Florida to consider electing county commissioners from districts

To Alzo Reddick, a black state representative from Orlando, a proposed change in the way Florida county commissioners are elected would mean progress: It would give blacks better representation in county government.

To Lee Voss, a Leon County commissioner and president of the State Association of County Commissioners, the change would mean cutting counties into political fiefdoms that in the long run would undermine the quality of local government.

An amendment to the Florida constitution is on the Nov. 6 ballot that, if passed, would give voters in each county the option of creating five or seven districts from which commissioners would be elected. Since 1845, the constitution has stipulated that each county (except those that have their own charters) must have five commissioners elected at large.

There is little opposition to this amendment because all it does is give each county an option.

But if it passes, it probably would create controversy within each county as the voters choose the type of government they want.

Those who favor single-member districts say such a system would give minorities a better chance of electing someone to a county commission. They says the districts may be small enough to have one that will have a majority of voters belonging to a minority group.

Proponents add that the poor and women may have a better chance of being elected because the districts will be small enough that they won't require huge campaign costs and because the candidates may be able to campaign part time while working at their full-time jobs. Lower campaign costs also means that commissioners will not be as dependent on rich contributors.

Finally, proponents argue that a commissioner will be more responsive to constituents because they are fewer in number and closer to where he or she lives.

Opposition to single-member districts comes from people who have seen them working at their worst. Norman Hickey, Hillsborough County's administrator, was city manager in Daytona Beach 20 years ago when it had a single-member district form of government.

''In Daytona Beach before each election, each commissioner came in and demanded money be spent in his district,'' he says. ''The pressure on the city manager was awesome. We started to design a sewer system on a district basis, and it was a mess. Each district had to have a little piece of the pipeline, and none of it was connected to the treatment plant.''

Mr. Hickey, who was active in the civil rights movement and a recipient of the Roy Wilkins humanitarian award, also questions whether single-member districts would help minorities.

''This seems like a countermovement to what we have been doing for integration,'' he says. ''Are we going to push blacks back into a ghetto?''

If blacks had one seat on a commission made up of single-member districts, the six remaining white commissioners would not have to worry about black voters or the people who live in the district represented by the black commissioner, he says.

''If you got into real political power plays, like where are you going to put such undesirable things as a garbage incinerator or a jail, or a dog pound, they could all end up in any area that is perceived as weak,'' he says.

Representative Reddick counters: ''If the commission is going to vote 6 to 1 against black interests, then an all-white commission is going to vote that way anyway. It's better to have one black person on the commission who can argue for black people.''

And, he says, the single-member district is the form of government favored by the US Justice Department when it enforces the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

Leon County commissioner Voss says single-member districts would disrupt county planning, a major job in this fast-growing state.

''Within my county, there is a growth area in the northeast quadrant which would account for one or two commission seats.'' he says. ''The rest of the county is not a growth area, and with single-member districts, a majority of the commissioners may not be interested in controlling that growth and would not be accountable to the people who live in that area.''

Dr. Manning J. Dauer, a University of Florida political scientist says there are legitimate arguments for each case. Ward politics vs. benefits to minorities: ''It's a balance-off between these two issues. I'm not sure either side has all the equities,'' he says.

But he adds that the historical trends seem to favor single-member districts. Until recently, he said, about 60 percent of local elections in the US were conducted on an at-large basis. But now, he said, about 35 percent are.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.