Bill giving voters choice to reshape Alachua County Commission passes second committee
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 9/22/21-Rep. Chuck Clemons, Sr., R-Newberry, during the House Redistricting Committee, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

The legislation make a 2022 ballot initiative to change the county’s five commissioners from at-large seats to single-member districts.

A bill allowing voters to decide whether to amend Alachua County’s charter to change who their county commissioners represent passed its second committee Monday unanimously.

HB 1493, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Clemons, passed the House Public Integrity and Elections Committee. The legislation would place a ballot initiative in front of Alachua County voters in 2022 to change the county’s five commissioners from at-large seats to single-member districts. Instead of representing the whole district, each Commissioner would only represent voters within the boundaries of their district.

If the bill passes and voters back the change, Republicans could have a fighting chance to pick up a few seats on the Commission, something that hasn’t happened in decades. Democrats make up about 66% of county voters, but are largely centralized in Gainesville, the county’s largest population center and home to the University of Florida. However, cities outside of Gainesville lean red, meaning Republicans have a better shot at picking up a Commission seat in a single-member district format if one of the districts includes a larger slice of the county’s other cities.

The bill has received staunch opposition from local officials. The Florida Association of Counties also opposes the bill.

Alachua County Commission Chair Marihelen Wheeler spoke during public comment. She said the bill was an affront to home rule.

“I am frankly embarrassed that this has come before you. This is a local issue that we should be dealing with and have dealt with in the past,” Wheeler said. “We know if it gets there, if you folks put it there on the ballot, it will be voted no.”

Not all elected officials in Alachua County oppose the bill. Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden, a Republican, said he backs it because the Democratic County Commission did not consider it during its annual charter review process.

“This is not representing the entire county, far from it,” Marden said. “What are they afraid of, having someone just speak?”

Alachua County Communications Director Mark Sexton suggested the bill is a political game since Clemons, whose district includes part of Alachua County, also represents two other counties with at-large Commission structures. 

“Interestingly, both Dixie and Gilchrist have the exact same Commission makeup as Alachua County, and they are heavily Republican. There has been no talk about putting things on their ballots,” Sexton said. “If you want to change our charter, roll up your sleeves. Go stand at the fair, go to the farmers market, gather 10% of the signatures, and you can put it on the ballot.”

Republican Rep. David Smith pushed back against it being a partisan game by pointing out the bill has received bipartisan support so far.

“I was disappointed to hear it become political, Republican versus Democrat. When I look down at my sheet and see that this bill passed its first committee unanimously, 100%, Republicans and Democrats supported this bill through its first committee,” Smith said.

Mary Alford, the vice-chair of the Alachua County Commission, penned an op-ed in the Gainesville Sun opposing the bill last week. Republican Reps. Spencer Roach and Blaise Ingoglia also grilled Wheeler and Sexton about some of the language in the op-ed.

“If Clemons gets this amendment on the ballot, will it succeed? No,” the op-ed read. “But it will require a strong education campaign and citizen involvement to counter what is sure to be a misinformation onslaught. It will be a waste of time and energy.”

The legislators argued it appeared Alford was advocating the county use taxpayer dollars to fight the ballot initiative if the bill passes. Sexton and Wheeler both affirmed no dollars will be used for advocacy, as it would violate the law. 

Leon Rep. Allison Tant, a Democrat, backed the bill because she said she has seen single-member districts boost representation on the Leon County Commission.

“We are very diverse on our County Commission. The areas brought from the various parts of our community are very different, and they are fiercely advocated for,” Tant said.

The bill’s next stop is the House State Affairs Committee.

Tristan Wood

Tristan Wood graduated from the University of Florida in 2021 with a degree in Journalism. A South Florida native, he has a passion for political and accountability reporting. He previously reported for Fresh Take Florida, a news service that covers the Florida Legislature and state political stories operating out of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. You can reach Tristan at [email protected], or on Twitter @TristanDWood


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