Unifying attitudes

`Super Voters,' Sun readers back city-county merger in two surveys

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 1:14 a.m.

On three separate occasions since the mid-1970s, Gainesville and Alachua County voters have shot down referendum proposals to merge their city and county governments.

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But a pair of surveys conducted late last year by The Sun indicate that if unification appeared on the public agenda again in 2004, both city and county residents are likely to be more receptive to the concept than they have been in the past.

In addition to showing substantial support for the idea of unified government, the dual-survey results also indicate a relatively low degree of regard for the quality of leadership on both the city and county commissions. Nor did the majority of those who responded think that the two commissions work very well together for the good of the community.

Furthermore, the results indicate that if the city and county were to merge into one government, public opinion would overwhelmingly favor an elected sheriff rather than an appointed police chief to head law enforcement. On the other hand, results are mixed on the question of whether it is best to have the day-to-day operations of a unified government run by an elected mayor with strong executive powers or a professional, appointed manager.

The results also indicate a clear sentiment for the county's smaller municipalities continuing to operate independently should Gainesville and Alachua County unify.

Not only did the majority of those surveyed favor unification of city and county governments, but most of those who responded also expressed the opinion that a merger would save money, result in more efficient local government, improve the community's economic development prospects and make for better metro and countywide comprehensive land-use planning.

"It's very interesting that you got that much support (for unification)," Harry Hayes, director of local government programs at the University of Georgia, said of the survey results.

Hayes has worked with several communities on unification initiatives, including the successful merger of Athens-Clarke County, home of UGA. He added, however, that an initially strong show of public support for the idea of unification may not hold up if more specific proposals for a government merger are made.

"You would typically expect a higher degree of support for the concept than you might get later if you were proposing a specific form of government," he said. "It's hard to gauge the opinion about an actual consolidation when it's still an idea and hasn't taken the form of a charter with specific aspects for people to relate to."

Two surveys in one

The Sun conducted two parallel surveys, although identical questions were used in both. Because the methods of conducting the two surveys were so markedly different, the results are being reported separately rather than combined.

On Nov. 17, The Sun mailed copies of the unification survey to 2,000 registered voters in Alachua County. The mailing list was a representative sample of Democrats, Republicans, third-party and no-party registrations. The mailed survey packages included self-addressed and stamped return envelopes.

Those who received surveys in the mail had one thing in common: All had voted in the last three general elections.

For the purpose of identification, this survey group was labeled "Super Voters."

"The methodology used to conduct the research is no different than the ones used by major pollsters," said Bill Truett, market development and research director for The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group.

Truett, who has conducted research polls for more than 20 years, oversaw the design of the unification survey and analyzed the results.

"A random sample was produced that equally selected demographic groups that represent `likely voters' in Alachua County," he said of the Super Voter survey. "I'm very confident in these results."

Then, on Nov. 23, The Sun published the same survey in its Sunday Issues & Trends section. Readers were invited to complete the survey, clip it out and return it to The Sun. The survey could also be taken online, by accessing the Sun's Web page. Because of the open-ended manner in which it was conducted, the results of this second survey cannot be verified as an accurate reading of prevailing public opinion.

For purposes of identification, this group was labeled "Sun Readers."

Of the 2,000 Super Voter surveys mailed out, 348 usable surveys, or 17.4 percent, were returned. In addition, 176 usable Sun Reader surveys were received.

A question of confidence

The surveys asked respondents to rate the quality of leadership on the city and county commissions. And both Super Voters and Sun Readers tended to register relatively low opinions on that score.

For instance, just 2 percent (seven) of Super Voters, rated the City Commission "excellent," and only 24 percent (84) judged the leadership on the City Commission to be "good." On the other hand, 39 percent (137) deemed the City Commission to be "fair" on leadership, while 26 percent (90) rated it "poor." About 9 percent either did not answer or marked "don't know."

Among Sun Readers, 1 percent (two) said "excellent," and just 18 percent (32) said "good," while 39 percent (68) said "fair" and 34 percent (60) marked "poor."

As for the County Commission, only 1 percent (five) of Super Voters said "excellent," and just 22 percent (77) said "good." A much larger contingent (43 percent, or 150) judged the County Commission to be "fair," while 22 percent (77) said "poor" and 12 percent (39) did not respond or said "don't know."

No Sun Reader thought the County Commission deserved an "excellent" rating on leadership, and just 15 percent (27) said "good." Sun Readers were almost equally split between "fair" (40 percent) and "poor" (39 percent), while 6 percent did not answer or said "don't know."

Some readers included written comments that may help explain their relatively low regard for the two commissions.

"Currently there is too much parochial bickering and self-interest instead of the common good," one Super Voter wrote.

"It (unification) would help stop the constant fighting," another commented. "We are all adults, not preschoolers."

Even a strong opponent of unification complained that there is "too much turmoil between the commissioners now! Politics!"

Not working well together

Both Super Voters and Sun Readers were even more critical of the two commissions when it came to intergovernmental cooperation. Asked if city and county elected officials work well together for the good of the community, only 6 of Super Voters strongly agreed, and just 20 percent agreed. On the other hand, 41 percent (143 Super Voters) disagreed, and 23 percent (80) strongly disagreed.

