A citizens group, SMART Districts for the Florida Keys, has proposed a solution to inefficient and corrupt Monroe County government. The idea is to replace the current “at large” districts with single member districts. Under the current system, county commissioners must live in their district, but are elected by voters county-wide. With single member districts, county commissioners would be elected only by the voters in the district which they represent. This would ensure that each district has control over who represents them. I’ve talked a little about the idea here and here.
The idea of single member districts has been endorsed by the Key West Citizen. The editorial raises a point that I would like to discuss.
Not only have a number of officials been elected without winning their own districts, it means that the population center of the Keys, which is Key West, essentially controls the elections.
I disagree with the statement that Key West controls the elections. It is more complicated than that. I know that is the conventional wisdom, and I’m sure it was absolutely true at one time. Let’s take a look at some recent numbers I found at the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections website. This is a precinct-by-precinct report that provides the number of voters, their registration status, and party affiliation.
Key West occupies all of District 3 and part of District 1. District 1 also includes Stock Island and Key Haven. These are unincorporated areas, and their interests do not always align with the incorporated area of Key West. Stock Island and Key Haven occupy precincts 1 and 11, and constitute about half the voters in District 1.
Districts 4 and 5 share some significant characteristics. For one thing, they lean Republican. For another, they are outsiders to Monroe County politics. These areas were short-changed when it came to county sewer funding, including the unincorporated area of Key Largo. It’s worth noting that because of its size, productivity and status as an unincorporated area, Key Largo is almost as economically significant to Monroe County as Key West. Unfortunately, Key Largo’s economy has taken a hit because of the BOCC’s poor governance.
District 4 consists primarily of Marathon and Islamorada. District 5 consists primarily of Key Largo. These three entities have worked together very closely to successfully secure state and federal funding. If they chose to combine forces, they could become very influential in county politics. They’ve got the numbers.
Let’s say that Key West consists of Districts 1 and 3. According to the figures I’m looking at, that means there are 18,571 registered voters in those two districts. If the unincorporated areas of District 1 are excluded there are only 14,571 registered voters in Key West. That fact might be significant when it comes to county-wide ballot issues. There are 22,810 registered voters in Districts 4 and 5; and 11,572 in District 2.
District 2 has more in common with Districts 4 and 5 than it does with Districts 1 and 3. It is an unincorporated area that skews Republican. In fact, the county commissioner that currently represents District 2 did not win his own district in the last Republican primary. He won because of Districts 4 and 5.
When it comes to the issue of single member districts, Districts 2, 4 and 5 have the most to gain. Not only that, they have a combined total of 34,872 registered voters – about two-thirds of the total. If those three areas recognize the advantages, then single-member districts stand a very good chance of passing whether Key West is on board or not.
I also disagree with this statement to a certain extent.
It also means the city giving up some of its hold on county-wide elections and issues.
The big issue over the past decade has been wastewater. Key West has seen very little benefit from that. Perhaps, the city is advantaged in some minor ways. The fuel tax split is somewhat advantageous, and the county is paying for the Higgs Beach project. But these are not big ticket items.
I actually think that Key West has a lot more to gain from single-member districts than it has to lose. Let’s face it, every taxpayer in Monroe County has suffered because of the irresponsible handling of the wastewater projects. Your average taxpayer doesn’t benefit from the extravagant spending on the Cudjoe Regional project or from the grossly unfair funding inequity suffered by Key Largo. Even the taxpayers in Cudjoe Regional, who on paper would seem to benefit, are unhappy. I’m sure somebody benefits, but it’s certainly not your typical worker bee in Key West.
It is the District 1 and 3 commissioners (Kolhage and Carruthers) who pushed for the outlandish spending increases on Cudjoe Regional, which is located in District 2. The District 2 commissioner (Neugent) attempted to control spending. So the question is, who’s really looking out for Key West on the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC)? How can squandering excessive amounts of tax money in District 2 possibly help Districts 1 and 3?
I should also point out that if the county continues with it’s grossly unfair funding practices, than Key Largo will incorporate. It’s only a matter of time. If Key Largo incorporates, Key West will see a significant drop in revenue. Key West clearly would not benefit in that scenario. If single-member districts result in fair, responsible county government that may forestall incorporation.**
The reality is that the current system doesn’t work for anybody, including Key West. Unless something changes, conditions will only get worse. Single member districts have the potential to bring about positive change for all taxpayers in the Keys.
**In my personal opinion, Key Largo should incorporate no matter what. It’s the only way to ensure that Key Largo will receive a fair share of certain revenues. But I know that a lot of folks in Key Largo are hesitant to take that step. Single-member districts combined with incorporation would be a home run.
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