Pinellas County has arguably the weakest charter of the 20 charter counties in Florida. When Pinellas residents want to make certain changes in their charter, they must get permission from the Florida Legislature — something other charter counties don't have to do. In some instances, Pinellas residents even must get the okay of local cities before a charter amendment can apply throughout the county.
And that's the way it will stay for the foreseeable future, because last month the Charter Review Commission chose not to pursue an avenue that could have given future Pinellas residents a true home rule charter like those in other counties. The CRC got spooked by a threat of war from the county's 24 cities.
What do the cities have to gain from a weak county charter? It has to do with that old bugaboo, the dual vote.
Unlike most other county charters, Pinellas' states that if county residents want to add to their charter a policy or standard that would affect cities — for example, a countywide environmental protection policy — a referendum of all Pinellas voters must be held and that vote must be counted two ways: countywide and in the cities that would be affected. Cities that turned down the change could opt out.
City officials have a death grip on the dual vote provision, apparently convinced that if it went away, the county government would run roughshod over them. A few years ago the cities sued a previous Charter Review Commission after it put a question on the ballot asking voters if they wanted to eliminate the dual vote. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees were spent on the court battle, which lasted until election day, when voters chose not to eliminate the dual vote.
So city officials showed up en masse and subtly threatened another legal battle after hearing this year's CRC might be toying with the dual vote.
That's not exactly what the CRC was doing. Instead, the 13-member CRC, appointed to review the charter every six years and recommend changes to voters, had talked about a repeal-and-replace provision.
The current charter doesn't have a mechanism that would allow voters to repeal the entire document and replace it with a new charter. CRC members thought that someday Pinellas voters might want to throw out their current charter and replace it with a true home rule charter, with new provisions specific to Pinellas' needs. They decided they should ask the Legislature to approve a special act, which Pinellas voters would then have to confirm, to provide a way for future voters to repeal and replace their charter.
However, when the CRC held public hearings on that proposal last month, current and former city government officials objected, clearly suspicious that the whole thing was a setup by the county government to get rid of the dual vote.
"The cities are all aligned to protect the dual vote," warned Thomas Barnhorn, a Seminole City Council member.
"The charter is fine," argued Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. Saying the cities and county face enough challenges from the economy and the oil spill, he said, "We don't need this to muddy the waters."
The CRC changed its position, voting 7 to 5 against asking the Legislature for the special act, even after CRC member and County Commissioner Ken Welch proposed a repeal-and-replace provision that would guarantee the dual vote would remain in any new charter.
So the CRC, after six months of meetings involving 400 hours of work, after discussing major issues ranging from an elected county mayor to term limits for the county commissioners, approved only two issues that will go to voters: one strengthening the current charter provision requiring lobbyists to register, and lengthening the timing and duration of charter reviews.
The city officials' threats and the CRC's resulting retreat from the repeal-and-replace provision took from Pinellas voters the opportunity to make that decision themselves and kept Pinellas locked into a charter that doesn't provide true home rule. The so-called "people's charter" arguably isn't, after all.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.