Wednesday, January 17, 2018
News Roundup

Dunedin voters to see charter changes on November ballot

DUNEDIN — It's shaping up to be a lengthy ballot for Dunedin voters who head to the polls in November.

In addition to selecting candidates vying for three City Commission seats, residents this fall will decide on a slew of proposed charter changes, including commissioner term limits.

Under the term limit proposal, commissioners who currently can serve an unlimited number of years would be restricted to two consecutive four-year terms each.

Additionally, a term-limited mayor would be required to sit out two years before running again for either a commission seat or mayor. A term-limited commissioner, however, could run immediately for mayor under the proposal.

The goal, officials said, is to keep ideas fresh and encourage citizen participation in a process that tends to favor incumbents.

"This isn't a career," said Vice Mayor Ron Barnette, "and getting some fresh blood is a good idea."

That ballot item is among a half-dozen proposed by Dunedin's Charter Review Committee, a panel of seven volunteers tasked last summer with reviewing the city charter. The committee is appointed by the City Commission every five years to update the document, which effectively serves as Dunedin's constitution.

The panel recently presented its ideas to the commission, which unanimously approved sending several of the recommendations to the voters. Commissioners outright vetoed one recommendation and will further discuss several others late this month.

Referendum ballot language must be submitted to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections by 5 p.m. Aug. 3. The city charter cannot be changed without voters' approval.

In addition to term limits, Dunedin commissioners have so far agreed that voters should also decide whether:

•A four-fifths super-majority vote, rather than a simple majority, should be required to hire or fire the city clerk. The volunteer committee pushed for similar vote requirements for the city attorney and city auditor to protect them from political game-playing that could affect their livelihoods, but commissioners said they are already protected by clauses in their contracts.

•The vice mayor's position will be rotated annually, except in cases of extenuating circumstances. Commissioners have long done this on their own, but committee members said they wanted it spelled out in the charter to remind future commissions that incumbents shouldn't use the position to shut out other potential candidates.

Amid confusion over what types of crimes would be covered, commissioners delayed discussing whether to expand the city charter's definition of "conviction" — one of the measures that would force a commissioner to vacate office.

Charter committee members say "conviction" should be defined as a determination of guilt, even if the commissioner pleads no contest or a court withholds the conviction from his or her record. The change, they said, would bring Dunedin's charter in line with other local governments.

But Mayor Dave Eggers and commissioners wondered whether something as simple as a bounced check might fall under this category, and worried that the new definition might "take away the latitude of commissioners to evaluate particular cases that we don't feel warrant removal of a commissioner."

They'll discuss the matter again when Jim Stearns, the criminal defense attorney and committee member who suggested the revised definition, can attend a commission meeting.

Commissioners also asked City Attorney Tom Trask to research whether it's worthwhile to add two of their own ideas to the November referendum.

One came from Commissioner David Carson. Right now, the charter gives the commission 150 days to act on a citizen petition for a charter change. He wants that window shortened to 60 days to prevent commissioners from ignoring a petition until it is no longer relevant.

The charter currently requires two commission meetings a month. Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski wants a more flexible schedule, such as mandating a certain number of meetings per year. That would allow for vacations for staffers and commissioners.

The City Commission voted against deleting a sentence from the charter stating that elected leaders' salary recognizes their office "is a matter of public service to the community and is not actual compensation for services rendered." Panel members said they wanted to show support for a pay increase to match commissioners' increased workload. But commissioners said they believe Dunedin's pay is in line with other cities, which base salaries on city size and not workload.

And it won't be stipulated in the charter, but commissioners said they'll schedule a workshop to discuss the committee's recommendation that new commissioners receive training.

"We do learn a lot on the fly sometimes," Eggers said. "To get perspective would help."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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Published: 01/17/18