Thursday, March 08, 2007
A Simple Matter of Black and White
“A Modest Proposal”
By Richard E. Noble
[This is another episode from a local county commission meeting here in Franklin County. I thought this to be important to the world at large because of the racial issue as it concerns democracy at the grass roots level. This, of course, is another product from your novice journalism student, R.E. Noble.]
Richard Harper – Concerned Citizens of Franklin County Inc.
“My name is Richard Harper and I am here this morning to represent the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County Inc. I’m sure that you have seen some of our ads in the local paper … We already have over a hundred a sixty members and are excited about having the human resources to help the Commission study how the budget works – or doesn’t work as some would say and how each department spends tax dollars. Our early focus was going to be on property tax relief and county spending. But we have been asked by many, many Franklin County citizens about what the Commission intends to do concerning “at large” voting. It is not an issue that we intend to bring before you at this time but it seems to be on everyone’s mind. As you know 69% of the voters want this changed ... It has been almost three months since the election in November last year when you elected to put this question on the ballot … You put it on the ballot to find out what the people wanted you to do – now you know what they want you to do. We have heard rumors about your plans. What we have heard is that the Board intends to take no action. We ask that you schedule a public hearing for March 20th and take action on that date. Chairman Crofton we ask that you schedule this meeting at this time.”
“A public hearing?” offered Mr. Crofton. “I think that there ought to be a little more education of the citizens on what the entire impact on this would be – and the legal aspects. I would be in favor of a public workshop to educate everyone and then proceed from that point. I could do that.”
“I want to get our lawyer’s opinion on this,” said Mr. Lockley.
“Commissioner there is a federal injunction that prohibits us from going to “at large” voting at this time. There has been an order that has released us to redistrict but it did not release us to go back to at large voting. So that is the legal opinion. We are prohibited by law.”
“So Mr. Shuler,” asked Mr. Harper, “we are still under that 1986 court order?”
The discussion then turned to a more recent court order. Mr. Harper was of the opinion that the recent order had relieved the County of its Federal obligations. Attorney Shuler disagreed.
“I am the lawyer that attained that court order, Mr. Harper and I think that I am in the best position to know what it means and what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we have been released to go back to at large voting. It does not mean that. If you disagree, there is a forum in Tallahassee and we can go see Judge Stafford in Tallahassee and see if he agrees with your opinion. However it is my opinion that the County is still subject to the at large injunction.”
Mr. Harper then submitted to the Board a copy of an order vacating the injunction which he and his group interpreted as permission from the court to release the County from the federal mandate against at large voting. Mr. Shuler disagreed explaining that the order was ambiguous and could be misinterpreted by those not familiar with legal terminology. Mr. Harper then asked the Board and the audience to put aside Mr. Shuler’s legal expertise along with his opinion and read the order vacating the injunction themselves and see what they felt that it said.”
“If you disagree with my interpretation,” said Mr. Shuler. “You have relief. You can go to the judge yourself and ask him that question. Go to the source.”
Mr. Harper was not content with Mr. Shuler recommendation and persisted in his desire to make his opinion public knowledge. Mr. Lockley then advised the Board to accept the County Attorney’s advice that the issue not be addressed and that Mr. Harper seek enlightenment at the source - and go to the judge who wrote the court order.
“All that order says,” explained Mr. Shuler, “is that we can redistrict now or redistrict later and we don’t have to go back to the court. It does not mean that we have been released from the at large issue. I know that one lawyer that you (Mr. Harper) talked to is not even licensed in the state of Florida and he told you that it did not mean, in his opinion, that you have been released from at large. He also said that it was overly broad …”
“He did not tell me that!” stated Mr. Harper. “I don’t know where you got that.”
“I got it from his mouth to my ear,” said Mr. Shuler.
“I’m not a lawyer but I can read. I see what the judge wrote and you have to assume that is what the judge meant.”
Ms. Sanders then stated that she was also present when the decision under discussion was rendered and “not once was at large even mentioned”.
“That is exactly right,” emphasized Attorney Shuler. “And my whole point is that the court is not going to provide relief that it is not asked for. I think that it would be astoundingly irresponsible to say that the judge gave us relief that was not asked for.”
“Well, it says what it says,” argued Mr. Harper.
“What I am saying is when you go to court there is a thing called due process. Part of that is that you clarify the issues before the court by filing pleas and motions. That way the court and all the parties know what issues are being argued. The judge then renders opinions and judgments that are based on the issues as they are framed in the pleas. In the 2003 case the exclusive issue was a redistricting plan and a release from the injunction to implement the redistricting plan. There was never a moment’s thought – not the first word; not even the first bit of evidence on at large voting. The County did not ask to be released from the at large injunction ... My recommendation is that the Board take my legal advise and if they (Concerned Citizens) think that I am wrong then the burden is on them to go to the court. I recommend that you do not ask me to seek a verification of the court’s order and accept the interpretation that I have given you. And if they disagree with that, they have a remedy.”
An argument then ensued with Mr. Harper claiming that his view represented the opinion of 70% of the voters of Franklin County. Mr. Shuler then pointed out that the 70% figure that Mr. Harper was quoting merely represented the number who voted in the November election and in actuality barely represented a third of the registered voters of Franklin County - all of which would be moot in relation to a valid Federal Injunction which takes into consideration the rights of the majority and the minority when it is rendered. The Supreme Court has also rendered several opinions on this issue, the most prominent of which was Baker v Carr in 1964 which set the priorities for our present required districting. A decision which Chief Justice Warren said was the biggest decision of his career.
