In addition to electing a new mayor and two city commissioners, Tarpon Springs voters will be asked on March 9 to vote "yes" or "no" on nine proposed amendments to the city charter.
The city charter is a set of local laws that describes the duties, powers and limitations of the city government. Every five years, the City Commission appoints a citizen committee to review the city charter for needed revisions. Since the city charter can only be changed by referendum, each proposed revision goes to voters.
Last year's Charter Revision Commission was chaired by former city attorney Herb Elliott and included Jim Kolianos, Jessie Burke, former mayor Frank DiDonato, Dory Larsen, Chuck Lehr and Allen Plunkett. To view the sample ballot that contains the charter questions, go to www.votepinellas.com and click on Current Elections.
The St. Petersburg Times has studied the questions and makes its editorial recommendations here. The newspaper's editorial recommendation of candidates on the March 9 ballot was printed Feb. 7.
Question 1: No
In 1996, the voters of Tarpon Springs approved a city charter provision to prevent city commissioners from disbanding the Police Department without voter approval. Now, the Fire Department wants the same protection.
A lot has changed since 1996. Because of the recession, Florida voters' passage of Amendment 1, and tax increase limits placed on cities by the state Legislature, the financial pressure on cities is worsening.
Last year the Pinellas County Commission began a push toward consolidation of emergency medical services. This year, as local governments' financial position has only worsened, talk of consolidating Pinellas' 19 fire departments to save money has begun. That's why the Tarpon department wants protection.
The City Commission has the duty to approve a balanced city budget. It is an increasingly difficult job. Voters should allow the city manager and commissioners to make budget decisions based on careful study and financial realities, and not be handcuffed by a referendum requirement.
On Question 1, the Times recommends a no vote.
Question 2: No
Tarpon's charter already requires that people who serve on city advisory boards and committees be city residents. This proposed charter amendment would extend that residency requirement to any group appointed by the City Commission for any reason — focus groups, for example.
This is Tarpon Springs' tendency toward parochialism run amok. There are circumstances under which the commission's best decision could be to appoint a nonresident to a committee. A nonresident might possess special expertise that would be needed on the committee, or might be a business owner who pays taxes in the city but doesn't live there.
City commissioners should be free to select those best equipped to tackle an issue and advise the commission.
On Question 2, the Times recommends a no vote.
Question 3: No
It is a technical problem, rather than the substance of this ballot question, that is a concern.
The current charter says newly elected city commissioners must take office within seven days after an election, which would be mid-March. But the process of counting and confirming election results has gotten more complicated and can take days. So this proposed amendment would change the swearing-in of new commissioners to "the first regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners in April."
But that change would leave no provision for the swearing in of commissioners following a special election at some time other than March. It also would create a loophole for a future city commission to hold up the swearing in of a new commissioner by simply delaying or canceling its April meeting. This amendment should have used a number of days, rather than being pegged to a meeting in April.
On Question 3, the Times recommends a no vote.
Question 4: Yes
In 1991, voters changed the term of office for commissioners from two years to three. But at some point, the reference to three years was inexplicably dropped from the printed charter. This amendment would put it back.
On Question 4, the Times recommends a yes vote.
Question 5: Yes
The current charter states that if a vacancy occurs on the City Commission and more than 180 days are left in the term for that seat, the city must hold a special election to fill the seat.
However, the cost of special elections is rising and can be prohibitive, especially in small cities. A special election just for Tarpon Springs would cost the city more than $31,000, compared with as little as $2,398 if the city ballot were attached to a regular countywide election.
This proposed charter amendment would allow the City Commission to appoint a replacement no matter how much time remained in the term. That person would serve until the next regular city or county election. Depending on when the vacancy occurred, the appointee could serve anywhere from weeks to up to 20 months.
On Question 5, the Times recommends a yes vote.
Question 6: Yes
In Tarpon Springs, as in many other cities, the city clerk works directly for the City Commission rather than for the city manager. Yet under Tarpon's charter, only the city manager has the authority to hire, fire and demote employees in the city clerk's office. This dysfunctional arrangement needs to be corrected to allow the clerk to manage her own employees.
On Question 6, the Times recommends a yes vote.
Question 7: Yes
The charter requires that the city clerk name an acting clerk if she is going to be away. This charter amendment would formalize current practice, making the deputy city clerk the acting clerk any time the city clerk is absent.
On Question 6, the Times recommends a yes vote.
Question 8: Yes
Under the current charter, a member of Tarpon Springs' five-member volunteer Civil Service Board is supposed to be present to observe or "proctor" any examinations given to new applicants for city jobs. However, it has been tough at times to find a Civil Service Board member available for that task. This proposed charter amendment would require the presence of a Civil Service Board member only when the applicant, the city manager or the Civil Service Board feel it is necessary. Applicants could be moved through the examination process more efficiently.
On Question 8, the Times recommends a yes vote.
Question 9: Yes
In 1995, the voters of Tarpon Springs approved a charter amendment to require nearly every city department head to establish residency in the city within one year of their appointment. This newspaper opposed such an extreme limitation on where city employees can live, and also argued that if the city wanted such a provision, it should be part of the personnel rules, not the charter.
However, since that provision was approved in 1995, they might as well vote yes on this question, which would bring any future assistant city manager and future development services director under the residency requirement. It is only fair that all be subject to the same rule.
On Question 9, the Times recommends a yes vote.