County Mayor Heather Carruthers: On Single Member Districts
The Mayor’s Letter to the Editor:
There’s some talk right now about changing to single-member district (SMD) voting for Monroe County Commission seats. From my perspective, SMD elections would diminish voter representation and lead to legislative gridlock.
With SMD elections, you vote for one Commissioner every four years. In our current at-large elections, you get to vote for all five Commissioners every four years, and for at least 40% of the Commission every two years.
Suppose your SMD-elected Commissioner disagrees with you on a particular issue. Will other Commissioners (whom you didn’t elect) feel obligated to answer your calls? Constituents from all five districts find my door open, at least partly because they all helped elect me.
It takes three votes on the Board of County Commissioners to pass any legislation. With SMDs, that’s only one vote to count on for an issue important to your district alone. The County’s success with improvements from Card Sound Road in Key Largo to Higgs Beach in Key West and on state-level issues like the Mayfield Grant and the Florida Keys Stewardship Act are a result of at-large voting and the BOCC’s ability to work across district (and party) lines.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to campaign across districts that stretch more than 100 linear miles. But the campaign process is an opportunity to meet constituents outside of your district and learn about their issues. If you can’t campaign County-wide, how could you serve County-wide?
Some say the purpose of proposing SMDs is to encourage more people to run for office. I completely support that goal, but the real barrier is serving, not running. Being a County Commissioner requires many practical things, including a flexible schedule, accessibility and travel. It is difficult to manage a normal 40-hour workweek and effectively serve, and more difficult to support a family solely on a Commissioner’s salary.
We are a diverse, geographically dispersed County. With SMDs, that diversity could lead to division, creating legislative gridlock rather than governance that acknowledges our interdependence. Commissioners make decisions that impact the entire County. They should be directly accountable through elections to all its citizens.
Mayor Heather Carruthers
Commissioner, Monroe County District III
500 Whitehead Street, Suite 102
Key West, Florida 33040
Phone: (305) 292-3430
Fax: (305) 292-3466
Email: [email protected]
8 thoughts on “County Mayor Heather Carruthers: On Single Member Districts”
“Constituents from all five districts find my door open, at least partly because they all helped elect me.”
Nope. She slammed the door on District 5 when it came to sewer funding over and over again. She never gave a damn. And I’m sure she still doesn’t.
District 5 is better off with single-member districts because their current commissioner does not represent them effectively.
District 2 is better off with single-member districts because they did not elect their own commissioner in 2014.
District 3 is better off with single-member districts because their commissioner proposed a tax scheme that hurts working people already struggling to stay in the Keys.
As an Independent, I ran against County Commissioner George Neugent in 2006 and 2010, and against Heather in 2008. It is true, running for county commission is taxing, especially the long drives to Key Largo, where candidate forums include Key Largo’s local elections, fire district, sewer board, etc., as well as county commission, school board, mosquito board, state and national office seekers.
It’s not worth the time, road wear and car expense to drive all the way up there to one of those forums, only to be given a minute, or so, to introduce yourself, and then be asked one question, and then you have a minute to answer it. But you have to drive up there anyway, to get a feel for what is going on on Key Largo, and to get to know the people living up there. I made some darn good friends up there by doing that, tuned in friends. One is Sylvia Murphy.
From today’s Key West Citizen article on this topic:
“County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said changing to single member districts would be equivalent to voters giving up four-fifths of their vote. “That commissioner will answer to you and the other four will probably ignore you entirely because they are not depending on your vote,” Murphy said. “It makes the county very splintered and it leaves no one caring about what is good for the county. It’s probably the worst idea that I’ve heard in a long time.”
I agree with Sylvia. Using her simply to make her point generally, if she gets to vote on what she thinks is best for Key West, Cudjoe Key, Big Pine Key, Marathon, Long Key, Islamorada, etc., then people living in Key West, Long Key, Big Pine Key, Marathon, Islamorada, etc. should get to vote for her.
But for Sylvia, the County Commission very well might have let Roger Bernstein talk the county into actually, or de facto, annexing undeveloped Wisteria Island a few hundreds from Key West, and then letting Bernstein turn it into Sunset Key Deux.
Bernstein was trying to get Key West to provide parking, police and fire, water and sewer for his Wisteria development. In Key West, this was viewed by many as an attempt by Bernstein, and his field general Jim Hendrick, to do an end run around the part of the city’s charter, which required a referendum for Key West to annex or acquire real estate. Many viewed Bernstein as using the county to help Key West de facto annex Wisteria without referendum approval.