There were other people in the audience who wanted to comment and they began to speak out from their seats.
“If I start taking public comments on this, it will turn into a public fiasco,” suggested Mr. Crofton.
“Mr. Crofton,” interrupted Ms. Sanders. “I would like to hear some of the public. I think we need to hear from the public. And if it takes all day, it takes all day because this is an important issue.”
“Allen Feifer, president of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County. It is important to talk about the five hundred pound gorilla that is in the room at the moment. There is a conflict of interest here with the status quo maybe wanting to keep things the way they are versus what the citizens want. The only issue in my mind is whether it is legal or not. I would like everyone in the audience to understand that this is an issue that is of paramount importance to change in the County. I plead with the County to don’t make us have to go out and sue the County or make the County spend money to defend this position if in fact it is an indefensible position. If there is an easy way to find out if the judge in fact meant what he said in writing – to vacate the entire paragraph 5 of his decision – let’s do that ... We’ll do it if we have to (sue Franklin County) but the citizens have spoken. Let’s not subvert their wishes. Let’s do County-wide voting if it is feasible; if it is not then we have other avenues that we can follow to get to that point.”
“Commissioners there is nothing unclear about the order,” advised Mr. Shuler.
Rose Etta McCoy – educator from Apalachicola – then stepped to the podium.
“I would like to remind the Commissioners that you really didn’t have the majority of the electorate in November. You actually had about 35.3% that voted yes. You didn’t have a majority percentage. I would also like to remind you that our district has come a long way. We have made tremendous progress. We are extremely proud of that progress. We are extremely proud of Franklin County. That progress has allowed us to insure opportunities for the election of a minority in our County; not only on the Franklin County Commission but on the Franklin County School Board. I stand here to tell you that the 1986 ruling in the United States District Court for the northern district of Florida upheld the plaintiff’s complaint that “at large” system in Franklin County denied African American citizens of Franklin County an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their own choice. I urge you and there are others here that urge you not to even reconsider going back to court or getting another opinion - especially if it means the retention of the single member district. And if accountability of all commissioners that are present here is a major concern to all of the voters, then I suggest to you that you make changes within the structure to make all commissioners accountable to “all” of the people in Franklin County. That is what you are up there doing. You are making provisions for us – not a select few. The December 3, 2003 ruling allowed the County to simply implement what you asked for in your resolution. It allows the County to implement a new redistricting plan if that is your pleasure. It does not stipulate that the Commission vacate the single member district or that you do away with the at large voting (restriction). If you take a look at the resolution that was presented ... They did not tell you that you had to eliminate your single member district. They did not give you permission to go back to your at large voting. I would urge you to not consider doing this. The system is working. It is very functional. We are proud of the progress that all of you have made. And we want you to consider all of the people, and all of our desires, not just a select group. Thank you.”
“The reason I am here today is because a few years ago we went through this same thing. It was because there was no way that a black man could win an office ... The only way that we could get a black man elected is when the court went to a single member district. Mr. Tollover served for ten full years; I came and then served eight; and Mr. Lockley has completed two. When you go to the at large system there is no way that the black man can win – it has been proven in court. We don’t need to be fighting here among ourselves; we need to be here together ... What we need to do is leave this just the way it is so that we don’t have people left out of this election system.”
Mr. Williams also spoke to the increased cost of campaigning involved in county wide voting; his point being that it will take more money and be more difficult for a candidate with fewer dollars to spend.
Another speaker spoke to the issue of “power” – discounting the race issue.
In an at large system an organized minority of voters could theoretically elect all of the commissioners; thus making Franklin County less democratic, less diversified, and less representative. If the “Concerned Citizens” or the seafood workers, or the real estate industry and developers were capable of voting as a block, they could control the entire County Commission. In other words the same powerful “minority” of voters voting county wide could elect all the candidates. With the present system that can not happen – each candidate must get a majority in each district.
Mr. Lockley then made the motion that this issue be left to stand and that the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County seek a clarification at their own initiative and expense – much the same as the black community was forced to do in their original petitioning process.
The motion was passed 4 to 1 with Commissioner Crofton voting against. Mr. Crofton was of the opinion that the question was one that needed an answer.
“I make the motion,” advised Mr. Putnal, “that we continue with Mr. Lockley’s motion until somebody can put written proof in front of us that this thing has been done away with (Injunction against county wide voting).” This motion was approved unanimously.
As has often been said there are few issues that are simply a matter of black and white, unfortunately this issue is just that. The five hundred pound gorilla in the room mentioned by Mr. Fiefer was not the County Commission’s obstinacy or obfuscation of this issue but the perception of racism; a perception clearly visible by the division of races sitting in the Commission room and the clear contrast of opinions being expressed at the podium. Franklin County is between 15 and 20 percent African American and Apalachicola is 35 to 40 percent African American.
This whole thing smacks of “Hearst-ism”. I have no doubt that this issue will sell newspapers – but I fear if this issue is pursued it will bring to Franklin County not fame and publicity but shame and notoriety. In fact, I think that it can be guaranteed.