We want home rule, not Tallahassee partisanship

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Is it possible that our state government doesn’t trust us to do what’s best for the Vero Beach community – our hometown where, despite another surge in population and development, we’ve managed to preserve so much of what makes this place so special?

Or is it that the Florida governor and his bootlickers in the Legislature – arrogantly believing they know best – want to continue to erode the once-sacred doctrine of “home rule,” dictate local policy from Tallahassee and impose their will on all of the state’s municipalities, counties and school boards?

The answer should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to the accelerating rate at which the state has been usurping the authority of local governing bodies.

The state government wants to expand its already-vast powers because it doesn’t trust that we’ll agree with its positions, too many of which are ideologically driven, and no longer tolerates dissent.

Increasingly, there is one way to do things in Florida – the way the state tells us to do them, regardless of whether the mandates make sense locally, or that a sizeable segment of the community might be opposed.

And once the state has ruled, local governments and school boards are helpless to do anything but obey.

“It’s a one-size-fits-all approach,” Vero Beach Mayor John Cotugno said, “but once these bills become law, it’s a done deal.”

Cotugno doesn’t agree with the state’s encroachment on local government, and his sentiments are shared by numerous other city, county and school district officials across party lines.

Their concerns are real.

The fates of too many laws that govern what is and isn’t acceptable in our community – quality-of-life matters that previously were best handled by local governments manned by neighbors we knew and elected – are now being decided at the state level.

Total strangers who know little-to-nothing about the Vero Beach area’s residents and priorities are substituting their judgment for ours on a variety of what should be hyper-local issues: vacation rentals, business regulation, land use, historic tree removal, septic-to-sewer projects, affordable housing and even parade permits.

The state’s assault on local public education has been especially egregious, enacting and amending laws to require school districts to change or revoke policies and curriculums that don’t align with its grand vision.

Our School Board, in fact, has been forced to review 80 policies that were impacted by new state mandates, governing everything from library books to what and how history may be taught.

Earlier this year, a divisive new state law required that our school district revoke its racial equity policy, which two years earlier had been unanimously approved by the board and celebrated by the local Black community.

“The members of our community elect us because they want us to represent them and make decisions that are in the best interests of students, based on the knowledge and experience we bring to the job,” School Board Chair Peggy Jones said.

“I’ve been in education for nearly 50 years, and I’ve never seen this much intrusion from the state,” she added. “There’s no reason for it.”

Actually, there is.

The reason is that our current state government has launched a culture war, and our public schools are the battlefield. Most of the new laws affecting education have more to do with ideology and indoctrination than student outcomes.

That’s why Gov. Ron DeSantis now endorses school board candidates and targets incumbents for electoral defeat, ignoring the Florida constitution, which states that school board elections should be nonpartisan.

Yes, it’s a power grab, as much so as any gerrymandered map.

The same holds true for DeSantis’ firing last year of twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, whom he accused of being too liberal in his approach to law enforcement.

Earlier this year, the Republican governor removed Monique Worrell, state attorney for Orange and Orlando counties, criticizing her performance as a prosecutor.

Both Warren and Worrell, as it happens, are Democrats.

Now, DeSantis and House Speaker Paul Renner are backing a proposal to consolidate Florida’s 20 judicial circuits in what critics say is a transparent attempt to expand their conservative reach to the courts and prosecutors.

Diamond Litty, the 19th Circuit public defender who oversees the four-county region that includes Indian River, said the proposal likely would put the Treasure Coast’s communities in the same circuit as Palm Beach and Broward counties.

“There’s no way a state attorney or public defender could handle an area that large,” said Litty, who last week traveled to Tampa, where she was among an overwhelming majority of speakers who expressed opposition to the consolidation at a meeting of a special committee tasked with reviewing the proposal.

She wasn’t sure how the proposal would impact judges, but news reports indicate they, too, believe it’s a bad idea.

Know this, though: If the consolidation happens, there’s no way any voter in the Vero Beach community, which will be outnumbered by the South Florida masses, will ever have a meaningful say in who represents us as our state attorney and public defender.

Despite the political overtones, Litty said, the proposal is not overly popular with Republicans or Democrats. That’s refreshing to hear, given the tribalism that currently dominates our political discourse.

Partisan politics, however, should be reserved for the national and state arenas. It has no place in local government, where candidates or elected officials having an “R” or “D” after their names should be irrelevant.

Here, they usually are.

City Councilman Rey Neville is a Democrat, but his political leanings have not been noticeable in his interactions with his Republican colleagues. The same was true of Mara Schiff, a liberal Democrat who served on our School Board for four years and often aligned with lifelong Republicans Brian Barefoot and Teri Barenborg.

Despite their political ambitions, the people running our state government shouldn’t try to force unnecessary and unproductive division into our communities, as it’s attempting to do next year, when Florida voters will decide whether to make school board elections partisan.

Nor should the state government continue to muscle its way into our hometown affairs by passing laws that override local authority and autonomy, as it did when it effectively prevented our community – and others throughout Florida – from regulating growth.

We’re perfectly capable of making the best decisions for Vero Beach and the surrounding community.

Sure, we’ve messed up some. We’ve got too many storage facilities and mattress stores. We probably don’t need all the new car washes that are on the way. And we didn’t respond to the pollution of our lagoon soon enough.

But we continue to learn from our mistakes. We’re dealing with challenges that seem to increase every year. Our community is still the best place to live on Florida’s east coast, if not the entire state.

We don’t need the outside interference, especially when it comes at the cost of forfeiting more of our local governance, which has enabled us to preserve the building height restriction that contributes mightily to the uniqueness of our community – and that the state’s new affordable-housing statute could undermine.

We don’t want our local governments, overseen by neighbors we’ve elected to act as guardians of our communities, to be reduced to mere administrators who are subservient to an all-powerful, centralized state government.

We don’t want Tallahassee, where our voices are limited to one House representative and one senator, to tell us how we should be governed.

We want the state to embrace the concept that all Republicans once held dear.

We want home rule.

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