By Sandra McClinton
Chair, Democratic Party of Lee County
Vice Chair, Republican Party of Lee County
Given that a majority of the current Lee County Board of Commissioners opposes sending this issue to the ballot, the only avenue left open at his point is to petition the board to allow the voters of Lee County to decide. A member of Lee County School Board, which has always followed the Board of county Commissioners, has requested that the issue of structure be discussed at the next workshop.
Originally the State of Florida followed the procedure of other states and elected county commissioners by districts. The same procedure was probably followed in your home county as well. Everyone elected someone local to represent area interests and work with other county commissioners for the best outcome for the county. We could all be confident that the needs of our area would always be represented in the decisions affecting the entire county.
This legislative/administrative structure, that had worked very well, began to change in the mid-1950s. The age of Jim Crow Laws saw Florida legislators proposing changing their county to "at-large" county commissioners in an effort to prevent any African-American from ever being elected. Lee County changed as well. This "at-large" system meant that county commissioners maintained a district designation in name only. They were actually elected by the 80 percent of the county that lay outside their "district."
Local areas no longer had the say of who went to the County Commission with the designation of being from their district. It would be like having the state representative for Lehigh Acres being elected by North Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs and Sanibel.
Each of these areas has special situations that deserve to have a true representative on the County Commission. These are very diverse areas: coastal, rural, inland and urban areas. The many instances of a candidate winning their "district" only to lose the election due the other 80 percent quickly shows that the wishes of local residents that understand local issues are lost.
Lee County residents were offered the chance to establish home rule, rather than relying on Tallahassee, by establishing a county charter. In 1996 the voters of Lee County chose to do so. The issue of structure of the County Commission was hotly debated by the original commission established to develop a county charter. At each review since then the issue of structure of the County Commission has been hotly debated. Each and every county in the state has acknowledged the need for county commissioners representing specified districts as the population rose above 500,000, and in some instances a much smaller population. Lee County is now the largest county in the state still clinging to the Jim Crow established format.
There have been few issues in the history of our country that have been more hotly pursued than the right to vote and elect our own representatives. Whether it was the right of all "free men" to vote, or the right of women to vote (finally granted less than 100 years ago), or the elimination of poll taxes and literacy tests we have adamantly pursued the right to select our political leaders through the ballot box. At-large voting is contrary to the pursuit of universal suffrage, the many are selecting the representative for the few.
Following a majority vote by members of the last Charter Review Committee to place the issue of changing from at-large commissioners, Commissioner Tammy Hall stated she would bring the issue up for review the following fall. That has not happened and the only avenue left open at his point is to petition the board to allow the voters of Lee County to decide. A member of Lee County School Board, which has always followed the Board of county Commissioners, has requested that the issue of structure be discussed at the next workshop.
A petition to change the structure of the County Commission to five single-member districts and two countywide districts is being circulated. This hybrid petition was developed by a total bipartisan effort of the Lee County Republican Party, Lee County Democratic Party, Lee County Libertarian Party, Lee County NAACP and other groups. We believe this hybrid system will meet the needs of our growing county with the single member district commissioners giving representation to the individual districts and the county wide commissioners looking after the needs of the entire county.
We encourage you to visit these websites http://www.familiesforfreedomandfairness.org/downloads/fff_white_paper_2012.pdf http://www.familiesforfreedomandfairness.org/downloads/fff_amendment_form.pd for more information and the two-sided petition. Print on front and back to have a legal petition. If you prefer, call Jack Tanner at 239-244-1001 or Joan Patterson at 239-369-3129 and a petition will be delivered to you.