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At-Large Ignorance

Al Jones strode to the microphone at Hollywood City Hall last week to address a proposal that could revolutionize politics in Broward County. The teacher and former Dania city commissioner was attending a town hall meeting called by the county commission to discuss next month's seemingly arcane referendum question: Should commissioners be selected only by the voters in their local district?

Jones, a black man, spoke passionately about how the new system could perhaps increase the number of minority members on the commission -- from none to some -- in a county where the nonwhite population is growing fast and may someday actually outnumber the white population. Despite the high stakes, his words echoed off mostly empty seats in the large hall.

There were just 17 people present, and that's counting the two commissioners running the meeting. Slightly embarrassed at the small turnout, Commissioner Suzanne Gunzberger brought the meeting to a quick close after only one other person rose to testify.

Perhaps more surprising than the near-empty room was Jones' wishy-washy conclusion. The nonbinding straw ballot will offer voters three options. Jones said he would support one of them, though he didn't yet know which one. But the three offer starkly different forms of government. The first option is continuing the current system in which all voters pick all seven commissioners, commonly known as at-large voting. The second is having all commissioners elected from single-member districts. The third is electing most commissioners from single-member districts, with a few selected at-large. Jones, despite his political experience, didn't fully understand the choices.

While he's unusual in his interest in the issue, he's hardly alone in his confusion. Jim Kane, a Davie-based pollster who publishes Florida Voter, a nonpartisan opinion survey, chuckles when asked about the straw ballot. "Elected officials expect way too much from the public on policy-type issues," he says. Voters should be asked in general about whether they want single-member districts, but the specific details are beyond the average voter's ken, he argues. "I don't think people are sitting around the lunch counter saying, 'Let's talk about single-member districts today.'"

Oh, but they were at Betty's Restaurant and Barbecue, a bustling soul food spot in the heart of Fort Lauderdale's black belt. Not that they really wanted to, but because a New Times reporter shoved a copy of the straw ballot between them and their oxtail stew and asked them about it. Proponents of single-member districting say blacks have the most to gain from this change, so their support could be key. Most of the lunchtime diners, however, were having a hard time understanding the referendum until it was explained, after which they generally favored one of the two single-member districting alternatives. "I'm a legal secretary, and I had to read it twice," says Jacquie Shaw. Her companion, Nathaniel Smalley, Sr., believes most people he knows won't understand it, but he strongly supports the proposed changes. "Someone who lives here understands our needs better," he says. "You don't want someone from Weston representing Sistrunk."

County commission chairwoman Ilene Lieberman insists that voters will understand and that their choice will guide the commission in putting a binding referendum before the voters next year. But if voters don't comprehend it, as state representative Josephus Eggelletion (D-Lauderdale Lakes) predicts, the results will be meaningless, particularly because next month's turnout may well be less than 20 percent of registered voters. Eggelletion angrily accuses the commissioners and other white Broward Democrats of using the straw ballot as a delaying tactic to block greater minority representation and hold on to power.

Similar arguments about single-member districts have raged in Broward for more than a decade. A hybrid version, similar to the third option on next month's referendum, was finally adopted for the Broward County school board in 1997. The rationale is that members elected from single districts are more directly accountable to voters in that district. It theoretically costs less money to campaign, so more candidates can make a run. And if some districts are drawn to include heavy minority populations, minority candidates have a better chance of winning. The county commission steadfastly resisted this reform until November, when the election of Commissioner Kristin Jacobs tilted the majority 4-3 in favor. While many Broward politicians now say they favor some form of this system, there's bitter conflict over which plan to adopt and how soon.

Last month, after a heated three-hour debate, the Broward state legislative delegation voted 12-4, over the objections of Lieberman, to support a bill by Sen. Jim Scott (R-Fort Lauderdale) to place a binding referendum on the primary ballot next March. It would ask voters if they want a system of single-member districting with no at-large seats. The catch is that voters would also be asked to support establishment of a powerful elected mayor position, like Jacksonville and Miami-Dade have. Those who want single-member districts would have to take a strong mayor as well. That bothers advocates of single-member districts like Eggelletion, who fears a strong mayor but is willing to go along with it to change the way commissioners are picked.

Behind the rhetoric about the public's will is a raw battle for political control. Blacks and Republicans, both groups out of power in a county controlled by white Democrats, are uncomfortably allied in a bid for greater clout. Many blacks, still miffed about the upset last November of the sole black commissioner, Sylvia Poitier, believe they need commissioners more directly answerable to them -- preferably black -- to get their fair share of county jobs, contracts, and services. "We want the best chance for minorities," says Senator Scott, who, contrary to widespread speculation, denies that he's thinking of running for his proposed county mayor position. Scott must leave his senate seat because of term limits next year.

A powerful undercurrent is personal political survival. Lieberman lives in Tamarac and under Scott's bill would have to run in 2000 in the heavily black central district. She likely would face a black challenger, possibly Eggelletion, who also must leave the legislature because of term limits next year. Already in campaign mode, the combative Lieberman touts her record of supporting black economic development and insists she could hold her own against a black opponent. Sidney Calloway, immediate past president of the T.J. Reddick Bar Association, a black lawyers' group, agrees that Lieberman's been a forceful equal-opportunity advocate. Still, he says, blacks often get shortchanged because Lieberman and other commissioners must answer to more powerful groups in an at-large system.

Eggelletion, an eloquent speaker and natty dresser who works as an administrator in the Broward school district's diversity office, puts it in pure race terms. "We have a right to be represented by people who look like us, talk like us, and think like us," he says. "Why should we settle for less?" But Eggelletion testily denies that his stance is tied to a personal interest in running for a commission seat.

The action to watch now is the effort by white Broward Democrats to amend Scott's bill to add a few at-large seats to the single-member district plan. The powerful condo voting bloc wants some at-large seats to maintain its hold over the full commission. Scott and Eggelletion reject that concession as an attempt to dilute minority power. Some also may push to separate the questions of single-member districts and the new mayor position. Pollster Kane says combining the issues could jeopardize voter approval of single-member districts, because the strong mayor idea is not nearly as popular as the commission change.

High principles are involved in this battle. But don't let the soaring rhetoric fool you. Like everyone else Al Jones, who spoke so movingly at the Hollywood town meeting, has a personal stake in the creation of single-member districts. "I certainly would look at running," he says.

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address:
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Harris Meyer

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