Zephyrhills Mayor Danny Burgess' candidacy for the Florida House presents the City Council with a renewed opportunity that elected leaders have fumbled twice before: Modernizing the Zephyrhills city charter and streamlining the local government by eliminating the superfluous mayoral position.
Burgess is seeking the District 38 seat held by term-limited House Speaker Will Weatherford. Elected mayor just nine months ago to fill a vacancy, Burgess will leave the mayor's office in April when his one-year term expires. It presents an opportune time for the five-member council to schedule a referendum and ask voters to dispense of this unnecessary job.
Though Burgess defends the mayor's job as important for economic development and community relations, it is a largely ceremonial role that carries little responsibility besides holding shears at ribbon cuttings. The mayor does not run council meetings, cannot make motions and cannot vote on matters before the council. The council president signs official city documents and chairs council meetings. The mayor does have the authority to veto city ordinances, but that power has been dusted off just twice in the past 15 years, and both times former Mayor Cliff McDuffie ended up withdrawing his planned veto.
The Zephyrhills mayor is a $6,000-a-year goodwill ambassador. It is a luxury that the city should jettison. And it would free up a few extra dollars in the city budget as the council entertains other spending priorities, including how to preserve and maintain the former Hercules Aquatic Center property.
More than money is at stake, however. The mayor's current role presents a troubling opportunity to stymie open government. Because the mayor does not vote, he or she can discuss public business privately with individual council members. It's a scenario that should be avoided and can be eliminated entirely if council crafts an appropriate referendum. The city should ask voters to allow council to elevate one of its own to serve as mayor — as is done in Dade City — or else turn the mayor into a voting council member elected directly by the voters, as is the case in New Port Richey and Port Richey. Either method is preferable to the current system.
Eight years ago, a citizens charter review committee recommended scrapping one of five council seats and giving the mayor voting authority. Unfortunately a three-person council majority, including then council-member Danny Burgess, killed the recommendation and refused to allow the ballot question to be considered by voters. In 2012, current council members Charlie Proctor and Kent Compton unsuccessfully sought a similar charter referendum. They should try again.
The elected mayor plays no significant role in Zephyrhills city government. It's an outdated expense that the city should discontinue, and the council should at least be willing to ask voters for their sentiments on eliminating this irrelevant job.