Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 7, 2019
Editor’s Note: “The Future of Nassau County Government,” is the introduction to a series of four articles published by Suanne Thamm in June of 2015. Her articles focusing on the Charter Form of Government began when retired Chief Judge Donald Moran spoke to the county commission and urged them to change their form of government. “Your system of governance that you have in this community is in my opinion is kind of antiquated.” (The City of Fernandina Beach operates under a charter form of government, however, Nassau County does not.)
Suanne’s articles continues to capture attention nationally and across the state of Florida. The articles are one of the most sought after articles in our seven year Fernandina Observer collection. We hope you enjoy.
Nassau County is changing. Whereas once the county was primarily rural with industry and development concentrated on Amelia Island, today the proliferation of traffic lights and strip malls along A-1-A between Interstate 95 and Amelia Island is visible proof that development has broadened to include more formerly rural countryside. A new community, that will bring even more development, including new schools and roads, is planned for timberlands between Amelia Island and Highway 17.
Slowly but surely, many county government offices have been relocating to the mainland. The Robert M. Foster Judicial Center in Yulee, once called the “judicial annex,” dwarfs the Historic County Courthouse that still anchors the county seat in Fernandina Beach. Florida State College at Jacksonville has a physical presence in the county at the Betty P. Cook Center near the Judicial Center and is poised to become a full college campus.
The Crawford Diamond, west of Interstate 95, is poised and ready to attract more industry to Nassau County.
The quality of Nassau County schools has convinced many young families from surrounding areas to move to Nassau County.
Is Nassau County government, a non-charter government, able to provide the services and infrastructure needed for this once rural county? Or has the time come to look at new ways of governing to help county residents themselves make more of the decisions that will affect them?
Would/should Nassau County voters embrace home rule via charter government to assume greater control over their future and their tax dollars?
This is the first in a series of articles that will examine county government and hopefully open a community discussion on ways to improve local government, attract more candidates from diverse backgrounds to seek elected offices, and encourage new thinking on public issues as Nassau County faces the challenges and opportunities of development and population growth.
County government in Florida
(Note that information in this section is taken from material available on the Florida League of Cities website and the Florida Association of Counties’ Florida County Government Guide.)
Today, Florida has 67 counties – the oldest created in 1821 and the newest in 1925. The board of county commissioners is the elected body that oversees a county’s governance. Counties must carry out constitutionally mandated responsibilities, and those established by the state. The constitutional services of a county are law enforcement and jail administration, tax collection, property appraisal, state court administration and supervision of elections.
In addition, counties are charged with road maintenance, public health, solid waste disposal and other environmental responsibilities. Other county services are offered as determined by the elected county officials.
From the beginning, the state followed a principle known as Dillon’s Rule for administering local government. Dillon’s Rule construes grants of power to localities very narrowly. The bottom line is — if there is a question about a local government’s power or authority, then the local government does NOT receive the benefit of the doubt. Under Dillon’s Rule, one must assume the local government does NOT have the power in question.
As Florida developed, the top-down system of county administration became increasingly cumbersome. If a county wanted to deviate from state requirements to any degree, it needed approval via a special act of the legislature. The legislature became overwhelmed with hundreds of special acts each session as part of its micromanagement of local government. The rapid growth of Florida’s post war population required a quicker response for counties and cities to deal with local problems.
Finally in the 1960’s-1970’s era, and in response to concerns raised by state and local officials, Florida made specific changes to reform county government structure. Article VIII Section 1c of the Florida Constitution adopted in 1968 provided counties with the option of adopting a charter to establish their own government. And under Section 1g charter counties gained significant powers of home rule that allow them to do anything not specifically prohibited by state law.
Article VIII also set up a system of government for non-charter counties establishing county officers and commissioners and even providing for a more limited version of home rule for these counties as spelled out by state law.
Following up on these constitutional changes and to clarify and overcome resistance to home rule, state lawmakers passed legislation in 1971 (the County Home Rule Act), 1973 (Municipal Home Rule Powers Act) and 1974 (the County Administration Law and Optional County Charter Law) setting up a code of county powers that expanded home rule for non-charter counties and repealed a number of laws that narrowed county power.
Today 20 Florida counties, ranging in size from Miami Dade (2.6M) and Duval (890K) to Wakulla (31K) have adopted county charters. Alachua (251K), Columbia (68K) and Volusia (504K) counties, close neighbors of Nassau County (75K), have adopted charters.
Next: Charter vs. Non-charter county government
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.