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Irrelevant elections still cost taxpayer money

Never let it be disputed that every vote matters. A one-vote margin of approval for a 2010 Port Richey charter referendum means the city is now required to schedule a municipal election in April in which there are no contested seats for City Council.

Across the county, voters in Zephyrhills will head to the polls — though, certainly not in droves, since less than 5 percent of the city's registered voters cast ballots in the 2011 municipal election — to decide an equally irrelevant question: Who should fill the ceremonial role of mayor?

There are competitive races in Dade City, New Port Richey and San Antonio in the April 10 election as each local government wrestles with questions of infrastructure, redevelopment or future growth amid constrained budgets. Similar issues haven't bypassed Port Richey and Zephyrhills, but neither city produced a citizen willing to challenge the status quo of its elected council.

Unfortunately, both cities are still required to hold municipal elections in April at a combined cost to the public of roughly $5,000. Here's why:

In Port Richey, the electorate decided two years ago, by a final vote of 211-210, to lengthen its two-year terms for council to three years. The intent was to have the top two vote-getters in 2012 receive three-year terms and the third-place finisher assume a one-year seat. But, for the second consecutive year, the incumbents drew no opposition.

The result is a poorly thought-out plan.

Instead of asking the electorate to decide who it wants to fill the one-year seat, the council decided to hold a referendum in which it will ask the voters to bless the idea of letting one of the candidates opt for the one-year seat (as council member Steve O'Neill volunteered to do) or to allow a drawing of straws to determine which of the three incumbents will get the shorter term.

Considering past referenda have focused on the future of the police department and whether Port Richey should even remain an incorporated government, the 2012 ballot questions promises to be a yawner that could attract few voters. And in the event of a tie vote (it has happened before in Port Richey) or if voters reject the referendum, the city likely would need to hold another special election to decide the matter.

The electoral absurdity is not exclusive to Port Richey. Earlier this month in Zephyrhills, the City Council, on a 3-2 vote, declined to change its nonvoting mayoral position to a sitting member of the five-person council. It continues an outdated tradition of allowing an elected official to serve in a job largely defined as public relations without granting him or her voting authority on matters of public interest. It also continues an unnecessary $6,000 salary that would be a logical target for elimination in an austere budget.

So, with nobody new wanting the responsibility to become a voting member of the council — both incumbents were re-elected without opposition — Zephyrhills, too, must pay for a nonessential election that also could draw little interest. In 2011, just 376 people, or 4.96 percent of the city's nearly 7,600 registered voters, cast ballots in a competitive council race.

Cities eating the cost of low-turnout elections to decide irrelevant ballot issues and ceremonial offices would be wise to rethink the logic of holding their municipal elections in April. Putting these questions to voters in November — particularly in presidential election years — would guarantee a substantially larger turnout and spread the cost to all Pasco County taxpayers.

Irrelevant elections still cost taxpayer money 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 4:06pm]
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