Santa Rosa County voters will head to the polls this November to decide whether or not to declare the county a "pro-life sanctuary" after commissioners declined to take action on the controversial resolution Thursday.
The board unanimously voted to direct staff to draft ballot language that will ask voters whether or not they want the county to symbolically declare itself an anti-abortion county. Commissioners were originally going to vote on whether or not to adopt the resolution themselves on Thursday, but ultimately decided not to take action and instead to leave the decision up to voters in November.
The move came after nearly three hours of public forum at Thursday's regularly scheduled commission meeting at Tiger Point Community Center in Gulf Breeze, with both pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion advocates showing up by the dozens to voice their opinions on the resolution.
The arguments ultimately came down to if the county should take the anti-abortion position to send a message to lawmakers in Tallahassee or if the county shouldn't wade into the national issue at all.
Mike Duren, a Pace resident, was of the latter opinion. He said he didn't think it was the board's place to take a stance on abortion, whether or not they agreed with it.
"My issue is not one here to defend or defeat abortion, it's the fact that I don't think the County Commission should take up the issue. ... I know y'all are burdened with levying taxes, collecting taxes and determining where taxes are best used for everybody. I know y'all have to deal with infrastructure, permitting and growth for the county," Duren said. "But this issue, I don't think, belongs with the County Commission."
Jim Eastman, a Navarre resident, disagreed. He said he thought it was important that the county stand up for "the voiceless."
"I very much endorse the use of this resolution to show that Santa Rosa County stands for life," Eastman said. "It is the civil rights movement of our time. … We are simply being part of, as has been shown and referenced earlier today, a correction of a past mistake that we have done in this country. It is a moral issue, not a religious issue."
The resolution would be purely symbolic and would not change any laws. It would, however, create an official, government-sanctioned, anti-abortion stance in one of Florida's fastest growing counties at a time when abortion rights are being debated at the state and national levels.
Had the resolution passed, Santa Rosa County would have become Florida's first "pro-life sanctuaries." Several counties in Texas have adopted similar resolutions.
Commissioners change their minds on the resolution
The board indicated Monday it would adopt the resolution Thursday, even though Chairman Don Salter initially refused to put the item on the agenda. Salter maintained that it was too controversial to be taken up by local government and that he had just as many pro-abortion rights activists sending him emails as he did anti-abortion activists, but he was overridden by his four colleagues.
On Monday, the commissioners voted 4-1 to direct the county attorney to tweak language in the resolution so it could be discussed and likely adopted Thursday.
However, after the public forum Thursday, two commissioners broke rank and sided with Salter — Lane Lynchard and Dave Piech.
Lynchard said "80% of the emails" in his inbox were from people opposing the resolution.
"I don’t think it’s proper for this board to consider this issue. I think I was wrong when I acquiesced Monday to have it on the agenda. I think this board needs to stick with our duties and responsibilities under Florida law. This resolution accomplishes nothing other than pitting people against one another," Lynchard said. "I can think back over my almost 12 years in office ... this has generated more consternation and angst among the public than any other (agenda item)."
On Thursday, Piech echoed his sentiments Monday that the resolution should be put before a vote, saying all 180,000 Santa Rosa County residents should have the opportunity to decide whether or not to make the county officially pro- or anti-abortion.
Bob Cole, who proposed the resolution, and Sam Parker initially made a motion Thursday to approve the resolution, but rescinded it in favor of letting voters decide.
Staff will come back to the board with a draft of the ballot language at the first meeting in March, and it will appear on the ballot for the general election in November, when voters will also decide on the U.S. president and other national and local elected officials.
It will not cost taxpayers additional funds to put the non-binding referendum on the existing general election ballot, according to Santa Rosa County Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane.
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.