No multiple choice votes allowed in Florida. That complicates decision on Confederate monument

The relocation of the downtown Bradenton Confederate monument is back in the hands of the Board of County Commissioners after a legal opinion revealed that a multiple choice option could not be presented to Manatee voters.

County Attorney Mitchell Palmer warned commissioners that Florida law mandates referendum questions be presented as yes or no questions, limiting the board to only one site option. According to a staff report, there are about 36 places the statue could be relocated in the county.

Deputy County Administrator John Osborne informed the board of the options that would satisfy their promise to restore the monument to an “equally prominent” location. Commissioners seemed to lean toward two options — county owned property on Church Street in Ellenton, adjacent to the Gamble Plantation; or Rye Preserve Park in Parrish.

“We thought we had this decision figured out by putting it on the ballot, but that didn’t work out so well,” Commissioner Stephen Jonsson said.

Instead, the board will have county staff research two preferred sites, while holding meetings to discuss with the public. A motion that included language to add the referendum question to the 2020 ballot failed by a 2-5 vote.

That decision would leave them in a tough spot, Commissioner Betsy Benac pointed out.

“If the people show up and say they don’t want it (at the location we choose), then we’re back to square one,” she said.

Palmer advised that the decision to add the question as a referendum could be made at a later date, but the majority of the commissioners agreed that the decision is theirs to make.

“The voters should make that decision, but the reality of it is that we have to make the decision, us seven,” said Commissioner Reggie Bellamy.

County officials said they’re looking for a way to incorporate citizen feedback in the decision, but the lack of a multiple choice vote left them with few options. The board voted May 7 to appoint an advisory board to select three options for the ballot, but commissioners reconsidered that decision, as well, after reflecting on the potential impact to public safety for those board members.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh argued against her fellow board members making any decision without the public having a say.

“The bottom line is that I believe it should be up to the people and not this board. The people of this county are very upset and don’t trust the government in this regard,” said Baugh. “They don’t feel we’ll have their concerns at hand. We lost a lot of trust in the community on this issue.”

After a violent attack in Charlottesville, Va., the county reacted to concerns of public safety on Aug. 23, 2017, by voting to remove and relocate the memorial, which is etched with the names of Confederate leaders Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, just one day after hundreds of protestors rallied outside the courthouse. The monument was damaged during its removal, and is currently in storage.

The monument was erected in 1924, nearly 60 years after the end of the Civil War. According to History.com, numerous Confederate monuments were erected between 1900 and 1920, during the Jim Crow era.

“I can’t say what the thoughts of the people were in 1924 when they put that monument up,” Benac said. “But I know what people think of it now.”

Critics have said the courthouse, where citizens go to seek a fair trial and justice, is the wrong home for the historic obelisk.

“If you look at history, the facts are that many of these monuments were mass produced at the turn of the century during times of civil unrest as a way to tell people that we may have lost the war but white supremacy still rules,” said Commissioner Misty Servia.

“Outside of the courthouse, where we seek justice for all, that memorial represents, for the minority group, intimidation, inequality and injustice,” Bellamy added.

It’s a controversial issue that has divided the Manatee community, officials said. The consensus seemed clear that the monument would not be put back at the courthouse again.

“Hell would freeze over before it’s back at the courthouse because it’s not the temperament of the board or the people,” Jonsson said.

Residents who spoke during the public comment portion of the discussion fell on either side of the debate.

Joe Kennedy said he didn’t think any of the sites Manatee considered would meet the “equally prominent” criteria, while Catherine Edwards claimed that the history of the Confederacy isn’t worth respecting.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve a motion ordering county staff to investigate the Church Street and Rye Preserve locations, along with taking public input in meetings, to evaluate the two options. Commissioners Carol Whitmore and Baugh cast dissenting votes.