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Community Voices: Charter review amendments propose changes to council elections, redistricting

Roxanne Fixsen

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Photo by City of St. Petersburg.

Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

Part 2 in a series. Attorney Roxanne Fixsen was a member of the Charter Review Commission.

The once-every-10-years citizen review of the Charter, through the citizen-led Charter Review Commission (CRC), made an early decision to review the Charter through a lens of equity. This decision was based on data showing persistent and prevalent inequitable outcomes in our City and an urgency to eliminate those inequities for a competitive and resilient future.  (For more information about the specific data, see Part 1 in our series.

The CRC reviewed research, scholarly articles on equity, mined resources from the National League of Cities and reviewed actions taken by other municipalities to improve equity metrics. These sources confirmed a consistent theme: Nothing changes without an intentional focus on equity. 

This article focuses on Amendments #1 and #2 of the 7 amendments that will be on the Nov.r 2 ballot. They entail a proposal for single district elections for city council members and a change to the process of redistricting in the City.

Currently, city council members are elected through a hybrid system. During the primary, only voters in the specific council district can vote for that district’s city council candidates. The top two candidates receiving the most votes from the district voters move on to the general election. In the general election, the entire city votes for the city council member of a district. The city council candidate who receives the most votes from the entire city is elected as the city council member to represent a district. 

CRC members wondered: How does this election structure impact equity in representation? How does this structure impact equity in influence? Does this type of election structure allow for intentional focus on the assets and challenges of a specific district?

We turned to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and a national expert for information regarding election structure. These presenters had the same conclusions – that single member district only voting led to more consistent equitable representation on city council. Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the most common form of elections in local offices across the country were city-wide, at-large, elections. At-large elections tended to favor the wealthiest and most connected candidates. These election structures dilute voices of communities of color and poor communities.  Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, single member district voting has been the common election structure in local elections across the country and allows for more consistent diversity in representation.

Single member district elections also provide for localized democracy. At-large, citywide elections are based on the idea that those elected in this manner will be more likely to work toward the best result for the whole city. However, the whole city is the sum of its district parts. Single member district elections allow for an elected member to prioritize the needs of the localized constituency. This leads to the intentional focus that is required for closing and eliminating the equity gaps. This could also lead to deeper understanding and more consensus-building among city council – each focused district representative would educate, and be educated, about the unique challenges of, and potential legislative impact on, specific districts. There is also concern that this could lead to less cooperation and worse equity outcomes.

The League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area (LWVSPA) initiated a research project, Engage St. Pete, in late 2018, to develop a baseline measure of civic engagement in the city across all zip codes. The project found that for those residents who live downtown or in affluent zip codes, there were high marks for feeling that people like them have a say about what the local government does. 

Only half of the respondents in other areas indicated the same attitude. Participants in focus groups reported that they have opinions, but those opinions are not heard or are put on a back burner for other issues that the local government thinks are more pressing. The focus group participants felt they had a say, but that local government does not act on it. Perhaps single member district elections would increase civic engagement with an intentional focus on district constituents and district challenges. In a single member district format, representatives are focused on, and accountable to, district constituents ensuring their constituents’ concerns are heard and acted upon.  This increases citizen participation in government and, therefore, civic engagement.

The CRC explored the idea of a mixed election structure – where some members of City Council (for example, five) are elected in single member district only elections and some were elected at-large citywide (for example, three). The CRC leaned toward this structure, but this type of change would require a drastic redrawing of the district maps (from the current eight districts to five districts, in this example). This led the CRC to review the redistricting provision in the Charter.

The current redistricting provision in the Charter allows for the mayor and each council member to appoint a citizen to a redistricting commission (RD). The RD meets in conjunction with the U.S. census. The U.S. census occurs every 10 years, and the data from the census is sent to municipalities for use in redrawing city council districts.  The Charter currently provides the mayor with one year to issue a redistricting report. Then the nine-member RD has 60 days to propose boundaries to the city council, which can reject the boundaries and substitute its own.

The CRC believed that the current Charter redistricting provision was too connected to those who benefit from the drawing of the district maps and determined that the redistricting process should have independence and should have standards for establishing fair districts. 

Because the current redistricting provision is not strong on independence and standards, amending the Charter to allow for a mixed city council election structure, which would require a major redrawing of the district maps, would potentially harm equitable representation and influence. Therefore, the CRC proposed Amendment #1 to change city council elections to single member district only elections and proposed Amendment #2 to amend the redistricting provision of the Charter to provide for independence, integrity, and standards to the redistricting process. 

Click here to download the Charter Amendments presentation.

If the voters approve Amendment #2 and the redistricting process is independent and requires fair district standards, then the next CRC could look at establishing the mixed election structure. At that time, data will be available on the impact of single member district voting as it relates to representation and intentional focus on closing the equity gaps. The current hybrid city council voting structure has been in place for decades, yet there remain persistent and serious equity gaps. Perhaps a change in that structure will move the city toward eliminating those equity gaps. It is worth a try.

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