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Clearwater looking at district representation as a way to improve diversity

Clearwater is considering having council members run from districts, as opposed to being elected citywide. [Times (2018)]
Clearwater is considering having council members run from districts, as opposed to being elected citywide. [Times (2018)]
Published Jul. 24, 2019

CLEARWATER — In 1992, Mayme Hodges became the first and last black woman on the Clearwater City council, and only the third black council member.

There hasn't been a fourth.

Zebbie Atkinson IV, president of the Clearwater and Upper Pinellas County branch of the NAACP, hopes changing Clearwater's voting system would help more black people get onto the council.

But he shrugs. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't.

There's the issue of low voter turnout. The small black population in the city, only about 11 percent. The fact that with a new bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, felons won't be able to vote before paying their fines and restitution.

That nearly anybody who works a full-time job can't take on the commitment, and that few black people in the community are wealthy enough to abandon their job for the chance at a seat.

Still, Atkinson went in front of the city's charter review committee to discuss the possibility of council members being elected by district instead of citywide. After sending information on the different options to NAACP members, he said that was the choice they liked the most. With districts, he said at least one would include Greenwood, the historically black neighborhood.

"I took it as an affront when the mayor asked for some diversity be put on the board and none was," he said.

In December, the council voted in another white man to fill the seat vacated by the only woman on the board. The mayor criticized the decision, saying it was embarrassing having a council of only men over the age of 60.

When the charter review committee convened, the council recommended looking into districting and seeing what effects it may have on the city. The group meets at least every five years to talk about possible changes to the city's rules, which they then suggest to the council for approval.

Since the panel of 13 appointed citizens convened in February, they've devoted hours to talking about voting systems and the possibility of changing the city's current at-large system.

In 1994, the city's charter review committee voted 9-1 to keep the at-large system. At the time, the debate revolved around geograhic diversity and whether the beach communities had too much representation on the council compared to other areas. At the time, the charter review committee's lone black member, Curlee Rivers, said a minority district would give people a sense of belonging. The mayor, Rita Garvey, felt it would only limit minorities to where they could live if they wanted to find office.

When cities use a form of districting, where members of the council must come from a certain area, they can see an increase in diverse candidates if the minority population is large enough and concentrated enough, said Scott Paine from the Florida League of Cities.

Paine said it's also often less expensive for candidates to mount a campaign within a district, since they can keep within a smaller area instead of spreading efforts citywide.

Eliseo Santana, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that in Pinellas County, Latinos in the middle and upper class are spread around, while poorer Latinos tend to be clustered together. About 17 percent of Pinellas County is made up of Latino people of any race.

Santana said though people are spread, with a district representative he feels the city would better reflect the diversity in the population.

"You represent us," he said. "Look more like us."

Like others, Darryl Henderson, a member of the charter review committee, isn't sure whether districts alone will result in a more diverse council.

Even if people are in a district where they could more easily win, they need the ability to run. Which means they need to make enough money to leave their job behind, Henderson said. For doctors, lawyers and business owners, that's been fine. But for people working a 9 to 5, they often can't afford the pay cut.

City council members currently make $22,330 a year. The mayor makes $26,795. During council discussions, he and other members have said it's nearly impossible to be on the council unless a person owns their own business, is already wealthyy or is retired.

Henderson said historically, that's been intentional.

"The way the political system is here was set up on purpose," he said. "It was designed so only certain people could serve."