Sanford residents urge more commission seats to improve minority representation – Orlando Sentinel

A group of residents are urging Sanford leaders to add two new commission districts to ensure more equal representation of its minority population in a city that has long struggled with racial tensions.

“It better ensures that every minority person is represented,” said Pasha Baker, a Sanford native and director of the Goldsboro Westside Community Historical Association. “The city has grown by leaps and bounds. And why not the commission too? The commission must always be a reflection of the community.

But most Sanford commissioners said they don’t know if it’s necessary to increase the number of districts from the current four to six.

“I’ve studied this and struggled with it, and I still don’t know where I stand,” Mayor Art Woodruff said during a commission meeting this week. “I try to understand the point of view of the people who want the six districts and those who don’t want the six districts. But what I really achieved: we have elections in a few months. And if we start drawing new maps now, are we going to confuse people? »

With nearly 61,000 residents – 38% of whom are white and 27% black – Sanford is the second most populous city in Central Florida, behind Orlando, according to the United States Census Bureau.

Sanford’s four commissioners are elected from individual districts, and the mayor is elected citywide. Adding two more constituencies would increase the number of voting representatives on the commission from the current five to seven.

Supporters note that only three black residents have been elected to the city commission in the city’s 145 years: Bob Thomas, commissioner from 1984 to 1995; Velma Williams, from 1995 to 2018; and current commissioner Kerry Wiggins, elected in 2018. All represented District 2, made up mostly of the historic black community of Goldsboro.

District 2 has a population of about 15,000, of whom 47% are black and 29% are white, according to city data provided to a redistricting committee.

In mid-2020, Commissioner Sheena Rena Britton became the first black commissioner to represent District 1 after being appointed by the council to replace Woodruff. The neighborhood — made up of about 15,000 residents, of whom more than 50 percent are white and about 25 percent are black — includes downtown and historic neighborhoods, as well as the area around Orlando Sanford International Airport.

Woodruff was named mayor of Sanford shortly after Jeff Triplett resigned to run for Seminole County real estate appraiser in June 2020.

So far, Britton, a longtime Sanford resident, is the only commissioner to support adding two more districts. She pointed out that more residents are expected to move into District 1 as more apartments and homes are built downtown and along East Lake Mary Boulevard near the airport.

In addition to supporting another Minority Commission district, “I would also like to see six districts because of the size of the city,” Britton said. “We have this whole massive development near the airport. About 60% of the items we approve are in District 1. And that’s a lot for anyone in District 1.”

In 1983, a group of black voters sued Sanford in federal court for individual member districts after white candidates consistently won commission seats despite the city having several historic black neighborhoods. This led to a settlement agreement that required Sanford commissioners to represent specific districts, and Thomas became the city’s first black commissioner in 1984.

Sanford is now the only local government in Seminole County with individual member districts. Seminole’s five commissioners, for example, are elected countywide but must live in their districts.

“It was sad when African Americans had to take legal action to get representation. It was sad,” said Mario Hicks, a Goldsboro resident and current candidate for the District 2 commission seat, in favor of six districts.” I don’t understand why Sanford doesn’t [commissioners] Advance. The only thing I can think of is that they don’t want to give up power. I find it difficult to understand the problem of going to six districts.

Sanford’s long history of racial tensions came to a head in the weeks following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in early 2012, when hundreds of protesters marched through the streets demanding the city reform its police department. after accusations of racial prejudice. And city leaders have worked over the past decade to restore that trust by reforming the police department.

According to the city charter, Sanford commissioners can approve redistricting maps and whether to add more districts. The council plans to discuss the redistricting issue again in May.

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Commissioner Patrick Austin – whose District 3 straddles U.S. Highway 17-92 and West Lake Mary Boulevard – said he was “a little torn” over whether to add more commission districts.

“I saw how our city developed. And I understand that side,” he said. “But I honestly think having six commissioners would seem more complicated. There would be too many different voices and too many different opinions on the platform. And it could even weaken the representation of minorities.

Commissioner Patty Mahany — whose District 4 includes an area east of Interstate 4 and the Seminole Towne Center business district — said she hasn’t made up her mind. But she said a redistricting effort this year could become politically controversial.

“I think we’re too close to an election and I don’t want it to become a political issue at all,” she said. “But the truth is, we represent the whole city.”

Former commissioner Williams spoke out at Monday’s commission meeting in favor of another minority district, which would give black Sanford residents fairer representation in their city government.

“Do you think the chances of black candidates being elected are great? In America?” she said. “Let’s be real. It should be that way. But let’s be real. We’re not there yet.

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Aurora J. William