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Group believes single-member districts would make for more accountable County Commission

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando Beach resident Lisa Bambauer worries that the way Hernando County voters choose their county commissioners is misleading.

So, in recent months, Bambauer and a core group of supporters began gathering signatures to change the method of election. And now, she says, she's even more certain that people don't understand how the system works.

About 80 percent of the voters her group has approached have said they did not realize that when they vote for a commissioner in their own district, they also get to vote for other districts' commissioners.

That's because in Hernando County, while commission candidates must live in their district by the time the votes are certified, they are elected at large. That means everyone in the county gets to vote for each district's commissioner.

"They take office under a charade of district representation," Bambauer said. "There is no district representative, so the district lines are meaningless. It's a charade."

Bambauer favors single-member districts instead. That would mean that voters in a district would vote only for the commissioner in that district. She and those who support the cause are trying to gather more than 12,000 signatures of registered voters by May in order to get a referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

The current system, she said, "leads us to not getting good representation."

"We don't have a district representative because each commissioner represents all of the county the same. They don't represent me any more than they represent everyone else."

Bambauer said the public could more easily hold commissioners accountable if they were elected only by voters in the district they represent. If the voters in a particular district were dissatisfied with their commissioner, it would be easier to replace him or her.

There are other benefits as well, she said.

"It works because it is a smaller group to get to know, and they have the control over who their representative is," she said. "It's a grass roots opportunity for people to run who don't need a ton of money to do so."

Twenty-five years ago, Hernando voters considered the idea of switching from at-large elections to single-member districts. Two ballot questions were posed — one for School Board members, who are also elected at large, and one for county commissioners. Both measures failed.

According to the Florida Association of Counties, at-large elections are the norm across Florida, but there are a few counties using single-member districts. There are also counties with a hybrid system — some commissioners elected by district and others at large.

Karen Krauss, the Sumter County supervisor of elections, is familiar with both methods.

In 1994, she was elected to the Sumter County Commission with the at-large method. By the time she was up for re-election, the system had changed to single-member districts.

"They went to single-member districts, but that didn't last very long," Krauss said. "People decided they wanted to go back to at-large elections. They didn't like to be boxed into single-member."

While she found it easier to campaign the second time because she didn't have so far to go and didn't have to spend as much money, she said it was obvious that when she sat as a commissioner, she was making decisions that would impact the entire county, not just one district.

For the voters in Sumter, "it wasn't a very popular thing," Krauss said. "They wanted to end up voting for everybody" and not just the commissioner in their district.

Bambauer said her group is getting the word out about its initiative through social media and by visiting local organizations, libraries and farmers markets. Anyone wanting information or who wishes to request a presentation may visit the group's website at iwantsinglemember.com or its Facebook page — I Want Single Member.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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