Ripe for change

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 12:19 a.m.

If you wanted to put a positive spin on it, you could say that city and county commissioners earned a C-minus grade in the unification survey results that appear elsewhere on these pages today.

If you wanted to go negative, you could call it a D-plus.

Clearly, the "Super Voters," who participated in The Sun's mailed-out unification poll, and the "Sun Readers," who filled out the same poll after it was published in this newspaper, do not have a great deal of confidence in the leadership abilities of their elected commissioners. Super Voter results show that only 26 percent were willing to give city commissioners an excellent or good rating on leadership, and only 23 percent were feeling so generous toward the county commissioners.

And those who participated in both polls were no less critical when asked if city and county commissioners work well together for the good of the community.

There is no mystery to those findings. Some are likely fed up over traffic congestion. Others fuming over the inadequacy of city and county parks and recreation programs. Some are undoubtedly frustrated that the two commissions have still not merged their fire and rescue operations - despite a clearly expressed voter preference for just that in the last general election. Or perhaps it's discontent over poorly managed growth.

Whatever the cause, it's clear that the commissions are not winning many points for "customer satisfaction."

And we don't even think that's necessarily the fault of the commissioners themselves. With a few exceptions, they are well-intentioned people who are trying to do a difficult job under tough circumstances.

The problem, in our view, is that the two commissions are trying to serve a 21st century community with a 19th century delivery system. Simply put, two local governments are trying to serve the same metro area, and neither one is doing an adequate job due to limited resources and substantial political and bureaucratic roadblocks.

So we chose not to dwell on the most negative aspects of the survey results - the relatively low regard for the two commissions. Rather, we find it a positive and encouraging sign that those who responded to both polls seem so open and receptive to the idea of a unified Gainesville-Alachua County government.

And why shouldn't they be? Unification erases unnecessary jurisdictional boundaries and provides the opportunity to maximize resources. Instead of two fire departments, there would be one. Instead of two law enforcement agencies, there would be one.

Instead of two commissions doing a poor job of cooperating, a single commission would have sole responsibility for the common good.

The unification surveys come on the heels of an in-depth examination of the unification issue by The Sun's Editorial Department last fall. We looked at several once troubled cities - like Jacksonville, Nashville and Columbus, Ga. - that simplified their local governments through unification and grew much more prosperous as a result. We learned from university communities, including Lexington, Ky. and Athens, Ga., which discovered that fewer layers of government helped strengthen town-gown relations.

We believe the survey results indicate that the time is ripe for a citizens movement to mount a campaign for a unified Gainesville and Alachua County, just as a grass-roots movement more than a decade ago affected the merger of Athens-Clarke County.

In 2004, The Sun will continue to make the case for unification. We hope that community leaders, civic groups, neighborhood associations and others who care about the future of Gainesville and Alachua County will join us in this crusade for local government reform.

We believe the poll results reported today indicate that the voters are weary of the status quo and receptive to fundamental change.

In truth, it's not our elected commissioners who are failing us. Rather, it is an antiquated, cumbersome and wasteful structure of governance that is no longer making the grade. We are literally paying for more government than we need or want.

Citizens have it in their power to change all that. With leadership, will and a spirit of inclusiveness, determined residents can reinvent local government and, in the process, turn Gainesville-Alachua County into one of America's premier university communities.

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