Florida blacks seek bigger voice in city hall

Blacks say they are not getting fair representation in cities and counties where voters elect governments at large rather than by districts, and they are beginning to fight to change election laws.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has joined suits filed by blacks in three Florida cities - Tampa, Fort Myers, and Fort Meade - and NAACP attorney Margaret Ford says the problem is nationwide.

''We're looking at municipalities in Louisiana, Texas, and California, and we'll be filing litigation soon in Prince Georges County, Va.,'' she says.

''But the problem with at-large voting is countrywide,'' she says. ''We've even looked at municipalities in New York. We just don't have the staff to litigate them all, but we're encouraging our branches around the country to look at local voting systems and to take action, even if we don't become involved.''

Blacks say they cannot get fair representation in municipal and county elections where the gOernments are elected by voters of the entire jurisdiction. If a black candidate runs against a white one, the black one almost always Xoses if a majority of the voters is white.

But if a city or county is divided into districts, they say, blacks have a chance of electing candidates from a smaller district where they make up a majority.

In a case argued before the United States District Court in Tampa, blacks from the city of Fort Myers argued that the at-large system of electing city councilmen was created in 1957, at the same time the City Council also was passing discriminatory ordinances to keep blacks out of municipal swimming pools and to stifle dissent from civil rights activists.

Every black candidate who has run for office since then has lost, they said, although each received an overwhelming majority of the vote in the two city districts that are predominantly black.

Blacks in Fort Myers claimed their constitutional rights under the 13th, 14th , and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution were being denied, that the black vote was being diluted, and that they did not have access to the city's political system.

The city government argued that the at-large system of electing councilmen had nothing to do with racial discrimination. It was a method encouraged at the time by the Florida League of Cities to reform local government.

At-large elections were needed to end parochial city politics by councilmen who were concerned only about their districts, rather than the entire city, because they did not have to answer to all the city's voters, city officials said.

Judge Terrell Hodges ruled in favor of the blacks, saying that even if the at-large system of electing councilmen was not created to be discriminatory, the effect of the chang was to deny blacks representation. He gave Fort Myers 60 days to come up with a new procedure that would change the citywide election system to one that gives blacks a better chance at representation.

The suit against the city of Tampa still is pending, but the city's residents voluntarily voted to change the method of electing the City Council. Now five members are elected from districts and two are elected at large.

While the NAACP is continuing its suit against Tampa because it says all seven councilmen should be elected from districts, the change has already had an effect.

Last month a black was elected to the Tampa City Council for the first time in the city's 95-year history.

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