The forces for and against city-county consolidation put their headquarters across Duval Street from each other in 1967. (Florida Times-Union file photo)
A deadly, strangling octopus or a “communistic plot?”
Those were some fighting words tossed around 50 years ago, when it became clear that not everyone was happy with the prospect of Jacksonville one day becoming the Bold New City of the South.
Indeed, consolidating the central city and the entire county into one big new city, plenty of people said, was an “ultra-liberal” big-government plan by elitists who thought they knew best.
Some called it “machine politics” at its worst, pushed by federal “commissars” in Washington.
A state representative complained: “There is nothing desirable or attractive about big, centralized, boss-controlled government.”
Right up to the Aug. 8, 1967, vote, there was still plenty of doubt in the outcome.
That was seen the day before in a Times-Union story that polled 40 registered voters. It found that 18 hadn’t made up their minds yet, and some just hated, hated, hated the idea.
“A poisonous evil” declared one man. “Amounts to nothing but a dictatorship,” said another. “I’ll keep paying the same for the rotten sanitation, police, electric and water service no matter what,” groused yet another.
Supporters, meanwhile, basically figured that it couldn’t hurt. “Change couldn’t be any sorrier than what we have,” one reckoned.
State Sen. Tom Slade told the Times-Union’s Richard Martin that he was “appalled” at the attacks on consolidation. Opponents, he charged, could be lumped in four categories: Those who profit by the existing government; politicians who’d lose their jobs or influence if things changed; those who think it’s all a “communistic plot;” and those who are just confused.
He figured there was nothing he could do about anyone but the last group, whom he hoped would place their faith “in your most accomplished and devoted civic and business leaders” backing the big plan.
In Jacksonville itself, just two of nine city council members supported consolidation, perhaps because they’d have to run again to keep those positions if the measure passed. On the separate five-member city commission, only Mayor Hans Tanzler came out and said it would be best for the city.
Martin covered consolidation for the newspaper, and wasn’t shy about his support for it. He even wrote a column two days before the vote, headlined “Civic Treason,” aimed at those who’d use “the lowest form of smear tactics to kill” consolidation.
And he approvingly quoted state Rep. Don Nichols, who came up with a memorable metaphor for the plan’s opponents.
Think of them, he said, as an octopus that emits a murky cloud of black ink to sow confusion. “If they are successful, the octopus will be able to come back and strangle the people of Jacksonville and Duval County again.”
Serious stuff, this, with supporters of consolidation dubbed the “white hats.” Which made the opponents the “black hats.”
The white hats argued again and again that Duval County would never reach its full potential if the city and surrounding county stayed separate.
Martin summed up that thinking in a story — “Why Do We Need Consolidation? A Review” — that noted the problems behind the “glitter and glamor” of Jacksonville’s new skyscrapers and public buildings.
Jacksonville, he wrote, was hemmed in by city limits set long ago. Population growth there was stagnant, while the cost of running the place (and accommodating the suburbanites who commuted there) was soaring.
Areas outside the city limits were growing, but had little political might to do anything about the problems that came with that growth — open drainage ditches and numerous septic systems among them.
Earlier annexation efforts were put forward in 1963 and 1964, but they went nowhere.
Then all Duval County public schools lost accreditation, a humiliating setback that had the effect of “shocking the community into a confrontation with its problems,” Martin said.
In response, Duval’s state legislators created a consolidation commission, and 18 months later a plan was put forward: Get rid of all the existing, overlapping governments across the county and make it one, with 19 city council members and a system that would allow a strong mayor.
Citizens were told it could more than double the population of new city of Jacksonville to more than 445,000, making it the biggest city in Florida. That’s something to brag about, supporters said.
There were sticking points, to be sure, among them the idea of abolishing the three beach cities and Baldwin. After some fuss, that was changed to allow them to vote for consolidation, while keeping their local governments. Having their cake and eating it too, one journalist said.
Then came election Tuesday.
Election officials predicted that, with an election this significant, surely at least 100,000 or more voters would show up.
That didn’t happen: Just 83,000, or 46 percent of voters, went to the polls.
But those who did were not confused by the deadly octopus of uncertainty or warnings of communistic plots.
The margin of victory — nearly 2-to-1 — was much wider than even the plan’s biggest boosters could have hoped for, stories said.
Once absentee votes came in, the official tally was 54,493 for and 29,768 against consolidation. The white hats had won. “A clear mandate,” Martin proclaimed.
Black voters in and out of the city voted yes by a comfortable margin, while upper-income districts approved it overwhelmingly. Jacksonville Beach and Atlantic Beach voted yes. Neptune Beach voted narrowly against it and Baldwin gave it a big thumbs down.
Rural areas — places such as Marietta, Whitehouse and Bayard — looked at consolidation with the most suspicion. Along with Baldwin, they went more than 2 to 1 against it.
The day after, the Journal’s lead editorial was clear: “The People Win,” it declared: “Floridians now know that the sleeping giant who sat at one of the most enviable spots in the state now means to shake off the slumber of years.”
A few weeks after the vote, Martin and the Times-Union’s Frank Young went to Nashville, Tenn., to see how its earlier city-county consolidation — which had often been held up as an example for Jacksonville — was faring.
Martin found a concrete example of hope for the new city of Jacksonville as he drove around what were once Nashville’s suburbs and saw “halos of twinkling lights” outlining the hills there.
“I was admiring this panorama one night,” he wrote, “when the thought struck me: ‘Those are street lights! Duval Countians will have them too, once consolidation is effected.’ ”
Later he noted the chagrin evident in Oklahoma City, which took great pride that it was, at more than 600 square miles, the largest American city in land area. That was, until “Miss Babs Fenwick of the Daily Oklahoman” newspaper called him to ask if it was true that Jacksonville would soon be even bigger.
Yup, he told her. There would be more than 800 square miles in that big new city.
The next day’s headline in the Oklahoman? In red print, it blared the shocking news: “We Might Not Be No. 1.”