When Dunedin voters go to the polls March 11 to fill two seats on the City Commission, they also will be asked to make decisions on four proposed city charter amendments. One of those amendments — the most important one on the ballot — concerns how voters fill seats on the City Commission.
Currently, no matter how many seats there are to fill or how many candidates file to run, all of the candidates' names appear in one list on the ballot. The top votegetters win the seats.
That is an antiquated election method that protects the status quo by making it more difficult for a political newcomer to win election if incumbents also are running. Under certain circumstances, it even guarantees that an incumbent will be returned to office.
This year's commission election provides a perfect example of the problems. Two seats on the five-member commission are being filled this election cycle, so the two top votegetters win. The two incumbents in those seats are running for re-election. Their names are on the ballot, along with the name of one challenger who has never run for city office.
In most communities in Pinellas, that challenger would have been able to pick one of the two incumbents to oppose, because they would hold numbered seats. But in Dunedin, which does not have numbered seats, the challenger must fight both incumbents. Election campaigns are difficult and expensive enough when a candidate has only one incumbent to challenge. The more incumbents running for re-election, and the more candidates overall, the more difficult, expensive and intimidating it becomes.
Also consider that Dunedin's method of awarding the prize to top votegetters guarantees this year that at least one incumbent will be returned to office.
The St. Petersburg Times editorial board recommends that Dunedin voters change the city's election method on March 11. The solution proposed on the ballot is a simple, tidy one used in many area cities.
Question 1 asks voters to amend the city charter so a seat number can be assigned to each of the five seats on the City Commission. In future elections, a candidate would file to run for a specific seat. If multiple candidates qualified to run for that seat, the one who got the most votes would win.
This method is NOT, as some Dunedin residents mistakenly believe, a district or "ward" system. There would be no geographical districts. Candidates could live anywhere inside the city limits. All voters in the city would get to make a choice on every seat, because the elections would be citywide. Each of the five commissioners would be responsible for representing the entire city, just as they are now.
Some defenders of Dunedin's current method believe it results in more civilized election campaigns. Whether a campaign is "civilized" or not depends on the individuals involved, not the method of election.
There are three other charter amendment questions on the March 11 ballot.
Question 2 is a housekeeping item, simply moving a section of the charter to a more appropriate location in the document.
Question 3 concerns a wording change that would clarify, but not change, the circumstances under which an elected official might face forfeiture of office.
Question 4 concerns the filing of referendum petitions. Members of the public who want to get a referendum item on the city ballot may do so by obtaining a sufficient number of signatures on a petition. The current charter gives them only 30 days to do so. The proposed charter change would lengthen that to 60 days, a more realistic time frame.
The St. Petersburg Times regards all four proposed changes as improvements to Dunedin's city charter and recommends that residents vote yes on all four.