Another Jess Santamaria flip flop

County Commissioner Jess Santamaria is at it again. I don’t believe there is anyone in creation who has any idea what will come out of Jess’s mouth when he’s on the County Commission dais. Sometimes there is political value in unpredictability, but Jess is moreso erratic and flaky than unpredictable.

At Tuesday’s Commission meeting, Jess proposed changing the commission from single-member districts to countywide at-large districts, and proposed all commission races should be non-partisan.

Whoa. One of the smartest decisions county voters ever made was to change to single-member districts back in 1988, effective in 1992, which removed the ability of a small group of political power brokers to control the county commission and, thus, a big swath of county politics.

If any voter nowadays thinks our county commission is appalling, you have my personal assurance that the commissions of the 1980s and early 1990s were both dysfunctional and defective. Their group incompetence was legend.

Back to the present, some of Jess’s proposals are what you would expect to hear from a Socialist legislator in a Western European city, but his proposal to make the county commission non-partisan has merit. Problem is no one knows with any conviction whether Jess will change his mind next week. He has flip-flopped on this issue for years.

In the fall of 2007, Jess committed to me and others that he would vote to go non-partisan if the election would happen after January 2008. But then, at a commission meeting on Sept. 25, Jess reversed himself and was the swing vote to defeat a motion to go non-partisan. The reason? Purely political. Jess was personally miffed at a fellow commissioner who proposed the non-partisan change. Even though Jess voted not to change, clearly the change was in the county’s best interest, because it would have reduced some of the partisan nastiness that sometimes colors the actions of the commission.

Our research at the time showed that if the commission and county constitutional officers ran non-partisan, moderates would have a better chance of getting elected. Strident candidates have a tougher time. “Politics” gets toned down and fewer commission decisions get made based on following the Party line. Mostly, sitting commissioners vote on non-partisan issues, like garbage pickup, land and water use, permitting policy, and county spending.

Over one-quarter of county voters are neither Republicans nor Democrats, and in non-partisan elections, independents and no-parties are not disenfranchised in primaries. This means in partisan primary elections, the opinions of independents don’t matter, because they have no say in primaries, where often the winner is decided.

Non-partisan elections place candidate names on the ballot without Party labels. There is less need for candidates to switch parties in order to improve their electibility. If one candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the election is over; if no candidate meets the target, the two top vote-getters have a runoff in the general election. This avoids the cost of special runoff elections, where almost no one comes out to vote.

So, chalk up a plus and minus for Jess this week. He was wrong about creating countywide commission districts, but right about making the commission non-partisan.

John R. Smith

John R. Smith is chairman of BIZPAC, the Business Political Action Committee of Palm Beach County, and owner of a financial services company.
John R. Smith

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