By Carl-John X Veraja
Ray Rodrigues, a Lee County resident since 1994, made clear his devotion to the purpose of his coalition: the Coalition for Common Sense Government (CCSG).
“The coalition itself is a good story,” Rodrigues said, “I don’t want anything about me to distract from that.”
The CCSG formed just about a month ago in response to the perceived need by citizens from various walks of life and political leanings to have a more representative county government. They have a budget manager who works for FGCU’s Arts and Science’s department as their head (Ray Rodrigues), a senior but very politically active Democrat as their vice-president (Joan Patterson), a libertarian as their treasurer (Kim Hawk), and a member of the NAACP serves as secretary (Steve Sherman).
Most of these citizens were former members of the Charter Review Commission that last convened in 2008. At that time, the issue of single member districting was brought up and voted on.
The Charter Review Commission consisted of 15 representatives, 3 for each county commissioner. It is their job to vote on issues to recommend to the county commission. If 10 out of 15 of these representatives had voted to recommend putting single member district on the ballot it would still not have been a done deal. A majority did vote for this but the tenth vote was lacking so the recommendation wasn’t even made. Even if the recommendation had been made, it would require a vote by the county commissioners to put it on the ballot.
According to any member of the CCSG, changing the county voting system to a single member district scheme is the sole purpose of the CCSG. It was the most discussed topic of the Charter Review Commission and they feel it must be put on the ballot for the voters to decide in this coming election. In the meanwhile, it’s all about voter education and siphoning cooperation from the Commissioners whose votes are the deciding factor.
Until a January 11th commission meeting, there did not seem to be enough commissioner votes for this to happen. Then, Bob Janes announced his support of putting the single member district amendment on the ballot.
As Commissioner Frank Mann of district 5 put it: “Only when Bob Janes changed his position did the issue grow wings and fly.”
Mann said he believes that the issue deserves to be on the ballot.
“I have not taken a position for or against the principle of single member district,” Mann said, “but from day one I was always in support of putting it on the ballot so that the people can vote on it. This government belongs to the people and they should have the right to vote and shape it as they want it.”
Mann believes there are disadvantages and advantages to both single member district and the at-large voting schemes.
The at-large scheme lets each voter in the county vote on all five county commissioner seats while the single member district means you can only vote for the representative for your district.
What is the issue with the at-large scheme according to the CCSG?
“We believe that representatives ought to be accountable to the people who elected them,” Rodrigues said. “During the charter review process we learned that the majority of Florida’s population was either single member district or a hybrid single member district system already–that the at-large type has its roots in a segregationalist past and that the single member district is a better way to do things if you look at the results that at-large voting has given lee county. From 1988-2006 there were 30 contested county commission races and 13 out of 30 times people’s choice was denied at the district level. As individuals we all share a desire for an electoral system that aligns results with the needs of the county. That’s what a representative democracy is. That’s what we all have in common i believe.”
This belief was echoed by other members of the CCSG.
Steve Sherman, who is the chair of a political action committee of the NAACP worries that the at-large system affects more than just minorities.
“It suppresses everybody’s representation,” Sherman said. “We’ve got lots of interest…and nobody gets a fair shake because they have this thing called districts which makes no sense because people in this district have only 20% of the vote towards electing their commissioner. 80% of the county commission is an outside party’s vote.”
Sherman made the point that it was not to establish single member districts but “to return” them.
“Until 1954, there was no at-large system in Lee County,” Sherman said. “The whole of Florida had been single member district. Then, one-by-one, the legislature of Tallahassee introduced at-large in an effort to keep minorities from gaining political stature…At present, every county in the state that has over 500 population has switched away from totally at-large some single member district or some type of hydrid. It works great in Pinellas County, works lousy in Hillsborough because of the way they structured it.”
Sherman has been a Lee County resident since 1977 and was elected to head a PAC by James Muwakkil, President of the Lee County NAACP.
Matt Caldwell, another member of the CCSG, was appointed to the Charter Review Commission by Frank Mann.
“We studied the issue for 18 months,” Caldwell said, “some type of single member district needed to be brought up to the ballot for the voters. Well, apparently, a group of us felt the same way. Most are former members of the Charter Review Commission.”
Caldwell, a Lee County resident for 28 years, will be stepping down soon as vice-chair of the Lee County Republican Party to run for congress. He feels that single member district is an issue of “fairness.”
“My relationships with county commissioners have been fine,” Caldwell said, saying it was like he had an “open door.”
He’s owner of a real estate agency and has been involved in politics since the 2004 election.
Though Bob Janes has voiced support for putting the issue on the ballot there remain some hurdles.
“If we remain consistent it will be voted to be put on the ballot in May,” Mann said. “Janes final statement was that this would be after public hearings and not before May.”
The CCSG plans on educating the voting public and this may constrict their time frame for doing so, but if the three Commissioners, Mann, Janes and Bigelow remained committed the voter’s will get their change to chose or vote down single member district this November.
“We’ll stay focussed until this issue is decided,” said Rodrigues, “new opportunities may arise after that.”
Joan Patterson believes the CCSG is in good hands.
“Ray is a very knowledgeable and great leader,” Patterson said, “This concern for proper representation happens to Dems and Republicans. It’s not a partisan issue.”
She has taken issue with Commissioner Judah’s and Hall’s tactics of stalling debate on the issue but thinks progress is being made.
Commissioner Ray Judah had repeatedly said that since the issue was not recommended by the Charter Review Commission it should not be being brought up again not “out of the normal procedures.”
“If we let this happen it opens the door to further manipulations,” Judah stated, “by interest groups to disrupt the normal procedures of government.”
These sorts of ‘manipulations’ are exactly what Kim Hawk, the CCSG’s treasurer and also board member of the Lee Soil and Water Conservation District would call ‘democracy as Jefferson intended.’
“I believe Bob Janes intended to keep the issue of the ballot,” Hawk said, “and that Tammy Hall filibustered him to get him to change his mind at the Jan. 11th meeting. She knows he isn’t doing so well and maybe she could wear him out.”
Hawk believes that too much government is wasteful and in his job at Lee Soul and Water Conservation District he has actually fired two employees and sold a van in order to save tax payer’s money.
“Part of my interest in the single member district is personal,” Hawk said, “if things change even people like me could run for commission. Currently, that’s basically out of the question.”