The Florida House of Representatives is set Tuesday to discuss a bill that would reshape how voters elect members to the Alachua County Commission, a contentious proposal in which Republican lawmakers are aiming to make headway in a Democratic-leaning area.
Under the bill offered by State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, the commission would be reorganized so each of its five elected members would represent a single district, rather than them all being at large as the composition is now. The bill would make it so that voters in the county would only cast a ballot for their district commissioner – and not the others.
If signed into law, Clemons’ bill would overturn the work of the Alachua County Charter Review Commission, which decided to keep the county commission makeup as is when it successfully asked voters to endorse several charter changes in November 2020.
Opponents also complain that the bill is a thinly veiled attempt to create a gerrymandered single-member county commission district in 2024, so that Clemons or another candidate from the small but vocal portion of his base could win a county commission seat.
A provision that had sought to add two commissioners, both of whom would represent the entire county, was deleted from the bill earlier this month, after a hearing before the House’s local administration and veterans affairs committee. That panel and the public integrity and elections committee both endorsed the bill unanimously.
However, during a hearing before the state affairs committee last week, the measure was endorsed 15-7, with all the Democratic members voting against it.
“I did vote yes in the first committee because it is a local bill, and I usually support local bills,” State Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil, D-Maitland, said at the state affairs meeting. “But then I found out that it really wasn’t a local bill, because I don’t consider a local bill to be a local bill when the local people don’t support it. … For that reason, I’m voting down.”
Mark Sexton, Alachua County’s communications director, said Clemons’ bill is dangerous for any county looking to govern its own affairs.
“Not only is the legislature trying to make it more difficult for people to vote in state and national elections,” Sexton said, “but now they’re actually trying to fundamentally change the structure of county commissions and how they’re elected.”
In 1973, Florida adopted the Home Rules Powers Act, which allows cities and counties to enact legislation without state approval. In 1986, Alachua County residents voted for a Home Rule Charter, cementing the county’s independence. The charter offers three routes for amendments: By the county commission, a review commission, or a citizen’s petition.
Some question why Clemons did not organize a petition instead of seeking to have the legislature pass a bill. In that case, he would have needed 19,045 signatures, or 10% of registered voters from the 2020 general election, to place the issue on the ballot.
Tina Certain, vice chair of the Alachua County School Board, told the state affairs committee that when she used the petition process to get her name on the ballot: “That meant me getting out hustling, talking to people and sharing my views with other folks. To bring this (bill), and to take it out of the hands of our local elected folks at the county commission, or by petition or by our charter review committee, I think is just an error at this point.”
At the meeting, State Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, asked Clemons two questions: Why he didn’t propose making similar changes to two other counties – Gilchrist and Dixie, which are overwhelmingly Republican – that his legislative district covers; and why he doesn’t just allow the local petition process to put the issue on a ballot, to show whether voters wanted the change, rather than getting the legislature to force Alachua County to do it.
“It’s immaterial that there’s three or four ways to put a referendum on the ballot,” Clemons responded. “This is one of the valid ways for a referendum of a ballot to go before the voters, and I’m exercising that as my prerogative as a state representative.”
Clemons went on to say the state constitution legitimizes his method.
“This is a clear-cut bill,” he said. “It’s not taking any power away from the people of Alachua County. It’s actually empowering the people of Alachua County to vote, whether they want to maintain the current system or not.”
Clemons and the bill’s proponents also point to rural residents in the county who feel underrepresented under the at large system. Clemons mentioned a petition with 9,206 signatures to secede from Alachua County and form Springs County as an example of this dissatisfaction.
Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden was a major proponent of the Springs County petition effort and supports the bill proposed by Clemons.
“Gainesville should not be deciding who represents the people in Newberry … or anything like that, but the way the at large system works, it does, and people are sick and tired of it,” Marden said.
At the Alachua County Rural Concerns Advisory Committee meeting on Feb. 15, Larry Hall, a committee member, agreed with the sentiment that Gainesville has too much control over who gets to sit on the county commission. He compared the city to the hub of a wheel.
“With the single-member districts, it would be an opportunity for (a) candidate to actually go out and meet with people who are not in that hub,” Hall said. “… It seems that might be the only way for citizens outside of that central hub to be able to have an expression.”
Penny Wheat, a former Alachua County commissioner and the 2020 charter review commission chair, said when she was elected to the commission in 1986, three or four of the commissioners lived within a mile of downtown Gainesville.
Wheat thought then a single-member district system might better serve the public.
“However, after serving for 16 years,” she said, “it became very obvious to me that if you’re elected by the majority of all of the people in Alachua County, you can represent the interesting concerns of all of the people in Alachua County. And over the years, it became obvious to me that we needed people to speak for Alachua County as a whole.”
Marden contends, however, that the county commission needs more diverse perspectives.
“There’s five Democrats on the county commission, for crying out loud, and it’s been that way for decades,” Marden said. “So don’t come at me with lack of diversity on the political spectrum, because that’s nothing that you have currently and haven’t had, and that’s ultimately what they’re trying to protect.”
Black community leaders in Alachua County, however, say the commission is representative. At the state affairs committee meeting, Rodney Long, a former Alachua County and Gainesville city commissioner and the first African American to serve on both, noted that African Americans have been elected at large to the county commission since 1974.
“If the voting system were changed now to single-member districts, it would impact minority access,” he said. “You couldn’t draw a majority or minority access district because African Americans live all across Alachua County. This would lead to retrogression.”
Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP, agreed.
“We just don’t want to go back,” she said. “It’s been a fight and a long struggle.”
When asked by Sexton, the communications director, in an Alachua County video if Clemons had reached out to them about the bill, six Black community leaders said no.
Clemons called the video and other published materials by the county “propaganda.”