Making The Case For A Better Lee County

By: Matt Caldwell

Two questions have repeatedly come up in recent political discussion around the county: should the Lee County Commission have single-member districts, and should Lee County have an elected Mayor?

The issue of single-member districts (SMD) has over a century long history in Florida.  Most voters moving to Lee County are shocked to learn that currently everyone votes for their district County Commissioner, even if they do not live in that district.  Litigated repeatedly, the courts have established that following Reconstruction SMD’s were maliciously eliminated in cities, counties, and school boards with the express purpose of disenfranchising voters.  Considering that since 1980, the local district in Lee County Commission races has been denied their choice about 40% of the time, it is easy to see how this system does just that.  Lee County is radically out of the mainstream, as the seven counties larger than ours in Florida all have embraced reforms to their county structure, including SMD.  In fact, from Marco Island to Clearwater, we are one of only two counties to not have SMD county commissions and over 2/3 of all Florida voters live in a SMD county today.  Representatives being chosen only by the voters from the district where they live is how we elect the State House, State Senate, and US Congress.  Why would we not embrace that process for our county legislature? The proposal being discussed most seriously would move Lee County to a 5 single-member/2 at-large board where the Chair would be selected from the at-large members, ensuring the Board was still led with a countywide perspective, but requiring a majority of the local district representatives in order to enact any changes to policies and taxes.

The County Mayor question is much simpler.  Lee County government is organized in 6 parts, 5 of which are already led by an elected executive officer (Sheriff, Tax Collector, Property Appraiser, Clerk/Comptroller, and Supervisor of Elections).  The 6th part (roads, parks, trash, water/sewer, etc.) is overseen by an executive manager, appointed by the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC).  Many people mistakenly believe that we still have a traditional model for the BoCC, wherein the Board exercises both legislative and executive authority, but after repeated scandals, the voters in 1996 adopted the Lee County Charter and took executive power away from them.  Once the Board makes their appointments, they are forbidden from directing the actions of the executive branch.  So, as Lee County approaches 1,000,000 full-time residents, shouldn’t the 6th part of the county executive branch also be made directly accountable to the voters?  To put that in perspective, Lee County in 2024 is already larger than Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska, as well as the counties that are home to Nashville, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City!  It is undeniable that great value can be found in appointing professionally trained staff to organize the executive branch of our governments, but that cannot overwhelm the need to have our executive branches also be politically accountable to the taxpayers.  Would we let the Legislature appoint the Governor? Or let Congress appoint the President?  A system wherein the executive is elected by the voters, then nominates the senior staff for confirmation by the BoCC is one that seamlessly blends the demands for professionalism and political accountability.

Some opponents to these reforms will point to the fact that the Lee County Charter Review has repeatedly not presented these questions to the voters.  Bluntly, the Lee County Charter Review process has failed.  It is the weakest structure of all Florida charters, with all members being appointed only by the BoCC, and is often presented around the State as exactly what not to do when creating a charter.  It has met five times in 28 years, and after debating these questions every time, nothing has been sent to the voters.  In fact, I served on the 2006-08 cycle, and despite having 10 of 15 members reject the status quo of a 5 at-large BoCC, they failed to propose an alternative, partly due to BoCC interference.  Today, whether they want to admit it or not, an appointee’s stance on these issues is a prerequisite for appointment; don’t look for Charter Review to be anything more than what it has been since 1996: an empty echo chamber.

Ultimately, you may decide that you differ from me in seeing the wisdom in these reforms.  But does that mean that you and your neighbors should never even have the chance to voice your opinion?  That is what the opposition to these ideas is demanding of your commissioners and legislators, claiming that these ideas are too “dangerous” for simple citizens like you and me to decide for ourselves.  The irony is that voters have already had their say on these two questions when it came to the Lee County School Board.  Voters approved moving to a 5 single-member/2 at-large board in 2014, by a vote of 55%-45%.  Then they voted in 2022 to bring back an elected superintendent (executive) by a vote of 62%-38%!  This is exactly why the opposition is so frightened, that it has even led some of them to threaten to “punish” commissioners and legislators who dare to “step out of line”; they know that if voters get a chance to weigh in, these changes will become a reality.  When your opposition starts freaking out, you must be on the right course.

Thankfully, a clear majority of the Lee County Legislative Delegation have already publicly stated that the voters should have their say, but they are still under enormous pressure from the opposition.  That is why you need to act!  The delegation is considering holding town halls around Lee County and your participation will be critical to overcoming the pressure from the powerful minority trying to hold back the inevitable.  Share; participate; speak out! Lee County has a bright future, and it can only be made brighter by making our government more accountable to the people it serves. We deserve the opportunity to do just that.


Matt Caldwell was elected Lee County Property Appraiser in 2020.  He was the Republican nominee for Florida Senate District 27 in 2008, was elected as State Representative for portions of Lee County from 2010-2018, and was the Republican nominee for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture in 2018.

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