Voters are supposed to cast ballots this fall on a change to the Florida Constitution that would give Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood the additional autonomy he’s been looking for.
County officials aren’t wild about it.
The county and two architects of Volusia County’s home-rule charter have sued in the Circuit Court of Leon County to keep the amendment off your ballot.
On the other hand, the sheriff said he’s working with the Florida Sheriffs Association for the amendment’s passage.
“This is an issue that affects every sheriff in the state of Florida,” Chitwood said. “All sheriffs in Florida want to be in charge.”
Although he is elected by the people, under the current county-government structure, the sheriff said, he can do nothing without County Manager Jim Dinneen’s approval.
The ballot item in question, known as Amendment 10 or Revision 10, was proposed by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. It addresses a host of unrelated topics, including the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, the start dates of the Florida Legislature’s annual sessions, and establishment of an Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The provision disputed by county officials and favored by Sheriff Chitwood deals with county charters and specific elected officials.
Stetson University professor emeritus Dr. T. Wayne Bailey warned that passage of the amendment would have wide-ranging implications that voters may not fully realize.
“It would do away with county government as we know it,” he said.
Bailey said the change could revert county government to the time before Volusia County voters approved the county charter in 1970. Then, he said, individual county commissioners each had their own geographic kingdom, with power to hire and fire employees and make laws.
Today, the elected County Council is a policymaking body, prohibited from interfering with day-to-day government operations, which are under the administration of a county manager hired by the County Council.
As for how the amendment would affect the sheriff, Bailey drew a contrast between Volusia and its northern neighbor.
“In Flagler County, the new sheriff could hire and fire his employees. In Volusia County, if you are a sheriff’s deputy, you go through the state training and you become a county employee. The sheriff can’t say, ‘I heard you were talking about me. Clean out your desk,’” Bailey said. “We think that the citizens of Volusia County should know what the implications are.”
He added, “The amendments need to show clearly to the public what will happen. They should know what the consequences are. It would be like a political hurricane.”
Bailey said there would be implications for taxpayers in terms of the sheriff’s budget.
“In other counties, if the sheriff’s budget is not approved by the County Commission, the sheriff can appeal to the state,” he said.
Bailey added, “This has been the dream of the sheriff to become a constitutional officer. It may also make the clerk of the court the administrative officer of the county.”
Chitwood likes the proposal.
“We want a statewide referendum on this,” the sheriff said.
He expects a fierce fight.
“The county is panicking. They’ll lie; they’ll do anything to stop this,” Chitwood said in a telephone interview. “Every lobbying group is involved in this. This isn’t only about me.”
Chitwood said he is not opposed to county charters in general, but objects to Volusia County’s because of the nonconstitutional standing he and other elected officers now have.
“This county has a charter, and if it were the best charter, other counties would have it,” the sheriff added.
The county’s lawsuit to block the amendment cites potential voter confusion, concluding “the ballot title and summary … are ambiguous and unclear; and do not fairly inform the voter of the scope of the revision.”
When the case may be heard in court is yet to be determined. County Attorney Dan Eckert said the ruling, whichever way it goes, may likely be appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal, and possibly the Florida Supreme Court. He predicted the case will be tried on “an expedited basis,” because of the approaching general-election season.
Volusia County Elections Supervisor Lisa Lewis said Sept. 5 is the deadline for her to receive information about all races and referendums for printing the November ballots.
The 2018 ballot will be a long one, because of numerous federal, state, county and municipal contests and votes on issues, including 13 constitutional amendments now slated for placement on the ballot.
The size of the ballot may cause “ballot fatigue,” Lewis warned, resulting in many voters leaving races and referendums unmarked.
Asked if she has a preference about whether she is a county employee or a constitutional officer, Lewis said she can work either way.
“I would say I don’t have too much of a feeling one way or another. I am going to do my job of running elections,” she said.