Turnout was sparse at a forum held Tuesday, Oct. 29 at the Southwest Recreation Complex in Winter Haven.
Sponsored by the Florida Bipartisans Civic Affairs Group and moderated by Robert Connors, three panelists from Polk Citizens for Single Member Districts: Joe Clark, Marti Karen and Ruthann Eaddy, have an effort underway that began earlier this year. Their stated goal is to get placed on the November 2014 ballot a charter amendment that will alter the way Polk County Commissioners are elected. They have until June of 2014.
As it now stands, commissioners are elected countywide, although they must live in the district they represent. If changed to single-member districts, only those residents of that particular district would be allowed to vote for that particular candidate or opponent.
“Efforts are underway to change the system, because people think it’s unfair,” said Clark to the 10 people who attended. He added it would not be an easy task, that it would be formidable.
“What we’re trying to do is get 25,000 signatures. That is the amount needed in order to get the issue on the ballot,” he said. “It’s an uphill fight. We understand that. It’s going to take time to build momentum.
One audience member commented upon statements attributed to Commissioner George Lindsey that ran in a recent newspaper article. Becky Wynkoop, of Lake Wales, took Lindsey to task over an alleged statement in which he was cited as having rhetorically asked why should he give up 80 percent of the vote he received that placed him in office.
“I don’t understand what Mr. Lindsey’s problem is,” said Wynkoop.
In another statement attributed to Lindsey, who opposes going to single member district voting, is the belief it would lead to divisiveness among commissioners. Karen chose to address that and contradicted the viewpoint.
“You have a government that has diversity, in which there is compromise and consensus, I believe it builds a stronger government,” said Karen.
A common complaint raised when audience members were given the opportunity to speak and ask questions was that the current county commission does not listen to its constituency. Instead, the claim was made, the commission too often goes against the wishes of the people.
“Three commissioners dominate the vote. They favor developers, with no concern to little people,” said Sidney Rosenberg, from Poinciana. “We’ve been told, you don’t like it, move out.”
He cited several examples of decisions the BOCC has made, among them the approval of a sand mine that abuts a residential neighborhood in Davenport.
Several times it was raised that the perception is that big money drives the campaigns. Several commissioners, it was said, raised a total of more than $300,000. In comparison, all of the opponents combined raised approximately $30,000, it was claimed.
“At this, it doesn’t matter what the constituents think,” said Eaddy. In fact, on more than one occasion those present complained they cannot even get ahold of their commissioner, let alone see them visit the district they represent.
When Connors asked if the flow of money from special interests would change if single member districts were enacted, the response he received from the panelists was that not only would the money not have the impact it now does. In addition, it might lead to a change in the way candidates campaign, relying on volunteers and going door-to-door, rather than on advertising and marketing.
Two other points were hammered at during the meeting, one being that many people did not know who represented them, as well as not knowing which district they lived in.
The other point made was that in three of the five districts, more people are registered as Democrats than Republicans, yet there is not a single Democrat who is a commissioner. Nor is the composition of the BOCC made up of anyone either black or Hispanic. Plus, save for Melony Bell, who currently is the chairwoman of the BOCC, the other four commissioners are predominantly middle-aged white males.
Bell was also the only commissioner singled out as being truly responsive to her constituency. That was attributed, in part, to the people in District 2, whom she represents. They were praised as people with common sense and core, conservative values.
At its conclusion, some appeared more enthusiastic than others whether attaining 25,000 signatures by June 2014 was possible.
“It can be done,” said Rosenberg. “It’s time to go to the people.”