Single member county commission districts: Do they make a difference?

Polk County Commissioner Ed Smith believes electing all five commissioners countywide works to the advantage of Poinciana residents. (Photo by Dave Raith).

POINCIANA – The community of Poinciana is divided between two counties, Osceola and Polk, and together the 10 villages there contain more than 84,000 residents – a huge voting block in one of the nation’s top swing states, in a region that hasn’t demonstrated much of an allegiance to either major political party.
Poinciana is also unique in another way, though, in that the community has become an experiment in the power of voting districts. The Osceola County residents are represented by Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington, who has a single district that includes Poinciana. Arrington needs to win the votes of the residents of his district.
On the Polk County side, though, the five commissioners run countywide. Commissioners in Polk don’t just need the votes of their home community, but also of Lakeland, Winter Haven and the rest of the county.
Does one system work better than the other? Do residents of one side of Poinciana get more attention and, more importantly, services than the other?
Keith Laytham, president of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, isn’t convinced that’s the case.
“The thing that’s different from Osceola County and Polk County is in Polk County, commissioners run countywide,” said Laytham, who lives on the Polk side.
In theory, he said, it makes sense to have districts where commissioners are directly responding to their own constituents and not larger urban centers like Lakeland, he said.
“Polk County is so diverse that the needs in one area are different from another,” he said.
On the other hand, Laytham said Polk’s system also means five commissioners, rather than simply one, need to pay attention to Poinciana, because they all have to win votes there.
“Every two years we have commissioners who come in and have to get our votes,” he said.
Polk’s commissioners would be crazy to take the voters of Poinciana for granted, said Polk Commissioner Ed Smith.
“An old sheriff used to say, ‘If I carry Lakeland, I don’t care how the rest of the county goes,’ ” Smith said. That theory no longer works, Smith added, because Polk County’s 17 municipalities have grown so rapidly in the past decade – including Poinciana, he noted, where 31,000 people live on the Polk side alone.
That’s a huge voting block, Smith said, and commissioners ignore those residents at their peril.
“I don’t think Poinciana will be ignored by anyone running county-wide,” Smith said. “That’s the strength of the system, as far as I’m concerned.”
Until a few years ago, Osceola County also elected its commissioners countywide. That changed with a group of Latino activists successfully challenged the system in court, arguing that the system diluted the voting strength of Osceola’s Latino population.
In July 2006, a lawsuit was filed in federal court alleging that Osceola County’s at-large election system, in which voters countywide select all five commissioners, dilutes Hispanics’ voting power, in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A judge agreed and ordered the county to implement single member districts.
Annette Brown-Best is a Poinciana resident and community activist who lives on the Osceola County side. She said single member districts probably make commissioners more responsive to the needs of their constituents.
“I do notice the difference between Polk County and Osceola County in how things are handled,” she said. If there’s a problem on the Osceola side, she said, they knew to call Brandon Arrington, their commissioner.
“Because he is our commissioner, we can go to him and say we want this done,” she said. “I don’t live in Polk County, but in trying to deal with them, I find it much harder to deal with.”
But Laytham, who does live in Poinciana-Polk County, said that’s not always the case.
“There are pluses and minuses to both systems,” Laytham said. “There are advantages to single member districts in that we have one commissioner who is the focal point. But I see the benefit of the Polk County system as well.”
The bottom line, Laytham said, is whether the two counties are responsive to the needs of Poinciana’s residents – as both counties were this year in agreeing to build the long-delayed Poinciana Parkway, a toll road expected to make it easier for residents to get to Interstate 4.
Smith said Polk commissioners did that because they saw the roadway was needed and was important to local residents – and also because, as he noted, there are simply too many Poinciana residents to ignore them.
“When you talk about Polk County,” he said, ”we’re really talking about a small state.”

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