At a county commission meeting I attended in Marathon, Sylvia directed county staff to poll Key West City city government about Wisteria. It was thought back then by many in Key West that Heather was in Roger Bernstein’s pocket. However, she and Kim Wigington joined Sylvia in directing county staff to poll Key West. It was a 3-0 vote. The two men county commissioners, George Neugent and, I think, Mario di Gennaro, were out of town.
Sylvia then drove all the way down from Key Largo to Key West to attend a city commission meeting containing a specially-added Wisteria Island agenda instigated by Sylvia at the earlier county commission meeting. Sylvia was welcomed by the city mayor and city commissioners and invited to speak. She said she and the county government wanted to be good neighbors. She wanted to know how Key West felt about participating in the development of Wisteria Island? After she spoke, the mayor and city commissioners voted unanimously that the city wanted nothing to do with the development of Wisteria.
The next day in Key West was a county commission meeting with a Wisteria development item on the agenda. Bernstein withdrew the Wisteria development application before that meeting started, so the county commissioners could not vote on it.
Even after Bernstein lost in federal court trying to prove his family, not the U.S. Government, owns Wisteria, Bernstein continued try to sneak, disguised, a Wisteria development through the County Commission, and Sylvia remained poised like an osprey, which I have seen attack and drive off bald eagles, ready to strike.
Sylvia voted for Toppino’s 200-house development on Big Coppitt. She’s pro-development when it suits her. I wouldn’t read too much into that one long-ago gesture. It’s the overall track record that counts.
This is a subject that I have been working on for, sad to say, over 30 years:
At-Large voting is always discriminatory. Every time. Without fail. At every level.
The reason is not that the same problems are not confronted by the community at large. And it’s not because single districts don’t perpetuate division.
It’s neither, and it’s both. Because the point of view of different parts of the community are different. Always. And At-Large voting glosses over the different points of view. You may feel that we all have the same issues and vantage points, but if that were true, then single-member districts vs. At-Large would make no difference.
It’s the “group think” mentality and the “tyranny of the majority” attitude that might tell us that there is no difference in approach to problems. But there is. Always. And no one can understand how other people (especially minorities) might feel about things if they do not have a voice. At-Large voting takes away that voice. Studies confirm this. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 speaks directly to this.
At Large voting makes the majority dominate the minority, and takes away the minority voice that allows blacks and others (even women!) to voice their concerns, their perspective and not get glossed over by the vast majority.
It’s messier. Probably not as efficient. Sometimes contentious.
But it’s the only fair way.
P.S. Think about how we would feel if our Congresspersons were elected at large by Florida as a whole. Or by the entire American voters. It’s the same question, and the same answer.
You’ll notice that Carruthers devoted a paragraph or so to explaining why working people shouldn’t bother running. But one of the county’s biggest problems right now is affordability. The workforce can’t afford to stay.
Some of that has to do with the county’s policies. Carruthers herself proposed a new tax that would have provided a huge property tax break for large property owners (hotels, etc.). Low-moderate income locals would have picked up a lot of the slack. Her own district would have taken a big hit.
Thankfully the tax is dead for now. But I expect it to come back after the qualifying period is safely over. It’s very beneficial to certain BOCC members and their campaign donors.
Anyhow, this is one example of how a group that isn’t properly represented can easily get rolled over. Single-member districts help put a stop to that.
If you really want to level the playing field between the haves and have nots, then impose term limits: two 4-year terms, then you cannot run again, ever. End partisan primaries for county commission races and, like it’s done in Key West city races, if no one candidate gets over 50 percent of the votes, let the two candidates getting the most votes are in in a runoff. Ban all forms of paid campaigning by local candidates, political parties and PACS. Let local candidates present themselves for vetting by the local news media, bloggers, and at candidate forums. Screw the First Amendment right to waste money begging people to vote or you, who don’t know you or the horse you rode in on. the Florida Keys ain’t the mainland, as everyone living here knows all too well.
Republican County Commissioner George Neugent enraged a heap of his rural constituents over forced widespread use of grinder pumps in Cudjoe Regional Sewer District, and he still carried his district in 2014 against a poor working class Democrat woman political newcomer who snagged about 45 percent of the overall countywide votes. Could that be in play here?
