Big Decisions Could End Up In Front of Lee County Voters

By: Grant Fichter

The voters in Lee County are looking at a potential change in how our Board of County Commissioners are elected, how many there are, and whether or not we have an elected County Mayor instead of the currently appointed County Manager. On November 29th, 2023, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners held a special meeting to discuss the state’s local delegation’s desire to move forward with legislation to allow the voters of Lee County to vote in favor of or against three items. The items of intense debate include how our local commissioners are elected (single member voting), how many of them there are (expanding from five to seven), and whether or not to have a County Mayor as an elected position instead of the current system where we have an appointed County Manager. The board eventually voted to send a letter opposing these possible changes going to the ballot.

This special meeting to discuss the issues was started with a motion from Cecil Pendergrass, asking the board to support the drafting of a letter to send to the legislative delegation, saying that the board was not in support of these measures being considered by the state legislators. After much passion and intelligent public input on both sides of the argument, eventually, the majority of the Board determined they would move forward with an official letter in opposition to the ideas being proposed. The following day the letter was submitted to the legislative delegation, and they agreed to hold off on pushing forward with the idea at that time, and have workshops with the Board of County Commissioners to discuss it further. That’s where we are today. Time will tell, but It appears that some form of these three items will be put on the ballot at some point.

Now, we must think about what is best for us as citizens of Lee County related to these three items. If we focus on just one item, such as the single-member voting district, we have to weigh several things, as this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. If we were to have single-member voting districts, we would likely end up with a representative that is popular or well-liked in that region of the County and in theory, would be hyper-focused on their voters and their needs. That sounds like a winning situation until you realize you need 3 votes to go your way on the commission, and in cases like that, you realize you have no voice with the other commissioners. Ideally, all commissioners, regardless of single or countywide voting, would listen to you and represent you, but the reality is they don’t really have to meet with you or care about you and your vote. It is a double-edged sword.

The second idea adds two at-large seats to the Board of County Commissioners, going from the traditional five-member leadership team to seven. This adds two more elections to the ballot, on the surface, it appears to increase the size of government in terms of support staff and salaries for the additional Commissioners as well as the Commissioner’s salaries. The two sides of this are not as heavily debated, and they may be contingent on the single-member voting districts. It is unclear if this is attached to the single-member districts being adopted or if this is a stand-alone item being considered. If this made it to the ballot, and if it was adopted by the voters, ideally, we would essentially have two more voices on the board, and that could be advantageous to the citizenry as we would have a wider variety of opinions coming from two more officials. The other side of that is that it can make and feed a larger political machine in the area, possibly making it less effective and possibly creating two new revenue streams for local campaign firms. We, as the voting public, should continue to follow this and ensure we understand the implications of changing it or keeping it the way it is.

The third item being considered is allowing the voters to decide whether to stay with the appointed County Manager or make that an elected position as well known as the County Strong Mayor. Many knowledgeable local people have differing opinions on this and, again, very valid points on both sides. The different viewpoints include the idea that we would end with a County Mayor who is directly accountable to the voter. There would likely be some desire to elect the County Manager, the person who oversees the majority of the County’s business and services. Another part of this we must also consider is that if we were to move to an elected County Manager, we could end up with someone who can win a campaign but may not have the professional expertise to run the thousands of staff, hundreds if not thousands of projects, and essentially the day to day operations as well as the long term vision and culture of the County. Do we want to trade our board’s ability to recruit and appoint the most experienced business management professionals in the market? Or do we want a politician who can be removed at each election cycle? We should all do our homework and determine which of these scenarios impact us in both negative and positive ways.

This story will continue to play out over the next year and will likely end up in the next legislative session in Tallahassee. Please be sure to follow the story and see where this goes and how it helps or hurts us here in Lee County.

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