Residents of Winter Park, particularly those residing in Hannibal Square, have been increasingly vocal in their desire for more representation of their community within the city. Hannibal Square, a historically Black neighborhood on the West side of Winter Park, has played an integral role in the history of the community for well over a century, yet some residents claim it has not been proportionately represented in local government.
In 1887, before Winter Park received its city charter, two Black men, Walter B. Simpson and Frank R. Israel, were elected as aldermen, the equivalent of today’s city commissioner title. In 1893, Simpson and Israel left office, and shortly after concluding their time as aldermen, the town’s boundaries were redrawn to exclude the West side neighborhood. In 1925, the neighborhood was reinstated as a part of Winter Park when the community required more voters to become incorporated as a city. Despite multiple attempts, including by Barbara Chandler, manager of the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, another Black resident has not been able to acquire a commissioner seat in Winter Park since.
The City of Winter Park is governed by a mayor and four city commissioners who are elected for three-year terms using an at-large system, which residents advocating for more diverse representation are claiming is part of the problem. Under the standing system, all officials are elected by the entirety of the City’s voting population, which is 76% white, 10% Hispanic, 7% Black, and 3% Asian according the U.S. Census. Leaders in the Hannibal Square community have voiced concerns that this system gives control to the majority and therefore does not lend itself to balanced representation.
“The [current voting system] allows for whichever group that holds the majority in an area to control the vote and the power,” said LaWanda Thompson, Hannibal Square resident. “Some people say that anybody should be able to come and run for office in this area if you are charismatic and be able to sway the people to vote your way… but, it doesn’t make sense in our current power structure. How much can somebody sway you if you and your experiences are so much different than them?”
Single-member districts would allow separate districts within the city to each elect a representative, which according to local advocates for the switch, will create better opportunity for candidates representing the historically Black community to lead successful campaigns. Those who support changing to single-member districts hope to convince the commissioners and mayor to add the option to a future ballot on which for Winter Park residents to vote.
When asked about his thoughts on the proposed idea of re-districting, Mayor Steve Leary seemed to be satisfied with the city’s approach to representation: “right now, each citizen of Winter Park actually has five commissioners representing him or her.” Leary has also made it clear that he is not running for re-election.
According to Thompson, a major driving factor for wanting this change is that the mayor and city commissioners are simply not familiar with the experience of living in Hannibal Square and therefore could not possibly know what is best for the West side. Hannibal Square falls within the City of Winter Park Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which means a large amount of taxpayer dollars both from the city and Orange County are distributed to multiple programs intended to benefit the community.
Thompson feels a major issue is that Hannibal Square residents have no say in how the money is spent. “Our city council people come to our neighborhood, and they are the minority here, this is a historically Black area, but they tell us, ‘I know what’s best for your community,’ but really, they don’t and that’s what’s hurtful,” Thompson said. “What we want is representation that, yes, might look like us, but at the very least is someone who is our neighbor.”
Hannibal Square residents have been calling in to recent city commission meetings offering public comment on their support for single-member districts. On August 12, for instance, Hannah Dela stated to the mayor and city commissioners, “I am in full support of the single member district. It has been over 127 years since your Black constituents had proper representation in their own city and you should be ashamed of it.” Another resident, Chelsea Baker, followed stating, “It is a shame that no one has talked about [single-member districts] on this board particularly because there were lots of comments made about areas that are deemed low income and moderate, and none of you occupy that status.”
During a city commission meeting that took place in July, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper recommended that residents interested in the change implement a community initiative to gather and confirm direct support from other citizens via a petition as opposed to immediately agreeing to add it as a ballot item. Residents, including Thompson, have voiced concern regarding the dangers of asking the public to gather signatures on a petition during a pandemic. Towards the end of last week’s city commission meeting, Commissioner Todd Weaver asked that the topic be included on an upcoming meeting agenda for further discussion and expressed his support for adding it to a ballot.
“It’s just unfair for us as a commission who are meeting remotely to ask citizens to do a door-to-door petition drive to put this on a ballot,” Commissioner Weaver said. “I’d like support from this commission to allow this to go from the commission level to a ballot item and let the voters decide ‘yay or nay.’ I’ll support that, but I think the voters should decide on this because there is support for it.”
Commissioner Weaver received sufficient support from his fellow commissioners to include the topic on an upcoming meeting agenda.