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The Fight for District Voting: Laying the Foundation for Today’s Fort Lauderdale

The district voting system, approved by Fort Lauderdale citizens in November 1986, has provided for a more representative city government, increased attention to neglected neighborhoods, and provided the framework for governing the larger and far more diverse urban center that our city is today.

Robert-A.-Dressler-President-Emeritus-The-Fort-Lauderdale-ForumRobert A. Dressler President Emeritus e Fort Lauderdale Forum In March 1982, when I was first elected, Fort Lauderdale still had a "small town" government and an at-large voting system, where all candidates were on the same ballot citywide, and the person who received the most votes became Mayor, with the next 4 becoming Vice Mayor and Commissioners. The top vote-getter turned out to be me, even though I was only seeking a seat on the Commission!

Despite my personal benefit, I felt that the at-large system was flawed and needed to be replaced by single-member districts, where the voters of each area of the city could elect their own Commissioner, with the Mayor being elected city-wide.

Having become active in Victoria Park civic association in 1980, I met community leaders from many other areas of the city where residents felt unrepresented at City Hall, such as the late Carlton Moore in the northwest, Jim Naugle in the southwest, and many others.

A problem was that, for many years, almost all of the Commissioners lived what is now one Commission District (District 4), and often a majority were from one neighborhood (Rio Vista). With one exception, no Commissioners got elected from the southwest, northwest, or central neighborhoods like Victoria Park, or even the beach.

Those former Commissioners gave the City solid, honest government for many years, but the view from Rio Vista is quite different than from Sistrunk Blvd., Riverside Park or South Middle River. Many areas of the City suffered from neglect (crime, trash, lack of code enforcement) or offensive projects like the city incinerator. While the voting system was determined to be not legally discriminatory, it had the practical effect of overriding the votes from black, low-income and gay neighborhoods with votes from the high-turnout east.

District elections became a campaign priority, but when I introduced a district voting proposal at one of the first Commission meetings after election, none of the other four Commissioners would support it. I tried again after Jim Naugle was elected to the Commission in 1985, but it was defeated 2-3. Finally, in mid-1986 John Rodstrom changed his position, and, on a 3-2 vote, a proposed Amendment was put on the ballot for November 1986, where, even with opposition from the "old guard", it passed handily, with over 60% of the vote.

Despite subsequent attempts to draw the new districts to minimize their impact, the results became clear in the 1988 elections. The late Carlton Moore was elected in District 3, the first Commissioner elected by the black community, and he played an historic role during his tenure, achieving major improvements in his district.

Jim Naugle was elected in the southwest district and later became Mayor (and moved to Rio Vista). Whereas Virginia Young had been the only woman ever elected, many women have been elected subsequently, and when Dean Trantalis was later elected from District 2, he became the City's first gay Commissioner.

District voting was and is still controversial, and the former Mayors and Commissioners all considered it a big mistake. Certainly, subsequent Commissions (until recently) have been more fractious, and the City went through some embarrassing turmoil during the last decade. Nevertheless, the Commission is now representative of all areas and their particular needs, and the citizens, as well as all subsequent elected officials strongly support the district system.

Since district voting was implemented, vast improvements have been made throughout the City, but especially in formerly- neglected areas like the northwest, southwest and central areas. More than that, all citizens can now feel a stake in the system, being able to chose their own Commissioner as well as voting for the Mayor.

The district system has also easily accommodated the significant growth of the City's population, both from new development and the annexation of several bordering areas, and the resulting diversity on the Commission has prepared city government for the energetic, multicultural renaissance that Fort Lauderdale is now experiencing.

memorandum

commission disctricts

Robert A. Dressler
Mayor of Fort Lauderdale March 1982 - November 1986

Last modified onMay 23, 2014
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