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Point/ counterpoint on County Commision election process

-- Guest Commentaries --

June 6, 2012
Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The politics of deception

Representative Matt Caldwell's recent commentary advocating a petition drive to change the County Commission at-large election process to a hybrid single-member district system would undermine our representative form of government and is fraught with deception. Representative Caldwell's political action committee, Families for Freedom and Fairness, recommends a seven-member commission composed of five single-member districts and two at-large commission seats.

Representative Caldwell's proposal to expand the size of county government would be ill advised during these difficult economic times that necessitate downsizing county government due to tight budget constraints. Our current at-large election process allows registered voters to vote for all five county commissioners. Voters would relinquish their individual voting rights under Representative Caldwell's proposal and would be limited to voting for three commissioners two at-large and one from their district.

Furthermore, the at-large election process ensures that voters are able to hold all five county commissioners accountable with the power to vote for each board member on the county commission. Commissioners elected at-large must focus on community-wide public interest in contrast to the parochialism and divisiveness that would develop under a hybrid single-member district system.

A review of the first quarter 2012 campaign treasurer's report for Families for Freedom and Fairness indicates that Representative Caldwell's Political Action Committee raised $20,800 in contributions to support the petition effort. Instead of Lee County families and residents contributing to the PAC as the name would imply, $15,000 was provided by Conservative Principles for Florida from Coral Gables and $5,000 provided by the Economic Freedom Foundation out of Tallahassee. The major contributors to Conservative Principles for Florida and Economic Freedom Foundation were casino gaming, sugar and tobacco corporations. It is certainly questionable that the casino gaming, sugar and tobacco corporations are even interested in whether Lee County changes from an at-large to single-member district form of government, but they will certainly have expectations for Representative Caldwell's support of their bills during legislative session after having provided financial support to Representative Caldwell's Families for Freedom and Fairness Political Action Committee.

This insidious relationship between special interest groups and state legislators is undermining public confidence in government and is at the core of public policy being driven by special interest influence to the detriment of the public interest.

Representative Caldwell would have you believe that he is concerned with voter representation and government accountability, but his own voting record and actions tell an altogether different story.

During the 2011 legislative session, in a direct assault to suppress voter's rights, Representative Caldwell supported House Bill 1355 which strikes at the heart of our American democracy by disenfranchising voters from exercising their privilege to participate in the election process. HB 1355 shortens early voting from 14 to eight days and imposes new restrictions on groups that register voters including punishments and fines on a per-signature basis. The League of Women Voters, long noted for their fair and impartial involvement in the election process, has announced that the League will suspend all voter registration efforts in Florida for fear of being punished by state government.

After falsely stating that the League of Women Voters endorsed the hybrid single-member district system, Families for Freedom and Fairness recently removed reference to the group from their literature after being informed by the League that no such endorsement was ever granted. Families for Freedom and Fairness is certainly not about families, freedom or fairness and this Trojan horse should be looked upon with grave concern and skepticism.

By Commissioner Ray Judah

(ITALICS) Judah is a member of the Lee County Commission whose district covers Fort Myers Beach.

Single member districts

It is hardly a shock that Commissioner Ray Judah, perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the Jim Crow leftover that is Lee County electoral politics, would leap to defend the status quo.

In his guest editorial in the May 21 News-Press, Judah extols the virtues of the outdated at-large election process originally designed to keep racial minorities in the post-war south out of office. In attacking Rep. Matt Caldwell's previous opinion, the 24-year incumbent conjures boogeymen around every corner, tarring with a broad brush anyone who dares to think the same system that forward-thinking counties and cities across the south have already adopted would work here.

Currently Lee County commissioners must live within their district but are elected by countywide vote. For decades many have wanted to change the system to one that elects commissioners from within districts a so-called single-member district approach.

Judah would have you believe the concept sprang from the mind of Caldwell and the Political Action Committee entitled Families for Freedom and Fairness. In fact a referendum for some form of the system has been recommended repeatedly for almost two decades by Charter Review Committees the most recent of which had Caldwell as a member - appointed by commissioners themselves. Those same commissioners have stubbornly refused to place the issue before voters, instead fighting to preserve the status quo that has made incumbent commissioners virtually unbeatable.

The current proposal is for five commissioners elected by voters within districts and two commissioners elected by countywide vote.

Judah refers to this proposal as an attempt to expand the size of county government, a disingenuous statement at best from a commissioner who for 20 years never met a tax, user fee or government program he didn't like.

It is true that under the current system voters can cast ballots for five county commissioners, and that the new system would see them voting for three. It is also true however that a district commissioner would be more directly accountable to voters from within his or her district.

Judah claims the new system would spawn parochialism and divisiveness, again a strange statement by a commissioner who thrives on and creates divisiveness with his fellow commissioners, between Lee County communities and with federal and state elected officials.

PACs being what they are it is also true that funding has come from outside the county and from sugar, tobacco and casino interests. It is my assumption that some of those contributing see the referendum as a way to rid themselves of Judah. That can hardly come as a surprise to him or to county voters who for 24 years have seen him paint such interests as the root of all evil. They are not. People who have different interests and goals from your own are not necessarily evil. It is easy politics to say they are, but it is bad government.

Judah brands these as 'special interests.' Will Florida's agricultural and business interests go to the Legislature and ask Caldwell and others to support changes? They have for time immemorial and they will continue to do so. Again, the fact that they support things Judah does, does not make them 'insidious.' It just means they disagree.

Personally I suspect the real reason Judah and some other commissioners will oppose even placing the referendum before voters is that they read the handwriting on the wall. They know the new system will divide the monolithic power they have wielded for so long.

By Charlie Whitehead

Whitehead is running as a No Party Affiliation candidate for the 2012 Lee County Board of County Commission District 3 race.



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