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Plant City considers change in how it fills vacant commission seat

PLANT CITY

City commissioners say it doesn't make sense to pay $15,000 to hold a special election to fill a vacancy, and it can be tough on the winner to go through a campaign all over again weeks later.

But that's the way the city's charter reads.

Commissioners, in a bid to save money and ease the burden of back-to-back campaigns, are poised Monday to decide if voters should be asked to amend the charter so commissioners can appoint a successor to outgoing Commissioner Dan Raulerson rather than hold a special election.

Raulerson, a former mayor, is running for state House and will resign his commission seat in November.

Under the charter, his successor would need to win a special election in mid January and then win again in April — when Raulerson would have faced re-election — to stay in office.

A public hearing is set Monday. Afterward, commissioners will vote on whether to put the issue on the November ballot.

Commissioners say the move makes sense. The timing of back-to-back campaigns is grueling and skipping the special election would save the city $15,000.

"This wouldn't have anything to do with changing the election process itself," Commissioner William Dodson said. "The person appointed would still have to run. The purpose of this is strictly to prevent a second election in close proximity to the first one."

Plant City wouldn't be the only Florida municipality to amend its charter for the sake of convenience and savings. Tallahassee did it in 2009; Tampa changed its charter in 1988.

In Tampa's case, the resulting amendment allowed council members to appoint a replacement for terms with less than 15 months remaining. After that, a special election is required. Plant City would enact the same 15-month mandate, city attorney Kenneth Buchman said.

Political analysts are divided on the vacancy issue. Scrapping an election, any election, in favor of appointments can trigger accusations of circumventing the electoral process, they say.

Others analysts argue the move is fine as long as the term being filled doesn't exceed half the total. Raulerson would have eight months left on his three-year term when he resigns.

"I don't think it's a problem if you're looking at someone to serve a few months," said Scott Paine, a former Tampa council member and an associate professor of communication, government and world affairs at the University of Tampa.

"You also have to consider the cost of special elections to a small municipality, number one, and number two, the level of participation, which can be abysmally poor and raises doubts about there being a democratic mandate to hold a special election for a brief period of time in office."

What constitutes a "brief period of time" can be a sticking point depending on the length of terms, he said.

Ben Wilcox, research director at the nonpartisan watchdog group Integrity Florida, said he backs appointments as long as the appointee doesn't seek re-election. Allowing appointed officials to run again would give them a leg up on other candidates.

"To some extent, if you're going to fill that term with an appointed position, the voters already aren't having a say in who's representing them," he said. "By appointing someone, you're creating an incumbency and incumbency definitely has its advantages when running for re-election."

Plant City officials say they're not favoring anyone and not trying to create an incumbency, but are trying to simplify the process and save taxpayers money. The charter already allows for appointments in emergencies. The problem in this case is that the charter requires an election within 45 days.

By suspending the rule, commissioners can open the door to another option: Appointing a commissioner with no desire to seek re-election. The move isn't without precedent. In the past, commissioners filled vacancies with former commissioners with no designs on running again.

Both Dodson and Mayor Michael Sparkman said they wouldn't object to the same thing happening this time.

"My view is that when the time comes, we would ask the city manager or city attorney to contact a previous office holder and determine who if anyone would have any interest in doing this," Dodson said. "It could be a very small group of those who would be willing. It would be a simpler process. This is just temporary. We don't need to go through an elaborate process."

But asking appointees to not run for re-election could pose unique challenges. For one, having candidates sign "no-run pledges" wouldn't be legally binding, said Buchman and Martin Shelby, attorney for Tampa's City Council.

It also wouldn't be practical. Two years ago, after being appointed to Tampa's City Council and saying they wouldn't seek re-election, both Yvonne Yolie Capin and Curtis Stokes ran for re-election. Capin won a seat. Stokes lost.

"People change their minds. It does happen," Buchman said. "When we selected David Sollenberger (for city manager), he was told he would be staying for a month, on an interim basis. But he stayed seven years. People change their minds."

Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 661-2454 or rshopes@tampabay.com.

Plant City considers change in how it fills vacant commission seat 07/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 5, 2012 4:30am]
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