There is a chance on the election ballot next year county voters will change the way commissioners represent them by changing to single member districts.
What that means is that each of the five commissioners will only get votes from the district they represent and not from voters throughout the county. The initiative is not yet on the ballot as the number of signatures required — 25,000 from registered voters — has not been obtained though the language of the question was approved by the Supervisor of Elections office in June.
To learn more about what this means the Florida BiPartisan Civic Affairs Group has scheduled a forum Tuesday to educate the public.
“Our forum is educational,” said Robert Connor, who is the interim chairman of Florida BiPartisan Civic Affairs Group, “There are going to be three panelists and there will be opening remarks of who they are. The pros and cons will be heard and let the audience direct questions.”
The county is divided into five districts, and one commissioner represents that district though they are elected by voters throughout the county. Commissioners must live in the districts they represent. Under single-member districts commissioners would represent the district in which they live and only receive votes from that district. Commissioners are elected in staggered terms. Each serve four-year terms. Three — Districts 1, 3 and 5 — are elected in presidential election years, two — Districts 2 and 4 — are elected in non-presidential election years.
Those who favor single-member districts said this system would reduce the costs of campaigning because the election area is smaller, there would be more potential candidates, it would level the field financially, representation would be focused on the needs of the district and it reduces the power of special interest groups and big money. Campaigns would reach about 70,000 voters instead of about 350,000 voters.
The group advocating the change says under the current system each commissioner has to campaign throughout the county. This forces the candidate to raise more money and allows big money and special interest groups more access because that’s where the big money comes from. Under the 14th Amendment, the Constitution allows one man, one vote and provides for equal protection under the law.
“Our current system seems to contradict these protections,” the website said.
On the other side, two issues voters should consider is a lack of representation in county matters and the potential for abuse rises, said current Commissioner George Lindsey. He said as a commissioner a single-member district situation would be better for him but not for the voters.
“As a candidate it would be a big relief, but as a citizen it is not a good thing for representation,” Lindsey said, adding that voters would give up 80 percent of their voting rights for the county commission.
“Why would an elector give up 80 percent of their voting rights?” he asked.
On the potential for abuse, Lindsey said it can be seen by watching how Congress runs. Trade-offs could be made on projects or items in a commissioner’s district if he can get what he wants in return.
“If you vote for my Everglades restoration, I’ll vote for your corn subsidy in Idaho,” he said as an example. “I don’t want to see that in Polk County.”
He also pointed out there could be less caring from commissioners as a whole for the entire county as a result of single-member districts.
As an example he used the issue of the residents of a housing development off State Road 60 and the KMR Construction just outside Bartow that came up two weeks ago. In their third appearance before commissioners residents of the housing development complained about the dust and noise of the factory and how it is ruining their neighborhood. And, while commissioners allowed the cement factory at the site in 2009, it was evident at that meeting that a number of commissioners cared about the residents’ situation as they all took the cement factory to task to clean up. Lindsey said in a single-member district situation only the commissioner who represents that area could possibly care because the others don’t necessarily represent these residents and don’t have to worry about getting their vote.
A vote on this issue in favor of single-member districts would force the county to change its charter. The last time this question came up in 2002 it was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent.
The forum on Tuesday is not designed to favor either side but to educate voters on what would happen if this change is to take place. Whether or not it is good for the county or not, it is up to the voters.
“Our purpose is public education,” Connors, a former Polk County Commissioner, said. He said last week he is still in the process of locating people who cannot only make solid statements of the their position but defend them, as well. He hopes attendance will be high because it is an important issue.
“I’m hoping for a good audience. We’ve got some questions and I hope the issue gets hashed out.”