Clearwater residents are not accustomed to going to the polls to make decisions on local ballot issues in the fall. March is city election time. But on Nov. 8 city voters will see five referendum questions on proposed changes to the city charter.
The city charter is a body of laws that functions something like a local constitution. It describes how city business will be conducted and sets forth the powers of local officials. It can be changed only by the voters. Every five years the City Commission appoints a 10-member citizen committee to review the charter and suggest changes for voters to consider.
In January, when the Clearwater group was appointed, there was talk about changing Clearwater's form of government so it would be managed by a strong mayor rather than a professional city manager. On the heels of controversy about the city's purchase and then sale of the former SunBank building, there were predictions that stringent limits would be placed on the City Commission's power to spend money and manage property.
But this charter review committee demonstrated no interest in upsetting the apple cart. A strong-mayor government was rejected.
The changes that were proposed would put some new parameters on the City Commission's spending powers but would free its hands in some other areas. The Times has studied the proposed changes and makes its recommendations to the voters here. We will take the questions in reverse order, beginning with the one likely to elicit the strongest voter reaction.
Question 5: Term limits
Should the city's elected officials be limited to two consecutive terms in office _ six years total?
There are no term limits in the current city charter. City commissioners and the mayor serve at the pleasure of the electorate and are dismissed when the majority of the voters choose.
This ballot proposal would change the charter to force commissioners and the mayor to leave office after two three-year terms. They would have to sit out for three years before they could run again. The three-year hiatus could be avoided only if a commissioner chose to run for mayor. Then he or she could serve two more terms before having to sit out.
Term limits are popular. They are intended to prevent officials from remaining in office indefinitely by using the power of incumbency to trounce all challengers. Term limits also supposedly bring in new blood and fresh ideas.
But why are term limits necessary in Clearwater? On the current five-member City Commission, only Rita Garvey has more than two terms. This is not a group of career politicians. The voters seem to be arranging regular turnover quite nicely without term limits.
Term limits sometimes result in a loss of continuity. And in some communities where it is difficult to field candidates, term limits can result in vacancies or the election of poorly qualified individuals.
And finally, term limits are a limitation not just on elected officials, but on the voters. People who would choose to re-elect an admired public official to a third term are denied the opportunity. Elected officials who work hard and do a respectable job for their constituents deserve to continue in office until they choose to retire or the voters choose to replace them.
We urge a "no" vote on Question 5.
Question 4: Appraisals
This change would require the city to appraise property before buying it. For a sales price under $250,000, the city staff would do the appraisal. If the sales price is between $250,000 and $500,000, the city would be required to get one independent appraisal. Above $500,000, two outside appraisals would be required.
This change would assure that the public gets a fair price. The change also would require the city, when selling surplus property, to take the highest bid above the appraised value, as long as that bidder meets the city's terms.
We recommend a "yes" vote on Question 4.
Question 3: Public access
Question 3 would require the City Commission to hold two public hearings before approving any non-budgeted expenditure greater than $5-million.
This question grows out of unhappiness over the current City Commission's penchant for approving major expenditures at late-night meetings. Initially, some residents had wanted a referendum requirement _ a step that would unnecessarily tie city commissioners' hands, delay capital projects and cause real problems in an emergency.
Question 3 is a good compromise. It requires the City Commission to give the public notice that a major spending decision is about to be made, and conduct two public hearings before voting.
We recommend a "yes" vote on Question 3.
Question 2: Surplus properties
This charter amendment actually would give the city a freer hand in handling publicly owned property.
The commission now may lease such property for up to three years without declaring it surplus or unneeded for public use. The amendment would boost that to five years.
After declaring property surplus, the city now may lease it for up to 15 years. The amendment would give the City Commission the power to lease property for a term of 30 years, and to renew for another 30-year term, for a maximum of 60 years. If the commission wants to lease property for a term longer than 30 years, it must ask the voters for approval.
Companies or individuals that want to construct a building on leased land aren't likely to be satisfied with a 15-year lease. They want a term long enough to recover their investment. This amendment acknowledges changes in the economy and the investment market.
We recommend a "yes" vote on Question 2.
Question 1: Purchasing power
Clearwater's city manager currently may spend up to $10,000 on a single purchase without asking the City Commission for approval. This amendment would increase the manager's purchasing authority to $25,000. Competitive bids still would be required for any purchase exceeding $10,000.
We recommend a "yes" vote on Question 1.