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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

A Little Dream That Died…

A recent column on the upcoming Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) focused on the status of women on the 36-member body. To review: one woman in 1968; five in 1978; ten in 1998, and for 2018, twelve. Big whoop. Today I want to drop that aspect of “progress” and explore ideas I might have proposed had we been in the visionary place in 2018 that, back in 1998, I thought we could be.

I didn’t dare to say it aloud, but in 1998, I could cross my fingers and almost hope to see myself as a member of the 2018 CRC. I had some credentials, and two decades to obtain more. Even then, though, I’d acquired a fair amount of volunteer experience with government -- and there’s no substitute for volunteering to see the bigger picture. In 1998, I was on HCC’s Board of Trustees, the board that turned around its long history of corruption. I’d served on the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) to both the county commission and the school board, as well as the CAC to the Environmental Protection Commission. I spent eight years on the Florida Commission on the Status of Women, which held meetings all around the state on a variety of issues. All five of these were unpaid positions that nonetheless required appointment by an elected official.

My appointers were Governor Lawton Chiles, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, as well as local officials Cecile Essrig, Phyllis Busansky, and Pam Iorio. It’s sad to see that three of those five are dead now. It’s also sad to acknowledge that my vague 1998 hope for 2018 died long before the deadline. With the gubernatorial losses of friends Bill McBride, Jim Davis, and Alex Sink, I knew by 2010 that there would be no possibility. Still, I had ideas and want to share them with you. Some I would like to see turned into reality, while others are simply points to ponder. The true point, though, is to look at other models and stretch the imagination.

Reshaping Our Structure

Florida is fortunate in having regularly scheduled reviews of our constitution, something that few states do. We had some exceptionally smart and honest people in 1968, when Florida dramatically rewrote its 1885 constitution. That document had replaced the 1868 constitution, which was written soon after the Civil War. All states that seceded from the Union were required to adopt new constitutions for readmission, but Washington wasn’t paying attention anymore in 1885, and Florida conservatives adopted a new constitution that restored former Confederate men to their previous power in Tallahassee. One way to do that was to spread the spoils of politics among themselves by creating plenty of patronage opportunities.

Thus, even now, we have positions that were originally intended to allow a number of hogs to feed from the trough, while we don’t even envision new elective job titles to meet our modern needs. For instance, on a local level, we elect a property appraiser, a tax assessor, and a clerk of the circuit court – positions that might be better served if county commissioners and/or judges simply hired qualified people to manage those tasks. Instead, our state constitution mandates that voters make decisions on these technical (and easily corruptible) positions. Yet while we chose who will hold these arcane offices, we do not elect anyone to be accountable for our most pressing daily problems -- basic things such as transportation, planning, and the environment.

On a state level, we elected a seven-member Cabinet until recently. When we revised that down to four members in 2002, we kept the commissioner of agriculture as a Cabinet member. Farmers wanted that and got it, while teachers, parents, and other advocates of public education no longer had the opportunity to choose the commissioner of education. We also gave up our right to elect the secretary of state, the person who is in charge of elections. Those powers and others went to the governor. I expected that some people would think about revising that revision when the politically appointed secretary of state so badly botched the 2000 presidential election, but it didn’t happen. Omissions are hard to see. It may be time to review the review in which we voters gave up our right to vote for the ultimate person in charge of voting.

But before continuing, please let me assure you that I’m all about abstraction. Historians are. Our mission is to provide context and perspective, lifting our eyes to the past and to the future -- and doing our best to ignore the present and particularly individual persons. So, this is a discussion about offices, not about people who to hold them at the moment. Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank and Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, both Democrats, are old friends; Republican Doug Belden, the tax collector, has made that office visibly more efficient; and Adam Putnam, also a Republican, may be the best ag commish we’ve ever had, as his previous experience in Congress gives him a wide perspective. The point is not about the incumbent officeholder, but whether we should continue the office from the 19th century into the 21st.

Us and Others

State elective offices were a big part of my 2012 book for Congressional Quarterly (CQ). It wasn’t an easy topic to research and revealed surprising variations. Maine and North Dakota both have populations smaller than Hillsborough County, for instance, and yet have very different governmental structures. Maine elects no state official except the governor: he appoints the attorney general, the state treasurer, and everything else. North Dakota is at the opposite extreme, electing as many as a dozen officeholders. Indeed, the first woman to win a statewide election was North Dakota’s state superintendent of schools, in 1892.

Most states have stopped electing school superintendents, although a few counties in Florida still do. A few states elect the bodies that govern higher education, such as community college trustees and state boards of regents. Some states elected a state librarian in the past, but no one does now. (Florida never did, as we didn’t have a state librarian or archivist until 1941. She was Dorothy Dodd, a very well credentialed woman who spent much of her important career as a volunteer.)

I created a two-page chart in the CQ book to analyze women who won statewide offices, and some of the positions they held were unfamiliar. Arkansas, Louisiana, and Washington still elect state land commissioners, a vestige of a past when states had frontier land to sell. Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma elect “corporation commissioners,” whatever that is, while four states (Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Oregon) elect labor commissioners. Ten states, including Florida, elect an agriculture commissioner; all are in the South or Midwest.

Some states continue to elect commissions that regulate public utilities, which Florida did until 1978. Other states duplicate their financial offices by electing both a treasurer and an auditor; some call these positions comptrollers or controllers. Many also elect insurance commissioners, and I think Florida did a futuristic thing in 2002, when we combined these functions into Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

Other Futuristic Possibilities

Florida set a national precedent in 1968, when we established a calendar for regular revision of our state constitution. We set another precedent with electing a CFO. We could follow up on that by again thinking broadly – and looking for what is NOT there. How about a CTO, chief transportation officer? Campaigning for that would force politicians to think about overall policy instead of patchwork. I’m fortunate to work from home, but my occasional experience with Friday afternoon traffic convinces me that someone should be directly accountable at election time. Daily reality demonstrates that it can’t be done with a governor who flies his private plane from Tallahassee to Naples, probably never even seeing the literally millions of Floridians who are killing time – and killing themselves – on overcrowded roads. We need alternatives, and it may be that the best way to get that is to elect someone who has direct responsibility.

And how about a CEO? In this case, not a chief executive officer, which we’ll leave to the governor, but instead Chief Environmental Officer. Water, air, land – all the things that make life livable -- need attention. Combine the offices that now are under the governor, the Department of Environmental Regulation and the Department of Natural Resources, into one, just as we did earlier with treasurer and insurance commissioner. Elect an environmental chief and hold him/her accountable. To win reelection in a state where almost everyone moved here because of the environment, that person would have to stress conservation of our unique assets. No more sneaky attempts at off-shore drilling leases; no more gas pipelines near Lake Okeechobee that no one knows of until it is too late. We would know who’s in charge.

I don’t have a lot of hope. The years from 1998 to 2018 have left me cynical, and I expect that the main thing this CRC will propose is lowering our already low state taxes. They will try to give ever more of our public dollars to private enterprises, especially those that they run. It is the age of oligarchs, very similar to what we had in 1885 – except that now, they don’t deign to work in protected political jobs. The pay is much too low for that form of patronage, and greater profit comes as contractors. But at least Florida doesn’t generate revenue anymore by leasing prisoners (largely African American) to (almost always white) plantation owners. That was routine in 1885, and so I can see rainbows. As the poet says, “Some work of noble note may yet be done.”


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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