Lee County voters in November approved a switch to electing a Superintendent. Now, an effort is afoot to put a strong Mayor referendum on the ballot there.
Rep. Mike Giallombardo informed County Commissioners that he will present a local bill to put the question to voters. The Lee County legislative delegation will meet on Nov. 30 to consider this and other local bills.
“Lee County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country,” the Cape Coral Republican told Florida Politics. “This referendum simply gives the voters the ability to decide on how they want their county government structured. It may pass, or it may fail. It is ultimately decided by the voters.”
But the matter has already proven somewhat divisive among local lawmakers. The Lee County Commission already voted 3-1 to take a public stance against any local bill, and some members of the delegation tend to agree.
“I don’t see a problem that needs to be fixed,” said Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, a Fort Myers Republican. Notably, her husband, David Mulicka, is currently running for County Commission.
It’s also notable because Persons-Mulicka carried the local bill last year that put the Superintendent question to referendum. But Persons-Mulicka said that move followed community outcry over a number of issues. Lee County School Board meetings for a period were making national news as the public lamented COVID-19 policies and bathroom access questions.
Persons-Mulicka said she has heard no outcry about how county government runs. The county right now has an appointed County Administrator who answers to the elected County Commission. In the solidly red county, all County Commissioners right now are Republican. All five are elected countywide.
Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman, however, said he could see benefits to having a strong Mayor for Lee County.
“I can see the merits of an elected executive, like a Mayor in an emergency can make crucial calls,” Hamman said. “That seems to make sense.”
But County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, who notably served as County Commission Chair during Hurricane Ian last year, disagrees.
“The county government works great,” he said. “Talking to the community, I never talk to anybody, outside one small group, who supports that change. When you talk to the business community, nobody supports that.”
Pendergrass suggested that’s because the community understands creating a strong Mayor would likely just add one more layer of government. A Mayor would still likely hire an Administrator, but would just take power away from the elected Commission.
Giallombardo stressed the bill remains in drafting, but he would like a referendum to propose establishing an elected executive who runs countywide. A Mayor would likely still have an Administrator reporting directly to him or her, but so would the county’s Budget Director and County Attorney. Right now, a Budget Director reports to the Administrator and the County Commission hires the County Attorney.
But for some lawmakers, there’s no harm in asking.
“I’m a big fan of letting the voters decide whether they want the executive officer in Lee County to be answerable and accountable to the voters,” said Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican. “I don’t see any downside to putting this question to Lee County voters and allowing them to decide the issue.”
Prominent political consultant Terry Miller also likes the idea. He has worked on numerous successful campaigns in the region, including to pass the elected Superintendent referendum last year. But he said if anyone dislikes the idea, they can rally opposition to show that voters don’t want the change.
“There is no reason ever for people to oppose giving voters the right to choose,” Miller said.
A strong Mayor would not be unprecedented. Lee County is now Florida’s eighth most populous out of 67 counties. Of the seven larger counties, four elect strong Mayors: Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange and Duval (Jacksonville).
Lee County is one of 20 charter counties in Florida, and Pendergrass notes a charter review commission recently rejected a proposal to put a strong Mayor on the ballot by a vote of 11-2.