A group of Black residents in Winter Park said Thursday they are facing “the burden” of deciding whether to push forward with a petition drive during a pandemic to allow voters to decide whether city commissioners should be elected by districts, a change they argue would give a fairer shot to minorities seeking public office.
Barbara Chandler, co-founder of the Coalition for Access and Representation, stood on the steps of City Hall and said residents in the historic Black neighborhood of Hannibal Square are “heartbroken” that a years-long effort to get the issue of single-member districts on a ballot without collecting thousands of petitions was voted down 2-2 by commissioners last week.
The coalition hasn’t determined its next move, she said, and is considering various methods including the petition and exploring legal options.
“We think the vast majority of Winter Parkers are fair-minded and they agree that making commissioners more accountable and getting better neighborhood representation is worth talking about and voting on.”
The group questioned the absence of Commissioner Todd Weaver for the crucial vote, who previously supported letting voters chose to amend the city’s charter by creating districts that would each elect a commissioner.
Weaver informed the city about three hours before the meeting that he wouldn’t participate in-person or virtually — his first absence since he took office in April 2019 — because he had a migraine and other symptoms related to COVID-19. He later tested negative for the virus and publicly apologized Wednesday for missing the meeting.
Chandler said that Weaver “seemed supportive of this amendment up until he did not show” and noted that State Rep. Geraldine Thompson “kept her promise to appear” on a Zoom panel hosted by the coalition last week despite her recent diagnosis with the coronavirus.
“A headache is not a good enough a reason that he missed an important vote – an absence he knew would force our citizens into the streets with a petition for months during a deadly pandemic,” Chandler said. “In the end, Winter Park citizens will have to decide for themselves what they think of his action.”
Chandler and Weaver spoke two days before the meeting and both said there was discussion of delaying the movement for single-member districts. Chandler said she refused to agree to a delay.
Weaver denied Thursday that his absence at the meeting was politically motivated. He declined to say how he would have voted for the ordinance but said he didn’t think the amendment would have passed in March regardless of his support.
“I can’t answer that because the more we found out, the more on the fence I became and the timing was bad,” Weaver said. “It was obvious a lot of details had to be worked out and I feel that voters should be informed and I don’t think they are at this point.”
Commissioners have been divided for months over the issue with Mayor Steve Leary and Vice Mayor Carolyn Cooper strongly denying that any part of the city is lacking representation. Critics of the current system note that it’s been more than 130 years since a Black candidate was elected to public office in Winter Park.
Commissioners Marty Sullivan and Sheila DeCiccio voted to put the measure on the March ballot for voters to decide.
Records show commissioners received heated emails from some residents in the two weeks leading up the vote by opponents of single-member districts. A few residents warned that changing the system would “lead to infighting” for city resources and one resident said that commissioners should “expect to be voted out of office” for supporting the ballot measure.
Weaver initially said he supported creating the ordinance to prevent residents from risking virus exposure by gathering signatures in-person, but pointed to a recent petition submitted to the city as proof that it can be done safely.
In August, the city received a petition with about 50 signatures from a neighborhood group advocating for a permanent traffic solution. In comparison, a petition for a charter amendment requires signatures from 10% of the registered voters, or about 2,300 signatures.
Chandler, who ran against Weaver last year, also didn’t rule out another campaign for the seat when his term ends in 2022.
Weaver said he supports a rematch.
“Regardless if this issue goes forward or not, Barbara can run against me anytime and I welcome that,” he said.
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