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Charter changes may get on ballot

(ran NS, S editions of Tampa Bay & State)

The City Council took a step Thursday toward making the city's elections next March even more momentous than they already would be.

Not only will voters elect Tampa's first new mayor since 1986.

Not only will all seven City Council seats go up for grabs.

Not only will Tampa's controversial human rights law go back on the ballot.

Now the council is talking about changing the City Charter _ in essence, the local constitution that sets the ground rules for governing the city.

Council members did not settle on specific changes, but they did discuss some "fine-tuning" that would _ not surprisingly _ shift some power from the mayor.

They scheduled a workshop for 2 p.m. Nov. 10 to discuss changes that could be submitted to voters. They said they would hold another workshop before actually deciding whether to put any proposed changes on the ballot.

If the city wants to make any changes that affect the way voters cast their ballots in Tampa, it needs to have them ready for the U.S. Justice Department to review by December, said Chuck Smith, data center supervisor for the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office.

Smith said changes that would not affect voting in the city would have to be ready to go on the ballot by Jan. 16.

Council member Linda Saul-Sena first suggested the idea of reviewing one possible change to the charter. As is, the city attorney, who reports to the mayor, prevails when there is a difference of opinion between the city attorney and the City Council's attorney. Saul-Sena questioned whether that always should be the case.

Council member Rudy Fernandez agreed that issue deserves some attention and suggested four others:

Should the City Council get the proposed budget earlier, maybe 60 to 90 days ahead of the final vote instead of 45?

Should the City Council approve the so-called "superchiefs?" The charter requires council approval of department heads, but past mayors created five new "superchief" positions over those department heads that required no such approval.

When exactly should the City Council chairman take over the mayor's responsibilities when the mayor leaves town? It used to be that the mayor was considered out of town whenever he or she left the county. Now, with telephones and fax machines, the mayor can leave town but not be out of touch.

Should the City Council be able to force the mayor to spend money the council appropriates? A few years ago, the council wanted to appropriate extra money for the Fire Department, but the mayor refused to spend it.

Mayor Sandy Freedman said she wouldn't object if the council approved the superchiefs, but she said giving the council authority to require that money be spent on certain areas would create problems.

"That changes the whole form of government," she said. "Then we just might as well go to a city council form of government. You can't have it going both ways, because then there's no way to plan."

Freedman said she found it noteworthy that "while they're seemingly interested in changing the charter to gain more power for themselves . . . St. Petersburg went from the council form of government to a strong mayor. West Palm Beach did the same thing.

"I think you have to be very careful," she said, "just like changing the (federal) Constitution has to be very deliberate."