By: Matt Caldwell, Lee County Property Appraiser
The issue of single-member districts (SMD) has a 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 SMD were eliminated in cities, counties, and school boards following Reconstruction with the express purpose of disenfranchising voters. Considering that of all Lee County Commission races since 1980, the local districts have 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. 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. It works for them and it will work for our County Commission.
The County Mayor question is much simpler. Lee County government is organized in 6 parts, 5 of which are 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 that took executive power away from them. Once they make their appointments, they are forbidden from directing the actions of the executive branch. So, as Lee County approaches 1M full-time residents, should the 6th part of the county executive branch also be made directly accountable to the voters? To put that in perspective, Lee County is already larger than Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska, as well as the counties that are home to Nashville, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City!
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. 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, Commissioners opposed to change have made it clear that a nominee’s stance on these issues is a prerequisite for appointment; don’t look for Charter Review to do anything more than what it has accomplished since 1996: basically nothing.
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 legislators, claiming that these ideas are too “dangerous” for simple citizens to decide for themselves. They will cry “Home Rule!”, but what is the Lee County Legislative Delegation if not “home rule”? They live in Lee County, are elected by Lee County voters, and empowered by them to consider just such questions as these! It’s really just a kind of political NIMBYism that opposes allowing voters to even hear these questions.
The irony is that voters have actually 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” these upstart legislators politically; they know that if voters get a chance to weigh in, these changes will become a reality. When your opposition starts freaking out, it’s a strong sign that you are on the right course.
This debate is not new to the Legislative Delegation either; then Rep. Bruce Kyle brought forward bills to create SMD in 2003, but the bill was killed by opposition in the State Senate. Thankfully, this time five members of the 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 Legislative Delegation is meeting the morning of November 30 at the FSW Fort Myers Campus to take public testimony on these issues. But if you cannot make it, then contact your local Representative and Senator regarding your support of these issues. Visit www.leedelegation.com to find details of the meeting and contact information today!
ABOUT MATT CALDWELL
Matt Caldwell served as the State Representative for northeastern Lee County from 2010-2018, was the Republican nominee for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture in 2018, and was elected Lee County Property Appraiser in 2020.