The Pinellas County Charter Review Commission has decided Pinellas doesn't need an elected county mayor, because "Pinellas County government isn't broken and doesn't need to be fixed." That's what several members said last week before they voted 9-3 against pursuing the idea.
I wondered if Pinellas residents share their view. Would you vote "yes" or "no" if given the chance to change Pinellas' form of government from the current commission-administrator style, where a hired administrator carries out the elected commissioners' policy directives, to a strong-mayor form?
Unless a citizen leads a petition drive to get the issue put on a ballot, it may be six years before voters get a shot at the issue. That's when the next regular charter review is scheduled.
Andy Steingold wanted it to happen this year.
Steingold, the mayor of Safety Harbor, is the representative of cities on the 13-member Charter Review Commission, which also has several other elected officials, former elected officials and citizen members. Steingold pushed for the commission to take up the county mayor idea and ask voters whether they wanted to make a change.
Steingold said Pinellas needs an elected mayor because the county is not attracting new industry, its tourism business has declined, and it is competing against other urban areas for money to modernize its transportation system. Yet there is not one Pinellas "go-to guy or girl," he said, who can set a progressive agenda and aggressively advocate for the county in Florida and Washington. With 25 local governments — 24 cities and the county — Pinellas has too many disparate "official" voices.
Steingold added that cities and counties that have switched to a strong mayor have done well, including St. Petersburg.
Most of Steingold's colleagues on the charter commission disagreed with him. What if voters elected a county mayor who wasn't competent? The county would be stuck with that person for four years, while under the current system, the administrator can just be fired.
Some pointed out that electing a mayor would add an expensive extra layer of government, since the county still would need a professional administrator to run complex day-to-day operations.
They argued that the County Commission chairman, a post that rotates among the seven commissioners annually, is a suitable "go-to" person.
They feared that having a strong mayor would diminish the power of the County Commission, which better represents residents since it was reconfigured so four commissioners serve single-member districts and three are elected countywide.
Charter Review Commission member Ricardo Davis of St. Petersburg said he prefers having power dispersed among seven commissioners rather than concentrated in a strong mayor.
"History has taught us that when you concentrate power in a few, it's more likely to be abused," he said. "Dictators are much more efficient. Dictators make decisions at lightning speed. I prefer a system that keeps everybody in check."
Davis and others mentioned that in most communities, the desire for a strong mayor has been driven by crisis. Orange County, for example, had seriously outgrown its infrastructure. A citizen petition drive for a strong-mayor referendum in Hillsborough County comes as the county is embroiled in scandals and investigations. Davis said that St. Petersburg switched to a strong mayor after an African-American, then-interim City Manager Don McRae, fired white police chief Ernest Curtsinger and angry residents learned McRae couldn't be ousted by voters because he was a hired professional.
There is no crisis in Pinellas, charter commission members concluded Monday before voting to spend no more time debating the idea.
Steingold believes that someday, Pinellas voters will decide they need a county mayor. For now, not content to leave controversy alone, he's moving on to two other ideas he has placed on the charter commission's agenda: creating an airport authority like Hillsborough's and a Pinellas sports authority that could have a role in negotiating to keep the Rays in Pinellas.
"I wasn't appointed to the Charter Review Commission to just sit there and listen to other people talk," Steingold said.
Diane Steinle can be reached at [email protected]