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Largo considers changing terms of city commissioners

When tangible services are at risk due to declining revenue, cities overturn some unexpected stones in search of extra ways to save.

For Largo, one unusual category from which to wring some extra money is its election cycle — a process of municipal government that many take as automatic, and its cost, as inevitable.

But at around $71,000 to stage a local election in a non-presidential or countywide election year, commissioners are asking: Is it worth it?

As the deadline to file ballot questions approaches in July, commissioners are wrangling ways to reduce spending on the frequency of local elections by extending commission terms from three years to four.

Though the catch is this: Because they are trying to eliminate an election in 2011 to start saving right away, the math of aligning terms has proved to pit savings against perceptions of self-serving term extensions.

Some commissioners would need to have their terms extended under some proposed options, which can be accomplished only by a local referendum.

Other options include extending terms via referendum only after commissioners' current terms expire. But that route would still require the city to spend money on next year's election.

"It's frustrating," said Mayor Patricia Gerard.

Indeed, at a meeting Tuesday, commissioners' hands melted slowly from cheeks to chins, they sighed, and they exchanged long pauses as they deliberated over the option Largo voters might most likely embrace.

One option that would allow savings as soon as next year includes extending the terms of Commissioners Mary Gray Black (Seat 1) and Robert Murray (Seat 2) by one year, extending Gigi Arntzen's term (Seat 4) by two years and extending the mayor's term by two years.

Afterward, all seats would sit neatly on even years.

Another option that would perfectly align future elections in even years, but wouldn't result in any savings next year, would keep Seats 1 and 2 at three years until 2014 while extending other seats to four-year terms.

Black said while she preferred a reorganization that would allow for immediate savings, she would support "whatever the people want."

Vice Mayor Woody Brown said he was concerned that even though it was possible to save immediately by extending certain terms, it would perhaps damage public trust by doing so.

Gerard said whatever the outcome, ballot language would need to be finished by next month.

"I would prefer not to have an election next year. The budget's really tight," Gerard said Thursday.

She said that the money saved could pay for one of the more contentious cuts the city faces: closing McGough Nature Center (nominally, a little more than $50,000).

On extending terms to save money and reduce costs in the future, Gerard said she suspects the public will understand.

"I don't think that's a hard thing to communicate to the community. I think they want us to save money," Gerard said.

The differences in turnout between even and odd years are stark.

In the 2008 presidential election year, more votes were cast than any in the past decade —with 69 percent of registered voters participating. There were 15,308 precinct ballots cast, and 14,173 absentee ballots mailed.

In the 2009 election year, when only Commissioner Curtis Holmes was elected with contention (Gerard and Arntzen had no opponents on the ballot), 1,556 voters showed up to polls and 4,698 mailed in ballots — a 14 percent turnout.

In 2007, the turnout was also low — 12 percent.

Other cities have also moved or are moving to the four-year terms for similar reasons.

Dunedin will ask its voters to extend future commission terms to four years this year, and Clearwater successfully extended term lengths — though no sitting commissioner's term was extended in the process.

The back-and-forth mulling at Tuesday's meeting was dizzying enough to push commissioners to the point of (mock) monarchical ambition.

"We could abolish the charter and establish a monarchy," suggested Holmes.

"Then I could be the queen of Gerardlandia," Gerard replied. "I have the tiara at home."

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

Largo considers changing terms of city commissioners 06/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 5:02pm]
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