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Repeal of term limits for Clearwater City Council members proposed

CLEARWATER — A volunteer group tasked with reviewing the city charter has proposed an unconventional change for the City Council: no more term limits.

Council members would be able to serve indefinitely, without the two-term, eight-year limit that was imposed by voters 15 years ago. That limit will force Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member John Doran out of office next year.

"If people are unhappy with the way their council is performing," Charter Review Committee chair and former city clerk Cyndie Goudeau said Monday, "they have a way of dealing with that, and that is to vote them out."

The idea is one of a dozen proposed by the committee's 13 volunteers. This committee is appointed by the City Council every four years to update the city's constitution. The group has been meeting since February and unveiled its final recommendations on Monday.

Council members will discuss those recommendations at their meeting tonight. Ideas they support could go before Clearwater voters in a referendum next year.

Many of the recommendations reinforce the city's status quo. The committee suggests keeping a city manager as head of the city, rejecting a strong-mayor form of government. They suggest keeping the council seats at-large, instead of dividing the city into districts.

Yet dissolving the term limits stands out as potentially the biggest change — and one that saw little council support Monday.

Hibbard, whose term would not be affected by the change, said voters probably wouldn't reverse their earlier vote.

"As much as I believe in it, I don't believe it will pass," Hibbard said. "My pragmatic side says we would be better to increase it to three terms, rather than unlimited."

Term limits are defended by supporters as a flattening of the political field, sloughing off incumbent dynasties and encouraging fresh ideas. Like Clearwater's City Council, the U.S. president, the Florida governor and the state Legislature are all limited to eight years.

Just over a third of Florida's 410 cities, towns and villages use term limits, according to the Florida League of Cities. Tampa, St. Petersburg, Dunedin, Oldsmar and Tarpon Springs all have their own limits; Largo and Gulfport do not.

Clearwater's term-limit law took effect in 1996, four years after an "Eight is Enough" campaign approved a term-limit amendment for the Florida House and Senate. While the limits are unpopular with both parties, pushes in recent years to extend them have died in the Legislature.

But not everywhere. A voter referendum limiting Pinellas County commissioners to eight years in 1996 was overturned seven years later by a circuit court judge, following a Florida Supreme Court decision that the limit was unconstitutional.

Council members said the limits are also bad policy, kicking out experienced leaders and forcing the voters' hand. They ensure a potentially harmful learning curve for public leaders. And they put the council at a disadvantage against consultants, lobbyists and special interests, whose experiences aren't bound by an arbitrary end date.

However, Council member John Doran didn't think that would mean much to voters.

"There is an awful lot of people who have bought into the idea to, in short, throw the rascals out," Doran said. "There are people who believe the longer people stay in office, the shorter they ought to stay in office."

So in spite of broad council support, there's a likelihood the idea wouldn't make its way to a referendum. Goudeau said Tuesday the council seemed concerned voters would see them as taking "too big a bite of the apple."

Vice mayor George Cretekos agreed with Hibbard that extending the limit past two terms might be a good compromise. But even that, he said, might find resistance at the ballot box.

"We don't tell you you can't go to the same doctor after so many years," Cretekos said. "I don't like term limits. But I'm not sure the public agrees with me."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Repeal of term limits for Clearwater City Council members proposed 10/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 7:08pm]
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