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CRC: At-Large vs. Single-Dist. Cnty Commissioners Since 2002 the Legal Issues Were Clear

CRC (Charter Review Commission) news linksCOLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Talk about adding at-large or changing back to at-large County Commission voting districts has been a Charter Review Commission subject since Columbia County became a home rule charter county in 2002. This go-around, it has been a complete mash-up. Tonight, the Operations Committee will decide whether to move forward with at-large voting districts only.


In 1985 the Columbia County Branch of the NAACP filed a law suit in federal court against Columbia County claiming at-large county-wide voting for county commissioners excluded black representation and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The County lost.

In 2002, as the first County Charter was being debated, the Charter Commission reviewed the issue and decided against putting at-large voting districts in the Charter, a decision which was clearly based on the federal court agreement.

In the 2006 Charter Review Cycle the at-large vs. single-member districts came up again. It didn't take a bunch of high priced lawyers to explain the issue. County Manager Dale Williams did it himself.

County Manager Williams told the CRC:

"In 1984 a complaint was filed in the District Court alleging that at-large countywide voting for members of the Columbia County Commission excludes black representation and participation, by minimizing black voting strength in violation of their rights secured by the Voting Right Acts of 1965. As a result, a Declaratory Judgment was entered in December 1985 finding that rights had been violated providing full access to the political process under the Voting Rights Act as amended in 1982. As a result, Columbia County’s election of commissioners is now single district voting as of December 1985. The question has been raised several times as to whether this can be changed. It would take another court order to change the current Judgment. (CRC minutes)

Also in 2006, CRC Council Alan Watts again reviewed the at-large vs. single-district voting. Mr. Watts read the judgment and advised the CRC that adding two at-large commissioners "would not defy the judge’s ruling, but it would take a stipulated agreement between parties of the suit, or a contested proceeding to revisit." (CRC minutes)

While some on the CRC wished to have two at-large commissioners added to the charter, the question could not gather enough support to make it on to the ballot and the question died.

In 2012 the question of adding two at-large commissioners came up again.

This time the attorney for the CRC was Mark Watts, the son of Alan Watts. The minutes explained: "Attorney Watts conducted a preliminary research on the history of the districting system in Columbia County. If interested, the idea of a charter amendment to increase the size of the commission could be legally proposed in Columbia County. There is nothing to block this option from being considered or proposed. Attorney Watts said that he has reviewed and verified that this county would not need a clearance letter from the Department of Justice in order to pursue this as an amendment should the Charter Commission decide to do so."

Adding two at-large members made it through the public hearings and while eight members of the CRC voted for it to move to the ballot, it just missed the two-thirds in favor requirement.

A Total Mess
Charter Review 2020: at-large-vs. single-member districts

Operations Committee Chairman John O'Neal.

While the past Charter Review Commission worked in the sunlight, this one, based on a misreading of the law and the County Charter by County Attorney Joel Foreman, has been troublesome.

The single-member district question, which came up from out of the blue at the May 4 Operations Committee meeting was a prime example of that.

The Operation Committee Chairman is John O'Neal.

NGN, the Tallahassee law firm involved in the North Florida Broadband Authority debacle, was hired to be the Attorney for the County's Charter Review Commission; at least that is what the contract said.

The agenda for the May 4 meeting was prepared by NGN's Lynn Hoshihara. Agenda's are usually prepared and approved with the Committee Chairperson. It is not clear if this one was, but it sure didn't seem like it.

After the Operations Committee finished its unfinished business, Chairman O'Neal asked, "Do we have any new business?"

Even though NGN's Hoshihara prepared the meeting agenda, it was silent on any new business - none was listed.

Out of the Blue: A Backroom Deal?

Ms. Hoshihara answered, "Yes Mr. Chairman, this is Lynn Hoshihara. I have one item, which I would ask for further guidance from this committee and it is involving the fairly controversial matter and dealing with the at-large single member, single-member vs. at-large voting issue. In discussions with the prior chairman it was, the prior chairman had asked me not to finalize any findings on that and to hold that item last because it would garner lots of discussion."

Ms Hoshihara continued, "I wanted to discuss it with this committee and see what the thoughts were."

It's not clear why Ms. Hoshihara didn't mention the "former chairman" by name.

No one knows what Ms. Hoshihara discussed with the former Chairman, Jody DuPree. We only know what Ms. Hoshihara said was discussed.

What is clear is that NGN's Hoshihara knew about the discussion regarding at-large voting districts and she intended to discuss this with the Committee.

It is also clear that Ms. Hoshihara made the decision not to advise the Committee or the public beforehand that this issue was coming up at the meeting and chose not to add it to the agenda.

The Operations Committee asked Ms. Hoshihara to come up with findings, which she did at more expense to the citizens of the County.

In short, Ms. Hoshihara's undated and unsigned findings say that if the County wants to go to single-member County Commissioner voting districts, the tax payers will be on the hook for legal expenses if the voters approve the ballot question.


Ms. Hoshihara's findings, for which the answer was all ready known and pretty much simple and common sense, have cost the citizens more than just money.

Her actions in not adding the item to the new business part of the agenda, her unsigned and undated findings, and her overall lack of legal analysis on her other findings, which are also undated and not signed, are just more examples of the way Columbia County does its business.

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