Carruthers and Single Member Districts

carruthers campaign poster

Good campaign poster, right?

I wasn’t going to post about this because I already discussed Murphy’s very similar comments here.  But dammit, I just can’t help myself.  Carruthers wrote a letter regarding single-member districts.  She opposes them, of course.

The letter epitomizes the empty, dishonest rhetoric habitually spouted by the county commissioners and certain upper level staff.  It’s full of the same baseless, self-congratulatory, ego-inflating garbage contained in most county documents.  Every single communication is like a promotional brochure for a sleazy pyramid scheme.

I’m going to re-print Carruthers’s letter here and take it apart piece by piece.  I expect the same arguments to be repeated over and over again.  As baseless as those arguments may be they become “conventional wisdom” if not vigorously, immediately and repeatedly challenged.

The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is like an old car.  It may get you from Point A to Point B, but it smokes and stinks, makes a lot of noise, burns through a ton of gas, and never quite gets up to speed.  It’s costly and inefficient.  It’s hell on your wallet and on the environment.  Despite your best efforts to control it, it often pulls itself off into a ditch because of its crummy steering mechanism.  You’d be wise to trade it in for a more efficient (less stinky) model.  But change, even positive change, is scary.

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.

Let’s take a real-life example to see if things actually work out this way.  That brings me to my favorite subject – the wastewater funding disparity.  This is a major pocketbook issue for the Key Largo area.  It also epitomizes the dysfunctional nature of Monroe County government in a big way.

Here are the relevant facts:

  • The Key Largo wastewater project serves about half the EDU’s (equivalent to a single family home) in the unincorporated area.
  • Key Largo citizens pay all the same taxes as any other citizen in the unincorporated area.
  • Monroe County provided over $100 million more to the projects in the other unincorporated areas combined than they did to the Key Largo area.
  • As a result, Key Largo citizens will pay $26 million more for their sewer project.
  • The BOCC has been aware of this situation for years, but has refused to address it in a timely, fair and effective manner.  (The shaky swap agreement is one small step in the right direction.)

Obviously, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District) strenuously objected to this horrendous treatment of its ratepayers.

Unfortunately, Key Largo’s county commissioner, Sylvia Murphy, disagrees.  She is completely unconcerned about the situation.  She has said that she is happy with her assessment and her sewer bill so her constituents should be as well.  Murphy has made it abundantly clear that this issue is unworthy of her time and attention.  More recently, she has resorted to actually lying about it.

As Carruthers has suggested, the District approached the other four commissioners.  None, with the exception of Neugent, even pretended to give a crap.  Carruthers claims that Key Largo has received such an enormous benefit from the infrastructure sales tax that the wastewater funding disparity is justified.  Her claims, as usual, are not supported by the facts.

Basically, folks in Key Largo have zero influence on the BOCC.  Their votes count for nothing.  Frankly, that is true of all the districts.  That fact was made abundantly clear to the folks in District 2 after the 2014 primary.

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.

I would love to know how Carruthers defines “success”.  Monroe County has an abysmal track record when it comes to capital projects.  Not only is Cudjoe Regional $49 million over budget, but the county actually treats its own taxpayers in the area as an “enemy” to be defeated.  It’s a horrible situation.  Even their “partner”, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA), acknowledges that Cudjoe Regional is a failure.  This is just one example of a project completely out-of-control.  There are many, many more.

The Keys has managed to secure state and federal funding.  However, the county has maneuvered behind the scenes to damage the other entities.  In one case, the county’s clumsy schemes actually jeopardized federal funding for everyone.  Here is another example at the state level.  In reality, the Keys’ success has come about in spite of, not because of, the BOCC.  Rep. Raschein and her team deserve an awful lot of the credit for recent successes, such as the second $50 million from the Mayfield Grant and the Florida Keys Stewardship Act.

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.

This, I believe, is another example of Carruthers’s contempt for working people in the Keys.  Here, she is basically implying they are not fit to run for county commission.  I’ll agree that working full time and serving on the county commission would be challenging, but it is not impossible.

Carruthers is wrong to discourage working people from running.  Many of the issues facing Monroe County today, have an outsized impact on the local workforce – from the wastewater funding disparity to affordable housing to the Emergency Services Surtax proposal.

I can tell you unequivocally that I have tried to educate Carruthers on Key Largo’s issues.  She arrived with preconceived notions and was prepped with counter-arguments at the outset.  She is “educated” by staff, not by her constituents.  She uncritically repeats the iPhone Bandit’s talking points.  Basically, the at-large system, gives staff a lot of power.  I don’t remember the iPhone Bandit being on the ballot, do you?

I definitely was left with the impression that Carruthers finds Key Largo’s issues, no matter how serious they may be, to be a trivial annoyance.  Something to be ignored and papered over with glib excuses.

Ideally, with single-member districts, each commissioner will have a good handle on the issues affecting their own constituents.  And they will educate the other commissioners through open discussion at public meetings.  Key Largo’s current situation is a worst-case scenario in that its commissioner does not care about significant issues affecting her own district.  The folks in much of the unincorporated Lower Keys are represented by a commissioner they did not elect – another worst-case scenario.  This is complete dysfunction.

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.

There is already division and grid-lock.  In fact, certain commissioners actively encourage division and gridlock by spreading misinformation.  Why has it taken over ten years to even start to address the wastewater funding disparity?  Why was taxpayer money recklessly squandered in one half of the county, while the other half was unfairly compelled to dig deep into their own pockets?  If that isn’t division and grid-lock, then what is?

By its own actions, the BOCC has very clearly demonstrated that there is zero accountability under the current system.  It’s way past time to try something new.

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2 Responses to Carruthers and Single Member Districts

  1. John Miller says:

    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.

    John Miller
    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.


    • M_Blank says:

      Definitely agree people just are not being heard. You’ll notice that Carruthers was trying to discourage working people from running for the BOCC in her letter. That’s definitely a segment of the population that’s left out of BOCC decision making. I don’t believe the BOCC is actually efficient. They make decisions very quickly with very little substantive discussion. They often march in lockstep. I would love to see some debate. Not because I like to see people fight but because at least they’d be trying to cover all the bases. Well more of them anyway.


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