March 18th, 2010 11:04 AM by Sherry Lee
Palm Beach County plans to take up the politically-charged issue of potentially changing how county commissioners are chosen.
County attorneys are now researching the options for making the commission more representative of and responsive to the people the board represents. This comes in the wake of corruption-inspired ethics reforms called for by a state grand jury and community groups.
The changes being explored include switching back to county-wide elections for all commission seats, instead of the seven commissioners getting elected by voters in different geographic districts.
Another option would make two commission seats “at large” positions elected countywide with the others remaining single-member districts.
Critics of the current system contend that switching to more countywide elections would make individual commissioners accountable to more voters.
“It’s time to re-open that discussion,” said Commissioner Jess Santamaria, whose district includes western communities.
Changing the way county commissioners are chosen has been one of the issues to surface in the wake of three commissioners since 2006 resigning and going to prison amid a federal corruption investigation.
“It’s a serious undertaking that affects how Palm Beach County would be represented,” Commissioner Shelley Vana said about potential changes. Vana’s district stretches west and north of Boynton Beach.
Voters would have to approve the change. County officials say they would need to have a proposal in place by late summer to have an item ready for a vote in the November election.
“I’m open-minded to it,” Commissioner Steven Abrams said about exploring the options. His district includes southeastern Palm Beach County. “There needs to be more study done.”
The county in 1990 switched from a five-member commission elected countywide, to a seven-member commission elected by different geographic districts.
The voter-approved change was made in part to lessen the influence of more-populated south county communities on county government.
Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said the county should be cautious about making changes. Minority representation needs to factor into any potential changes, said Taylor, the lone black member of the County Commission.
Taylor’s commission district stretches from Lake Park to Delray Beach and was created to boost minority representation in county government.
“I don’t know if we have a playing field that is level,” Taylor said.
The county is wading into the discussion at the same time that state leaders are gearing up for re-districting – when political boundaries are redrawn every 10 years.
New census data is supposed to drive the re-districting process, but critics say it leads to gerrymandering that helps political parties position themselves to hold onto or gain power.
County commissioners serve four-year terms and receive a salary of about $92,000.