We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Volusia County Home Rule Charter.
Following passage of the reform Florida Constitution in 1968, granting limited home rule powers to counties, a remarkable example of grassroots democracy took place.
At the time, Volusia County was well-known for its graft and corruption, and the political climate was toxic due to the squabble over whether the courthouse should be in east or west Volusia.
The county was also experiencing accelerated growth and urbanization, stretching the limits of local government to provide services.
Leaders throughout the community came together to influence the local legislative delegation to appoint the broadly representative 21-member Charter and Study Commission in 1969. The commission worked throughout the year with widespread citizen participation to write a charter document. It was enacted by the Florida Legislature and approved by Volusia County voters on June 30, 1970, to become effective in 1971.
The core principle of the charter is the council-manager form of government, similar to the structure of government in Volusia County’s 16 municipalities.
This changed the existing structure, which consisted of five county commissioners residing in districts but elected countywide in partisan elections. Often commissioners were elected by voters outside the districts they would represent.
County commissioners operated separately in their own districts with little coordination and accountability. They were referred to by critics as the five “kingdoms.” Awarding contracts and appointing personnel based on patronage was an accepted practice.
The two most important structural changes made by the charter were the establishment of the seven-member County Council and the appointed position of county manager.
Five council members were elected from districts only by voters from that district, with two at-large members elected countywide, so that local and broader community interests were represented.
These representatives set county policies, enact the budget, and hold the county manager accountable, requiring the continued confidence of at least four members.
As the first professional county manager, Thomas C. Kelly, with his deputy Richard Kelton, was responsible for administrative implementation of the charter. They structured the departments and divisions and defined regulations and procedures with County Council approval, but without council-member interference in day-to-day operations.
The question is asked: What was gained by these changes for the people of Volusia County?
1 The first gain is the cost savings resulting from consolidating and sharing purchasing, personnel, legal, data management, transportation, communications, management, and other services.
2 The second gain is a transparent and accountable government that has not experienced any scandal in its nearly 50-year history, unlike earlier times when abuses were widespread.
3 The third gain is a County Council that better represents the people through a combination of district and at-large nonpartisan elections that overcame the divisive sectionalism dividing the county in the pre-charter period. Nonpartisan elections are especially important now because about one-third of the voters are registered NPA. Except in special circumstances, members are also limited to two consecutive four-year terms.
4 The fourth gain was a high degree of professionalism and skill in delivering services to the public, with the ability to attract and retain the most qualified and experienced in their field.
5 The fifth gain is the amendment and charter-review process, at least every 10 years, enabling changes and updates such as increasing County Council member terms to four years and creating the elected position of county chair.
6 The sixth gain is to guarantee beach access by beach driving or off-beach parking and to enable county-city cooperation, such as the charter amendment of 1985 to grant county governance of the beaches.
7 The seventh gain is vesting in the County Council the power and responsibility to protect against the abuse of the environment countywide. This is related to the charter statement guaranteeing citizens the right to a quality environment. The council has responded by bringing the ECHO and Volusia Forever programs and the Growth Management Commission to the people for a vote. Though some critics regard these all-inclusive powers as aspirational, they are a guide for the future in facing the challenges of climate change and growth management.
8 The eighth gain is to have a system that attracts a diversity of County Council district candidates, because district campaigns require less funds, and candidates can communicate with their voters more readily than in countywide campaigns. Another incentive is that council members may continue to work in their businesses or professions, as difficult as that might be, because they can refer citizen complaints, requests, or administrative matters to the county manager for action.
The Volusia County Charter during its first 50 years has well-fulfilled the mandate stated in the Preamble: “We the people of Volusia County, State of Florida, in order to create a more responsible and efficient local government, do in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the State of Florida, ordain and establish as our charter and form of government this charter of Volusia County, Florida.”
— Bailey, of DeLand, served as vice chair of the Charter and Study Commission 1969-70, and is professor emeritus of political science at Stetson University. Fleuchaus was chair of the Charter and Study Commission 1969-1970, and was an elected member of the County Council in the late 1970s and mid-1980s