Key Largo has long griped about Key West dominating county government politics. Could that be in play here?
Going back in time, Dixie Spehar didn’t hardly have two nickels to rub together, but she won a seat on the county commission, became county mayor. She and Sonny McCoy, both of Key West, and Mario di Gennaro, of Marathon, might still be on the county county commission if they, then known as the Gang of Three, had not voted for the county to buy the Hickory House Restaurant and Marina on Stock Island for big bucks from one of Dixie’s good friends, who laughed all the way to the bank. The upper Keys voted strongly against Dixie and Sonny in the 2008 election, and strongly against Mario in the 2010 election.
There are 5 county commission districts. Key West has two of those districts. It just needs one more district commissioner up the way to give it a voting majority on the county commission. Most of the working people living in the lower keys commission district work in Key West. That district’s commissioner George Neugent is in, what?, his 5th, or 6th term? He lives in Marathon, but most of his district is below Seven Mile Bridge. After he retires or is beaten in a race by someone living, say, on Big Pine Key, or Cudjoe Key, or Sugarloaf Key, will there then form a Key West voting block of three district commissioners? A new “gang of three?”
Won’t the people in the middle and upper keys want to be able to vote in those three district commission races?, Key Largo’s county commissioner, Sylvia Murphy, asked me when I called her this morning.
Well, my concern really is more about waste and possible (probable?) corruption. Who pays? Who benefits? These issues affect all Keys residents and all Keys taxpayers. I suppose that ties into the “have” and “have not” thing though.
George Neugent lost his district in the 2014 primary. Under a single-member district system, Danny Coll would have gone on to the general election to face Eleanor McAdams.
Neugent won the primary because he had overwhelming support from Districts 4 and 5. If you are sympathetic to the folks in the Cudjoe Regional area (District 2) then your stance against single-member districts is confusing. They, more than anyone, would have benefited from SMD’s.
Strangely enough, Murphy actually has carried her own district. That’s partially due to timing. The extent of the wastewater funding issues were only starting to become clear in 2011/2012. It took a while to verify the numbers, determine the county’s position, and get the word out to the public. We’ll see what happens now that the cat is out of the bag.
Key West, in my opinion, does not control the elections – at least not to the extent that people think. The BOCC always tries to make Key West the “bogey man”, but I don’t buy it. Carruthers’s tax proposal is hell on most Key West locals. It is also another example of why single-member districts are so necessary. I’m stunned that she had the chutzpah to suggest it in an election year. I think that is a measure of the security that the BOCC enjoys under the current system.
Being able to cast a vote doesn’t mean you have any influence. After all, the “gang of three” occurred under the current system. Murphy undermines her own position by making that argument. One could argue that the “gang of three” was possible only because of the current system.
There are a multitude of issues with county government. Single-member districts aren’t going to solve all problems. But they do have the potential enhance accountability.
Quick follow up: I checked the numbers. The “Gang of Three” actually would have been prevented by single-member districts. In 2000, Spehar and McCoy both lost their own districts in the general election. Precinct by precinct numbers are available at the supervisor of elections web site.
Perhaps Carruthers and Murphy are feeling the heat from their own districts these days and that’s why they’re so opposed. If so, then good! It’s about dang time.
As for SMD’s putting Key West in charge, ask yourself who’s really in charge now? Who benefits from the massive overspending on county capital projects? Certainly not Key West. Did that extra $49 million from Cudjoe Regional go to Key West? How about that extra $5 million on Bernstein Park?
Nope. It all goes to the contractors and subcontractors – some of whom are friends, neighbors and bubbas. Toppino is the prime example. Why did FKAA feel compelled to lie about his $9.5 million subcontract on Cudjoe Regional? Why did they try to bury the original Big Coppitt bid document that shows the rebid netted Toppino an extra $6 million? The BOCC is responsible for overseeing these projects. They are supposed to be the watch dog. They can’t say they don’t know because it’s their business to know. The truth is the BOCC enables this crap. They’re cool with all of it. And yeah, that includes Sylvia.
For the record, I think the “Gang of Three” rhetoric is nothing more than character assassination. Those three commissioners happened to express concern over the cost of FKAA’s wastewater projects back in the day. Then all of a sudden they became public enemy number one? Hmmmm….look what’s happened since. The FKAA/BOCC “partnership” totally soaked the taxpayers from one end of the Keys to the other.