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Dunedin city commissions could extend terms

DUNEDIN — Citing budget concerns, Dunedin city commissioners could extend their three-year terms by eight months without seeking a public vote.

Neither the state nor county would have a problem with that. In fact, Florida law allows for any municipality to change its election date to whenever it likes, allowing for city leaders to extend or shorten their terms while still in office.

The move has yet to find support or dissent from any of the sitting commissioners, who say they're taking the possibly contentious issue slowly and allowing time for citizen feedback before they vote.

But state statutes say Dunedin, or any city, needs even that much. To change an election date and postpone the transition of political power, all a city needs to do is pass an ordinance. In Dunedin, that means two hearings and a vote of approval by three of five commissioners.

"The city can set their terms anyway they want and put it in their charter anyway they like," said Nancy Whitlock, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections. "We wouldn't have any reason to get involved with it at all."

The lax oversight over city elections by county officers and state law allows local leaders to decide their own timeline.

"There certainly presents the opportunity from some self-serving politician who wants to lengthen their term in office to do so, and the voter has no recourse," said J. Edwin Benton, a professor of political science and public administration for the University of South Florida. "This is sort of one that slipped between the cracks. It's one of those idiosyncratic things where no one really thought about the potential for mischief."

Proposed by City Clerk Jerie Guegan, the move would shift the municipal election in March to when state, county and general elections take place in November.

Working off suggestions posed by Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, Guegan suggested the move could save tens of thousands of dollars now spent on organizing two separate polling dates.

Voter turnout also could increase, as it did when Largo made the move in 2007, Guegan said. But city staff members say they're concerned the move could confuse voters already tasked with larger races at the national or state level.

That formed one of the reasons the Dunedin commission sided with a charter review committee in 2007, which recommended the city stick to its March election. Guegan said that since then, with the addition of new voting systems and mail-in ballots, the cost of elections have more than doubled.

At City Hall on Thursday night, each commissioner agreed to suggest two Dunedin residents who would form an election review committee that could seek public comment. Mayor Dave Eggers estimated the commission could receive the committee's recommendation by May.

Eggers said the move, if approved, would be a one-time extension that would serve only to synchronize the elections.

"The reality is, if we switch it one time and we're allowed to do it by state statute, I don't think that's violating the spirit of what we're trying to do," he said. "This is too important to play games with."

Vice Mayor Julie Scales, like other commissioners, said she would wait to hear the public's input before choosing sides. She added that the process of passing an ordinance, involving one vote between the five commissioners, seemed oversimplified.

"I don't think that three people should make a decision that has important implications to the electoral process," Scales said.

The move could first take place in 2011, when Commissioners Julie Ward Bujalski and Ron Barnette would be up for re-election. There is no state or county election that year, meaning the first eight-month shift could possibly make no difference in cost savings.

In surveying people around town on the potential change, Commissioner David Carson said he has yet to find a clearly supported side. Increased savings and voter turnout were strong arguments for moving the election, he said, but he admitted he and others held concerns about how the new protocol could play out.

One member of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, Carson said, asked whether the commissioners would shorten their terms instead of expanding them.

"I would rather lose three months than add eight or nine months," Carson said. "The perception is terrible. I would rather not even get into that argument."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Dunedin city commissions could extend terms 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 1:05pm]
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