news 6 days ago

Rift over districts riles charter-review panel

The Gainesville Sun, Fla. — Sarah Nelson The Gainesville Sun, Fla.

Feb. 14-- Feb. 14--Single-member districts, term limits for county commissioners and a new county bus system, among other things, will not appear on the 2020 ballot in Alachua County.

The county's charter review commission is in the process of giving a first read to more than 50 citizen-suggested changes to the county's charter.

Among the ideas that the 12-member commission -- convened once a decade to comb through the county's charter and suggest changes -- decided to keep, for now:

? Requiring that land-use designations remain under Alachua County's authority for areas that are annexed by municipalities.

? Removing the charter requirement that says county commission members must live in their districts during the election qualification period, versus when they are elected.

? Removing language that prohibits adoption of ordinances regarding sexual orientation, sexual preferences or similar classifications.

? Granting nature preserves, waterways and critical wildlife rights to exist. Also known as "Rights of Nature."

? Requiring urban land and real estate developers to donate 25% of what they create for public housing or wild spaces.

? Eliminating the order that campaign financial filing reports must be submitted in paper form.

? Granting legal protections to the Santa Fe River, also known as SAFEBOR.

Some of what the commission has decided to cut, however, has caused a shakeup in the appointed panel's leadership.

At its Jan. 29 meeting, the panel voted 9-2 to not advance single-member districts, which would mean only residents who live within the boundaries of a county commissioner's district could vote in the race.

Data from the Florida Association of Counties shows that of the 20 counties with charters in the state, eight have single-member districts. Seven, including Alachua County, have at-large elections, meaning that all county voters can vote in any county commission election.

Five have a mix of both.

Supporters of the election model say single-member districts would allow more rural and diverse representation on the county commission.

But the majority of the 2020 Charter Review Commission did not agree, and some said the model is akin to voter suppression. That vote caused one member to offer a fiery rebuttal and submit his resignation days later.

Immediately before the vote, Eric Drummond slammed the commission as it was poised to cut the proposal, arguing that single-member districts and term limits are the only charter amendments citizens care about.

"People care about this, and if we're gonna turn it off because of politics, shame on us, and I'm gonna leave and you guys can talk about adding bus routes and renaming the county and the other topics that just don't matter here," Drummond said.

The Alachua County Commission replaced Drummond on Feb. 11 with Nicholas Klein, chairman of the county's veteran services advisory board.

Scott Camil, a member of the charter review panel, said that just because a proposal is eliminated by the commission does not mean it's unimportant. Some changes, he said, can be achieved without altering the charter.

Wednesday, the commission had a lengthy discussion about just that, over rights for the Santa Fe River.

Debate abounds over whether legal protections for the Santa Fe River, compiled into a list called SAFEBOR, belong in the county's charter, or elsewhere.

The protections would allow citizens to bring legal action against projects that degrade the river, on the river's behalf.

Some charter commission members say that while they unequivocally believe in protecting the river, SAFEBOR merits a county ordinance but does not need to become part of the county's charter.

Camil said he voted against the proposal moving forward because he doesn't see a distinction between the Rights of Nature and SAFEBOR.

Thomas Linzey, co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, recommended to the county commission Tuesday that SAFEBOR be ingrained in the charter.

An ordinance, he argued, would mean a future commission could reverse those rights.

The charter commission voted Wednesday to keep SAFEBOR for now, but Chairwoman Penny Wheat said the proposal could look different if it's placed on the ballot.

The commission asked its attorney, Wade Vose, to return with two alternatives to SAFEBOR at its next meeting on Feb. 26.

Submissions from the public will be accepted until March 31, at alachuacounty.us/charterreview. In June, the final charter changes will be sent to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

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