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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Sunrise's Political Representation Trails Population Growth
By Jeremy Milarsky
March 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.
SUNRISE · His supporters told him to run as Bill Colon, the last name pronounced like the punctuation mark, not Bill Colón, like the fragrance.
When he campaigned for a City Council seat in the 1980s, many residents pronounced his name the "Americanized" way even though he was a native of Puerto Rico. Colon didn't bother to correct them.
"I didn't run as a Hispanic," said Colon, who served 1981-87. "Some of the people that were supporting me ... told me just don't tell people that you're Puerto Rican, don't make any mention of it."
Fifteen years after leaving office, Colon still is the only minority elected in Sunrise.
Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of blacks in the city tripled and the percentage of Hispanics doubled. Today, nearly 40 percent of Sunrise's 86,000 residents are minorities. But on the west wall of the commission chambers at City Hall, where photographs of past city officials are hung, every face is white.
Colon's explanation: "I think the vote control is in the condominiums: white Jewish people. No matter what people say, they're not going to let a black into office."
Marty Miller, president of the Sunrise Lakes Phase 3 Condominium Association, disagrees. "The people here vote according to the qualifications of the candidates," he said.
How ever the condo residents choose, they tend to determine who ends up in power, especially with commissioners elected at-large.
The four phases of Sunrise Lakes traditionally provide the highest voter turnout figures in the city. By contrast, the city's east side, home to much of the minority population, has much lower figures.
Last year, two minority candidates ran for the commission: Patrick Jabouin, who is Haitian-American, and Fernando Valencia, who is Hispanic. Both lost decisively.
Some residents think minorities could have an easier time getting into office if commissioners ran in districts. But there has never been an organized push for change.
"Most of the commissioners are opposed to it," Valencia said. "But I think districts would give more people a chance to get involved."
Mayor Steve Feren doesn't like the idea of districts, because he thinks they could lead to fiefdom politics, in which elected officials concentrate on the needs of their constituents rather than the city. He said it would be difficult to draw a district that would contain mostly minority voters.
"I've been representing people for 15 years, and I can't recall any single time when people came up to me and said we were neglecting minority people," he said.