which are, after all, public records.”
Single-member district supporters have also cited Sexton’s social media advocacy against the referendum as a potential violation of HB 921. Sexton says he keeps the posts separated from work.
“If you look at my Facebook posts, none of them are done during working hours,” said Sexton, who said the Division of Elections has not contacted the county about the matter. “When I’m off work, I’m a private citizen who still has civil rights.”
A topic making frequent appearances on Sexton’s Facebook page is controversial mailers sent out in support of single-member districts. One quoted county Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, former Commissioner Rodney Long—who is running for a state Senate seat against Perry—and the NAACP making statements in support of single-member districts and against at-large voting.
“Stand with our local leaders,” the flyer says. “Vote yes on single-member districts.”
But the quotes do not have dates or context. Chestnut, Long and the local NAACP chapter are all on the record—including in the county video posted in February—against the current effort to move to single-member districts.
Long’s campaign website lists as his first accomplishment his involvement in the city of Gainesville’s move to single-member districts in the 1980s. But last week at a press conference, during which the local NAACP chapter said it plans to pursue legal action over the mailers, Long reiterated his opposition to the current effort.
“Single-member districting is a tool to try to eliminate the past injustices of African Americans through the political process,” he said. “We’ve never had a problem with Alachua County in terms of African Americans being elected.”
Chestnut’s quote on the mailer comes from a 1994 Gainesville Sun story about local activists seeking to “end at-large local elections” for the Alachua County Commission.
“Throughout the South, local governments have been under attack since the 1960s for holding ‘at-large’ races, just as the Alachua County government now does to elect all five commissioners,” wrote reporter Mark Hollis, who cited Cleve Sharp as the leader of the single-member district effort. “At the urging of the NAACP, such elections have been struck down on the grounds that they dilute blacks’ voting strength and keep them out of elected office.”
Hollis wrote that, in order to draw wider support, activists were moving beyond the purely race-based rationale for single-member districts: “They say some rural and suburban residents have also been disenfranchised.”
At the time, Chestnut, then the president of the local NAACP chapter, said, “It’s not a racial thing… It’s an argument of having more accountability for all citizens.”
In the county video from February of this year, Chestnut said he believes the current effort would be detrimental to African Americans.
“In Alachua County, you don’t have a large concentration of African Americans living in one part of the county,” he said, referencing the dynamic that would warrant his support for single-member districts.
In the Alachua County video from February, the current local NAACP president, Evelyn Foxx, said she told Clemons she was “adamantly opposed” to the idea the same day he proposed it. She also spoke against the bill to create the referendum when it was going through the Legislature.
The national NAACP continues to advocate for single-member districts in general, calling at-large districts “electoral schemes” on its website.
A consultant for the single-member district campaign, Laura Irwin, who helped create the mailers, said the point was to highlight “hypocrisy” of those who have changed their position on single-member districts.
“The rationale [for excluding dates] was that if you support single-member districts because it disenfranchises minorities, then that should be across the board,” she said. “It shouldn’t be dependent upon when that takes place.”
Local Democrats have called the mailer “lies.”
“They are attempting to display a position that our African American leaders are taking that is the opposite of the position they are taking,” Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell said. “I view that as deceptive.”
But Perry insists the mailers are fair and not misinformation.
“Those are all factual,” he said, adding that the real question is why some people have changed their minds on the issue.
“Racism was used to justify single-member districts in the city, and racism is used to oppose single-member districts in the county,” he said. “How do you square that?”
Meanwhile, a second mailer in support of single-member districts has sparked controversy. It’s titled “Alachua County in crisis” and also targets African American voters, listing expensive Gainesville Regional Utility (GRU) bills, shootings and a lack of accountability as reasons to vote for single-member districts.
“The Dirty Tricks Brigade (Lying Liars and their Lies) is at it again,” Sexton wrote on his personal Facebook page, referencing the city’s oversight of GRU. “Perhaps this sleazy, dark money [PAC] doesn’t understand the County doesn’t run GRU. Perhaps a beginner’s local civics course would help.”
The funding sources for the mailers and the campaign for single-member districts is another source of controversy. Cornell said several political action committees (PACs) controlled by GOP activists have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars—more than all 13 city and county commission candidates combined.
Cornell specifically pointed to a contribution of $32,722 that one of the committees, Leading for our Future, received on Oct. 19 from Building a Prosperous Florida, which is connected to Perry. He said the donation “essentially means Senator Perry is funding this misinformation campaign through his PAC.”
Perry dismissed the accusation, saying his PAC supports a lot of causes and the Oct. 19 contribution was not designated for the single-member district campaign, much less the mailers. He called Cornell and Democrats hypocritical for only talking about “dark money” when it’s convenient, noting Cornell has his own PAC.
“When you use them for your political side and then you criticize the other side for taking dark money, that’s disingenuous,” Perry said. “You can’t call one political money or donations and call the other one dark money.”
In response, Cornell said he does not have anything against PACs in general: “It’s when they’re being used to communicate misinformation to voters and hide who is responsible.”
Amid all the controversies, voters have a decision to make on Nov. 8. Clemons has said that he put forward the proposal because people in the western part of the county do not feel adequately represented by the current county commission.
Perry points to the sway of students in elections as unfair to outlying areas.
“Why would students in Gainesville potentially swing every single county commission vote?” he said. “The rural communities of the county are absolutely left behind in the process.”
Cornell says the issue comes down to more representation instead of less.
“I’m opposed to it because it’s bad government,” he said. “Alachua County deals with county-wide issues. To limit peoples’ voices and limit peoples’ representation from five people to one doesn’t make any sense.”