Tallahassee City Districting Advocates Spend Weekend Lashing Out On Twitter

After failing to persuade his fellow Charter Review Committee appointees to support his proposal for single-member city districts, pro-developer advocate and mayoral appointment Jared Willis lashed out at critics of the plan in a series of social media posts beginning late Thursday night. 

The flurry of posts made on X, formerly known as Twitter, included an accusation that local elections analyst Matthew Isbell was paid by Willis’ CRC colleague Dr. Howard Kessler and City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow to sour public opinion on single-member districts. 

“You are a liar, a grifter, and a paid shill, and these are the receipts,” said Willis while sharing screenshots of 2018 campaign payments to Isbell by then-candidates Kessler and Matlow.

According to Isbell, Willis’ accusations were repeated in a post that ran as a paid advertisement on X, receiving over fourteen thousand views (and just thirteen likes) as of Monday afternoon.

After several commenters questioned the logic of connecting six-year-old paid services to comments made by a private citizen in the last few weeks, Willis appeared to partially walk back his comments.

“Obviously, these payments from 2018 are not for advocacy in 2024,” Willis wrote in a reply to his public post the morning after accusing Isbell. “They are relevant because they show a business relationship dating back to 2018, a relationship which could have continued outside of a campaign cycle or in other capacities that would not need to be publicly reported.”

Isbell flatly denied any impropriety in text messages to Florida New Signal. “I wasn’t paid for any of my analysis.  As anyone who knows me can attest, I literally use my free time to write what I care about.” In addition to his comments at CRC meetings, Isbell made his case against single-member districts on his election data blog, MCI Maps

His site describes his extensive experience consulting for “candidates seeking every level of government office, from city commission to the U.S. House of Representatives,” and states that he is available for contract work.

“Redistricting and election paid analysis is not a new or secret thing,” Isbell continued. “Had I been paid, I would have had no issue making it clear.” 

Dr. Kessler, appointed to the CRC by Commissioner Jack Porter, called the incident “concerning and disappointing” in comments to Florida New Signal.

“Jared Willis is a bright young man who unfortunately chooses to include me in his false innuendos. The disrespect he has shown to the public and to professionals does not change the fact that he knows better.”

Isbell suggested that the heated rhetoric from proponents of the change supported his analysis. 

“The anger over the last few days from these figures tells you how much they had personally invested in a districting system,” Isbell said. “It’s a clear sign they have no merit on the actual issue when all they can do is attack the messenger with conspiracies.”

Jimmy Midyette, a Jacksonville attorney & LGBTQ advocate,  replied to a public post on X about the paid advertisement. “Not a good look by the mayor and his people,” Midyette observed. “Matt has a decent defamation case… The paid services were six years ago and for work unrelated to speaking as a private citizen in 2024.”

Willis was not the only advocate for single-member districts to cry foul over Isbell’s analysis and public comments. Steve Stewart, a conservative commentator and perennial candidate for city commission, claimed Isbell had intentionally misled the CRC and the public and that Isbell was “on Matlow’s payroll” in a testy exchange on X over the weekend. 

Ahead of the final CRC vote, Stewart publicly voiced support for Willis’ districting plan. He spoke about it at a meeting of the Killearn Homeowners Association, who went on to endorse single-member districts in a public statement. On his radio show, he claimed that the change would help oust City Commissioners Matlow and Porter.

Stewart’s accusations against Isbell appeared to stem from a misunderstanding on his part, conflating single-member districts with residency districts. According to Isbell’s replies to Stewart’s public post, the latter are substantively distinct in that they “require all commissioners to win At-Large.”

One other commenter noted that according to Stewart’s definition of districts, “none of the 67 county commissions would have At-Large elections… and none of the school boards would be considered At-Large either.”

In texts to the Florida New Signal, Isbell reiterated his rejection of these accusations. “I spoke on the issue because I care about my city and the people in it. Unlike those pushing the issue, I have no interest in running for a seat carved out for myself.”

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