County calls for study of voting change

Hendry County commissioners listened to a report Tuesday from County Attorney Mark Lapp on preparations for the voter-mandated move to change the method of commissioners’ election from single-member districts to an at-large system, in which each commissioner on the Hendry County Board would be elected by a countywide vote.

The board had hired a Tallahassee lawyer, Michael Spellman, on Aug. 8 to advise them on the steps needing to be taken after more than 60 percent of Hendry voters last year approved the change. Mr. Lapp said he advised the county would have to show that the basic purposes of the federal court consent decree that imposed the single-member-district system in 1991 have been achieved and that the Voting Rights Act would most likely not be violated again if it were lifted, before the system could be changed.

Mr. Lapp said the Spellman law firm “concluded that there’s a lot of demographic and voting analysis that need to be done to support, to make the case, if there is a case to be made, that the change could comply with the law.” He said the firm estimated its fee at $30,000 plus up to $10,000 for political scientists’ analysis. “So if you’re inclined to move forward, you could put a cap on it … or you could just say you don’t want to be spending money on this and just leave things as they are,” Mr. Lapp said.

Chairman Michael Swindle asked for discussion or questions from the board. Vice Chairman Darrell Harris piped up, “Yes, my discussion is, I don’t want to spend $30,000 to $40,000.” Mr. Swindle answered: “I tend to agree. If we were flush with cash, it would be nice to see what the political scientists said, but we’re nowhere near there today, I don’t believe.”

Mr. Swindle agreed and asked Commissioner Mitchell Wills for his opinion. “I agree with Mr. Harris at this point,” he said. “The voters do want to see this come to pass, so it’s something we need to entertain in the future for sure.”

Commissioner Emma Byrd said, “I have no comments because I didn’t want to see it go forward from the beginning so I’m glad that it’s at a standstill at this point.”

Commissioner Karson Turner then took his turn. “It was over 60 percent of the people wanted to see their vote move toward a countywide election,” he said. “Personally I would love to see them harden up these costs. Two to four months (before a report would be available)? Basically, if we sit on this, I think we’re going to be pushing it out past 2020, 2022. Have we asked the Florida Association of Counties to weigh in on this? And do we know, are there any other firms that have a history or background with doing anything like this?”

Mr. Lapp answered that there aren’t many firms that perform such services because only a few counties in the state are subject to a consent decree and fewer still have had a voter-mandated change. The county must prove before the original court that issued the 1991 order that changing the system would not violate anyone’s voting rights.

Mr. Turner said: “I have a hard problem with just putting this to bed without having more of a thought process, weighing in from the public. I would love to know what the supervisor of elections thinks. I just think that when 60-plus percent of the people vote to want to see that, that speaks volumes to me.”

After Mr. Lapp, reading a text message from Mr. Spellman, said the board could get an initial analysis including the political science evaluation for $12,500, which would have to be found in the budget somewhere, Commissioner Wills said he would support doing it. “The voters deserve that, I think.”

The board ended up directing Mr. Lapp to get the initial analysis done and report back at commissioners’ first meeting in December.

In other business:
• The board voted unanimously to change its ordinance to shorten the time that Animal Control officials hold an animal from five days to three business days, in order to minimize the cost of care before the animals are cycled out either by pickup by the owner, adoption or moving to the no-kill shelter, according to the staff report. Planning Director Margaret Emblidge said it would prevent the county’s facility from exceeding capacity.

• Commissioners approved sending a letter of support for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council’s application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a Brownfield Coalition Assessment Grant. SFRPC officials say they are very close to getting that grant, which would help the county identify and address conditions in areas of blighted housing.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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