Sun Readers were even more critical: Just 2 percent strongly agreed that officials worked well together, and 6 percent (10) agreed. Conversely, 41 percent (72) disagreed, and 44 percent (77) strongly disagreed.

"Anything that would reduce costs and stop the bickering would be an improvement," said one unification supporter.

Support for unification

Asked to register their opinions on unifying Alachua County and Gainesville governments, 32 percent (113) of Super Voters marked "strongly support," while 33 percent (114) said "support." Only 16 percent (54) said "oppose," while just 14 percent (72) said "strongly oppose." Only a handful of Super Voters (20) said "don't know" or didn't answer the question.

Sun Readers even more emphatically favored unification, with 66 percent (117) saying they "strongly support" and 14 percent (24) marking "support." Only 7 percent (13) of Sun Readers opposed, while just 11 percent (19) strongly opposed. Two percent said "don't know."

"We waste money with two boards of government (and) duplicative services," wrote one supporter.

However, a Newberry resident who strongly opposed unification wrote, "I feel like if we merged we would get very little and Gainesville would get it all."

Overall, support for unification cut across city-county lines as well as the political spectrum. For instance a clear majority of Super Voters who live in Gainesville (70 percent) said they either support or strongly support unification. A somewhat smaller majority of Super Voters living outside Gainesville (55 percent) also marked "support" or "strongly support."

Survey takers were also asked to identify their political leaning. Among Super Voters, self-identified liberals supported unification by a 71 percent margin, moderates supported it by 68 percent, and conservatives by 61 percent.

Money, efficiency, planning

Asked if unification would save money, result in more efficient local government, improve economic development prospects or help improve metro and countywide growth management and planning, solid majorities of both Super Voters and Sun Readers agreed. In many cases, even opponents of unification said they agreed on those questions.

"Two of anything always costs more than one," commented a supporter. "Unification, the sooner the better."

For instance, 66 percent of Super Voters agreed that unification would save money. Interestingly enough, 24 percent of those who opposed unification also said they believed money could be saved by merging.

Likewise, 59 percent of Super Voters said a merger would result in more efficient government, while 81 percent of Sun Readers thought that unification would improve the community's economic development prospects.

The proposition that a merged city-county government would improve comprehensive planning drew the largest consensus of all. Among Sun Readers, 85 percent agreed, while Super Voters agreed by a 70 percent margin.

Small town independence

Asked if the small towns should remain autonomous of unified government, both Super Voters (71 percent) and Sun Readers (84 percent) agreed. Even Gainesville residents tended to support small city autonomy; with 68 percent of Super Voters and 83 percent of Sun Readers living in the city answering "yes" to that question.

And it's clear, from written comments received, that the fate of the small cities worries many of the non-Gainesville residents who said they oppose unification.

"Urban and rural don't mix," one Super Voter said.

"Some city-county services should be unified, but I favor non-Gainesville Alachua County towns keeping their local governments," another opponent wrote.

Still another objected: "Under consolidation/common government schemes, satellite communities lose federal matching funds and local priority projects are subordinated in favor of high-density communities."

"Although I support the idea of unification in theory," commented another, "I'm afraid that the outlying communities' interests will be subsumed into the already prevailing Gainesville-centric viewpoint."

On the other hand, some Gainesville residents were equally adamant about not wanting to see the city's influence diluted by suburban or rural interests.

"We have a relatively progressive city in a backward county," one Gainesville opponent wrote. "We don't want to lose our progressive amenities."

Another objected: "What about GRU? We don't want to just give it to the county."

Elected vs. appointed

A perennial sticking point when communities consider unification is whether the merged law enforcement should be headed by an elected sheriff - as are most county agencies - or professional, appointed chiefs, as are most municipal forces.

In both surveys, clear majorities expressed a preference for an elected sheriff. That even held true among Gainesville residents, who are accustomed to having their Police Department headed by an appointed chief.

Among Super Voters, 66 percent (231) preferred an elected sheriff, and among Sun Readers, 72 percent (126) would opt for a sheriff.

Super Voters living in Gainesville likewise preferred an elected sheriff by a 64 percent (167) margin, while 64 percent (76) of Gainesville residents participating in The Sun Readers survey sided with a sheriff. On the question of what the role of the mayor should be in a unified government, results of the two polls differed somewhat. Among Super Voters, 54 percent (189) would prefer a mayor who acted as presiding officer over the commission while a professional manager ran the day-to-day operations of the unified government. Forty-one percent (141) expressed a preference for a mayor who had executive authority to oversee governmental operations. Sun Readers, on the other hand, preferred an executive mayor by a 51 percent (90) margin, while 42 percent (74) would chose a presiding mayor and appointed manager. "One of the things we see is that when given the option and if circumstances are similar between city and county, there is a tendency to adopt that (model)," Hayes said. Currently, both Gainesville and Alachua County have appointed managers, and Gainesville has a "weak mayor" system, in which the mayor's main responsibility is to preside over City Commission meetings.

Charts and graphics were created by Jake Fuller.

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