Alachua County Charter Review Commission Continues to Review Voter Proposals

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Most of the 80 ideas the 2020 Alachua County Charter Review Commission received involve district representation, accountability and transparency, land use and the environment.

Some citizens, however, sought to make a point, even with little chance of it being adopted.

One called for changing the county’s name to Bourgeois. “We’re the only county in Florida filled with snobby liberal snowflakes,” wrote a person who was identified only as “Will.”

Another resident suggested that a barbershop in Gainesville remain open for essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. And even though the county doesn’t own it – the city does – someone else recommended that Ironwood Golf Course be sold.

The county commission every 10 years appoints a charter review panel to solicit and evaluate proposals from residents for amending the county’s governing document. State voters in 1968 allowed counties to create charters in part to lessen the legislature’s control over regional affairs.

So far, the 12-member review commission has deemed only 11 of the 58 submissions it’s evaluated since January to be worthy of further review by its attorney.

The panel will review the remaining 22 proposals submitted by the March 31 deadline during virtual meetings set for 3 p.m. on Tuesday and 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

County voters would decide in November whether to adopt whichever charter amendments the review commission submits in June to County Elections Supervisor Kim Barton.

No amendment should conflict with the U.S. Constitution or affect the county’s budget, existing debt obligations, comprehensive plan or any land zoning stipulations. They also must avoid usurping the county commission’s authority or involve matters more appropriate for ordinances.

Abigail Brainard speaks with Charter Review Commission Chair Penny Wheat after a meeting earlier this year before the commission moved its work online like every other local government body during the coronavirus outbreak. (Jourdan Davis/WUFT News)

The review commission’s chairwoman, Penny Wheat, a former longtime county commissioner, said county staff have done their best to keep it on track despite COVID-19.

“They have all worked very diligently and with great perseverance,” said Wheat, who in 2005 led the Gainesville Charter Review Committee.

Fifteen proposals for the 2020 effort involve how to decide who serves on the county commission. That commission consists of five members who each hail from a geographic district – however, voters cast their ballots disregarding geography. Some proposals would have forced them to vote only among candidates vying to represent their respective area. The review panel’s decision in January to reject that idea led to one of its members resigning in protest.

Len Cabrera, 47, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel from Alachua City, submitted one of the proposals to do away with at-large elections for county offices.

“I’m annoyed at the complete lockdown, one-party rule of the county that basically serves the interests of Gainesville and ignores all the outlying communities,” Cabrera said.

The review panel also rejected a proposal to forbid voting by college students whose home base is elsewhere. It has sent for legal review a recommendation to allow candidates for public office to submit campaign finance reports electronically, given the times, rather than just on paper, but it still must decide on a submission requiring 60 percent voter approval for charter amendments.

Other ideas also advanced would create an independent watchdog to investigate allegations of misconduct, mandate public access to county records created for or kept online, and remove certain residency requirements for county commissioners.

The panel is poised to endorse removing language that violates equal protection as well as prohibiting ordinances adversely affecting anyone based on sexual orientation or preference.

In other matters, the charter commission has advanced proposals that would allow the county to retain land use jurisdiction over areas annexed by municipalities in the future, as well as the creation of an environmental protection charter officer position. There would also be a Santa Fe River bill of rights, described in a proposal as “a novel approach to caring for a natural entity.”

A recommendation from Katherine Griffith, 57, a community activist from Gainesville, didn’t make the cut. It would add a RTS bus route for Northwest Sixth Street, Whitney Park, Turkey Creek and Millhopper. Griffith said she had previously proposed the idea to the Gainesville City Commission, which then included it in a surtax initiative that voters ultimately rejected at the polls.

“It would just be extremely helpful to those communities and businesses in that area,” Griffith said. “Change takes time.”

Michael Hill, 24, a junior majoring in history at the University of Florida, submitted four proposals to the charter commission. The aspiring law school student said he encourages people he knows and meets to get involved in local government.

“It’s for real-life societal change in our communities,” Hill said.

Two of his proposals have advanced: One would have land and real estate developers making donations related to public housing or wild spaces; the other calls for greater protection of nature preserves, waterways and critical wildlife.

Scott Camil (WUFT News file photo)

The two that failed to move forward: decriminalizing the possession of cannabis and its respective products under 20 grams; banning the use of facial recognition software and devices as well as license plate scanners in public places.

As for changing the county’s name to Bourgeois or having a one-member county commission, “they’re proposals that I don’t consider serious at all,” said Scott Camil, a panel member from Micanopy.

However, Camil, who called the process “direct democracy,” and Wheat both said that most residents who submitted ideas did so in the interest of having good or better government.

“Many of the proposals that were eliminated from further consideration by the charter review commission were very thoughtful, meaningful proposals,” Wheat said.

Indeed, she said, once the panel finishes evaluating all 80, many of them will be forward to the county commission or even other local organizations for possible consideration.

Wheat said the commission will allow public input during the first 10 minutes of the virtual meetings this week. It has three public hearings planned during May and June.

The chairwoman said the panel must still decide just how many proposals to have on the ballot in November. Does it put forward a few items to avoid voter fatigue? Or add more items due to increased interest in local government as a result of COVID-19?

“Those are all discussions we will need to have at our upcoming meetings,” Wheat said.

About Julia Mitchem

Julia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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