Proposed legislation that would change Lee County’s governmental structure to one with an elected county mayor and establish single-member districts was discussed during the county’s Legislative Delegation meeting Thursday at Florida SouthWestern State College.
The meeting followed a special meeting Wednesday where county commissioners approved a resolution in a 3-2 vote, opposing the two proposed bills.
Citing an anticipated $3 million cost to facilitate the proposed new services, Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass called the special meeting and was the first to make a motion for a resolution.
Commissioners Brian Hamman and Kevin Ruane dissented, citing the rights of voters and prioritizing recovery after Hurricane Ian. Ruane also suggested a workshop between commissioners and the delegation to discuss the two proposed bills and how to move forward.
Currently, commissioner seats are voted on in at-large elections. The bill sponsored by state Rep. Adam Botana would establish single-member districts, in which only the chair of the board and mayor would be elected on a county-wide basis.
Lee County NAACP Chair of Economic Development Mike Love voiced his support for single-member districts to the delegation. “A single-member district is about electing a candidate of your own choosing,” he said. “If I live in Lehigh Acres, why is someone in Sanibel choosing my commissioner?”
Other residents like Marsha Ellis took issue with the manner in which a governmental structure change was presented.
“I am concerned about legislative overreach and matters of local-home rule, community development and zoning,” she said. “Therefore, I believe that should be taken to the charter. However, the charter needs to be reformed.”
Ellis addressed the way the charter is set up, currently with appointees made by commissioners. “It doesn’t represent a diverse cross section of the county and that is also a problem,” she said.
Opposers of the bill echoed the sentiment of following the county’s home-rule charter, which county voters approved in 1996.
Amanda Cochran said that while the pathway for the matter was not ideal, sometimes the ends justify the means. “My understanding is this issue has come before the local charter review members every time they have met for the past almost 30 years, and yet it has never managed to make it to us,” she said. “After all that repeated discussion through the years at that level, why not give us the opportunity to decide on the ballot?”
The rights of voters also were addressed by state Rep. Mike Giallombardo, who said it’s only right to ask the voters if they want to change the structure of their county government.
With such a drastic change to the makeup of the county, the proposed legislation is an attempt to reassess where county residents stand on decisions that were made decades ago.
“While our current structure and a lot of the decisions that we have made and legacy decisions that we have made over the last 30, 40, 50 years, it worked when we had literal cow fields in between cities and towns, but we are not that community anymore,” state Rep. Tiffany Esposito said.
Along with single-member districts, a proposed bill introduced by Giallombardo would shift the executive responsibilities from the five commissioners and an appointed county manager, who works at the direction of the board, to a single elected mayor.
Lee County Charter Review Commission member Andrew Sund supports the proposal, rejecting the idea that too much power would be in the hands of a single person.
“It’s the structure that we use from every level of government, from the President of United States to the governor and even here in our county with our elected constitutionals,” he said. “For those who are concerned with the power that can be held by that chief executive, I would charge you to read statute and look at the things that we allow the governor to do and look at the things that we allow these other constitutional officers to do.”
Giallombardo reminded residents the proposal would be referendum on the ballot.
More discussion on the proposed legislation will take place at workshops with commissioners planned for the near future. County Chair Mike Greenwell said more understanding will be gained on which direction to go in through the workshops but remains opposed to the proposed changes.
“I see their side of it. I want them to see our side of it and try to come to consensus,” Greenwell said. “We have to always remember when we come to these meetings, we have a few, we don’t have the whole community. We’re looking at a small portion of what goes on in the county when we come to these things and the people that are against always show up. The people that are for, do not. So, we always have to keep that in perspective.”