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Pinellas Park rejects proposal to move elections

(ran West edition)

The council disagrees with a group's claims that voting in November would increase turnout. It delays a decision on requirements for disbanding the Police Department.

City elections will remain in March, the City Council unanimously agreed during a workshop session Wednesday. But limiting the council's power over disbanding the city's police department was left undecided.

The council met in workshop session to review the Charter Review Commission's final recommendations. Exactly what charter changes will appear on the next ballot may not be decided until October, when the council said it would review the final document.

"There's no rush," said Mayor Bill Mischler. "We have plenty of time to consider this."

The city administration will draft a new charter that eventually must be presented to voters for their approval.

The council overruled a suggestion from a citizens group, charged with reviewing and recommending changes to the city's charter, that citywide elections be shifted to November when more residents usually come out to vote.

Charter Commission chairwoman Mary Brennan said the group recommended the change as a means of increasing the percentage of Pinellas Park voters who select council members.

"Twelve percent of the population voting is a very poor showing. There's got to be some way of changing that," said commission member Robert Bourke.

Mischler strongly opposed changing the date of the city's council election, arguing that city candidate campaigns would be "lost" among the state and national races that fill much of the November ballot.

"I'm not really for this. Those lower-ratio turnout people are the ones who really take an interest in their city government. There really is a difference in voters, folks," Mischler said.

Council members Rick Butler and Ed Taylor doubted Pinellas Park would be able to get on the November ballot, which Pinellas County Elections Supervisor Dorothy Ruggles says is too crowded. For the past two years, Ruggles has been encouraging municipalities to move their elections off the November ballot.

The council postponed a decision on whether to support the commission's recommendation to require a unanimous decision of the City Council before it could disband the city's police department or transfer its police services to another agency. City Attorney Edward Foreman was asked to research the matter.

The charter commission had recommended that a unanimous (5-0) vote be required.

Currently, either of these actions could be accomplished by a majority vote of three council members. The commission argued that maintaining a local, full-service police department is "essential to the well-being" of Pinellas Park citizens.

"I don't have a problem with this," Mischler said. "But we (the present council) won't be here forever. Yes, I hope there will always be a patrol, but I can't say the same for narcotics or vice. I can see someday that these functions could be consolidated."

Pinellas Park police Chief David Milchan said he and his department have no concerns about the current City Council asking the Sheriff's Office to take over law enforcement in the town, but, Milchan said, he is trying to anticipate the future.

"I'm looking down the road," Milchan said. "Dunedin voted 3-2 to eliminate their police department."

Other commissioners wanted to ensure the proposed charter change would not prohibit the council from moving the code enforcement function from the police to the fire department.

Most charter commission recommendations that did receive the council's approval involved minor changes clarifying, but not changing, the intent of the existing charter: guaranteeing that citizens can bring up items not specifically on a council agenda; eliminating two city clerk functions no longer performed; extending from 30 to 60 days the length of time available to citizens fo file a referendum petition that would challenge ordinances passed by the City Council; and clarifying the job duties of the city manager and city attorney.

The charter commission dropped its previous recommendation that top city administrators be required to live in the city.

"It seems to be a divided issue. We don't want to limit the city's searching ability for the best candidates," Bourke said.

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