By Steve Fussell
Fruitland Park’s Charter Review Committee voted Tuesday night to send its chairman — George “Mackie” McCabe, a longtime city resident and Villages executive — to the city commission Thursday night to ask for money to hire a consultant who can help guide the group through a districting process.
Mackie first asked the committee — five city residents appointed by Mayor Chris Bell and approved by commissioners last month — to take a straw poll on whether they favor some sort of districting plan. The answer was yes, 5-0.
“The devil will be in the details,” said committee member Raymond P. Lewis II, an insurance executive whose ancestors were among the first to settle in the area.
City Attorney Scott Gerken agreed.
“There are any number of ways to set up voting districts,” Gerken told the group. “Depending on how you decide, it will probably take years to fully implement a plan, and the city will be required to take a look at its districts with every new census count,” Gerken said.
Fruitland Park’s unique situation is powered by plans to build more than 2,000 homes within the city limits starting next year. Over the course of one year — possibly less — the Villages of Fruitland Park will double the city’s population.
The Villages development is expected to spur additional growth — more than 500 new homes outside the Villages and inside the city are in planning stages now and city officials anticipate that other large-scale projects could come online to double or triple that figure within the next three to five years.
In short, the city is about to explode and the newly-arrived will soon outnumber current residents. Fruitland Park has one chance to enact a districting plan that might preserve something of the city’s current way of life this November.
By the next election — in 2016 — “Old” Fruitland Park will be the minority.
Demographics make the problem a little thornier. Upwards of 4,000 new voters in the Villages of Fruitland Park will know nothing of the city’s culture, history, traditions, customs or leaders, present or up-and-coming.
Those new voters will be significantly more affluent, on average better educated and—if history holds—more active politically. Well over 90 percent of Villages residents register to vote and then do so.
Fruitland Park residents raised two additional issues for the committee’s consideration. Rita Ranize, a community activist and volunteer and wife of former candidate for mayor Rick Ranize, told the committee it should also consider term limits for city commissioners.
REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: A committee member—me—raised the issue of government transparency. Local government has a moral obligation, I believe, to say what it does clearly and plainly, and to let its electors—voters—know what it is doing and why. True, commission and board meetings are open to the public. But voters ought not to be required to develop levels of political and legal expertise equivalent to that of sitting commissioners in order to understand what is going on. — Steve Fussell