Referendum: Single district or at large voting?

Since 1992 Hendry County Commissioners and members of the School Board have been elected by single district voting. Before the 1992 elections, all five commissioners and school board members were elected by voters throughout the entire county.

In the single district system Hendry has now, each candidate is required to live in the district in which they are elected and are chosen only by voters in that district.

Earlier this year the county commission approved wording for a straw ballot in the November General Election to gauge the citizens’ preference on voting districts. Commissioner Don Davis brought up the question of change because, he said, “everybody has a right to vote county-wide. It’s the democratic way.” He added that it’s the way most counties operate, Hendry County included until the Consent Decree took effect. He said he promised his constituents that he would bring up the question to his fellow commissioners.

Mr. Davis was not serving as a commissioner when the lawsuit was settled. He served as a commissioner from 1970-74, 1976-86 and was reelected four years ago. He is currently running for reelection to District 3.

The 1991 lawsuit was brought by members of the Rural Improvement Association of Harlem, represented by Jesse Robinson and Janet Taylor, among others.

Mr. Robinson served as the first Black county commissioner to ever sit on the Hendry County Commission. He went on the board in November 1992, under the single district system, but sadly passed away September 27, 1994. Ms. Taylor was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles to fill his seat later that year and has served on the board ever since.

As a member of the original complainants on the lawsuit, Commissioner Taylor said they began fact-finding for the lawsuit about 1990. She said that they were not aware of any minority citizen who had ever served on either the County Commission or School Board of Hendry County up till that time.

The suit charged Hendry County and the school board with violation of the First, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Plaintiffs had brought suit against the County and School Board, charging that at-large elections denied African Americans adequate opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

In October of that year, the County and School Board agreed to settle the issue by going to single district elections, complying with a Consent Decree by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Counsel for the School Board Gavin O’Brien and E. Dan Stevens for the county came to the agreement with plaintiffs.

The Consent Decree states:

“Pursuant to the agreement of the parties, the defendants have adopted a plan for the election of the members of the Hendry Board of County Commissioners and the Hendry County School Board which provides plaintiffs, as African American residents of Hendry County, and all the African American voters of the county, a greater opportunity than previously existed to elect candidates of their choice through the creation of single member districts.”

The terms of the Consent Agreement and Decree had to be approved by the Attorney General of the United States and the county and school board paid plaintiffs $28,878.85 for attorneys fees and costs of litigation.

At that time, both the School Board and County Commissioners were required to pass resolutions amending the voting districts to five. The first election under these terms was September 1, 1992.

At the February 9, 2016, county commission meeting County Attorney Mark Lapp explained the background of Hendry’s voting districts, outlining what needs to happen if citizens want to move to countywide elections. If voters indicate they want at-large elections, the issue would have to be returned to a federal court for a ruling.

Mr. Lapp reiterated to the board members that a straw vote is not binding, but merely a way to gauge the citizens’ feelings on the issue.

At that time Commissioner Karson Turner stated that residents in his district prefer to remain as single district voting. Commissioner Janet Taylor said she also opposes returning to at-large voting, adding that Hendry’s demographics played a big part in the county going to single districts in the first place. With a population that is 50 percent Hispanic, 37 percent White and 13 percent Black, she said minorities would lose representation with an at-large elected board.

Last May the county commissioners approved the wording of a straw ballot for the General Election, 3-2. Commissioners Turner, Davis and Swindle voted yes; Commissioners Taylor and Harris no.

If in the November referendum voters favor at-large voting, the county commission will have the option of pursuing a change through the courts or not.

It is unclear if a vote for the county to return to at-large voting would also affect the School Board.
Below is the wording that will appear on the November ballot

Non-binding straw ballot question on whether Hendry /County commissioners should be elected at-large

Would you support a proposition on a future ballot to provide that the five members of the board of county commissioners of Hendry County, Florida, shall be elected to office by all electors within the county, rather than only by the electors within the district where the candidate resides?
Yes
No

Pregunta de la boleta no vinculante si los comisionados del Condado de Hendry deberia ser elegidos por todos los electores

Apoyaria usted una propuesta en una boleta futura para disponer que los cinco miembros de la Junta del Condado de Hendry, Florida, seran elegidos a la oficina por todos los electores dentro del Condado, y no solo por los electores dentro el distrito donde reside el candidato?
Si
No

Patty Brant, can be reached at cbnews@newszap.com

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