Citywide commission voting is a good idea

By Times editorial
Published May 11, 2007

A citizens group reviewing the Dade City municipal government charter wants to ensure the City Commission doesn't resemble a downtown neighborhood block party.

The group's recommendations include a plan to turn the commission's five at-large seats into five, single-member districts, representatives of which also would be elected citywide.

It parrots the district rules used by the Pasco County Commission and the Pasco School Board, which ensures universal geographic representation, but holds each member accountable to a countywide electorate.

The model has worked efficiently on the county level and the citizens group is smart to open the public debate in Dade City. Voters would have the final say.

In the past, we have resisted moves toward single-member districts that were motivated by political considerations. St. Leo floated the idea as an attempt to dilute the influence of new residents in the Lake Jovita development and twice citizen groups talked of expanding the County Commission to seven members in order to bolster the chance at increasing representation from east or central Pasco. None of those attempts advanced beyond the talking stage.

But the plan in Dade City is not driven by politics nor pushed by people with an ax to grind. The charter review committee is comprised of highly regarded volunteers including a retired circuit court judge and the head of East Pasco's Habitat for Humanity. They want to ensure none of the city's neighborhoods are disenfranchised by a perceived lack of representation. Currently, the five commission members live within 1.5 miles of each other and two reside on the same street.

Voters rejected a charter change in 1990, but the plan then called for three single-member districts and two at-large seats. It was designed to try to increase the opportunity for minority representation on the commission which had five white members at the time.

That is not the dominant issue at this time. Eunice Penix, the fourth African-American to serve on the commission, has served nearly 14 years since she her appointment to a vacancy in 1993. The 2000 Census reported a quarter of the city's population is African-American and nearly 16 percent is Hispanic.

Still, making sure all neighborhoods - not just those close to downtown - are well represented on the commission is a sound idea. Electing all seats citywide diminishes the opportunities for vote swapping.

The proposal is worthy of a public dialogue and commissioners shouldn't be resistant to asking voters for their input on a future ballot.