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Some changes would help city

Published Sep. 9, 2005

A Charter Review Commission was appointed last year to recommend changes to the document that sets forth the basic rules of city governance in St. Petersburg, and its work has stirred little controversy. It recommended 10 City Charter amendments, all of which face voters on March 27, and many of which would make simple clarifications of language. Here are our recommendations:

1. Removal procedure for elected officials and replacement procedure for mayor: YES

This amendment asks voters to clarify the process for removing the mayor or a City Council member, requiring a two-thirds vote of the council, and it addresses how the council replaces a mayor. It cleans up less definitive language in the current charter and is similar to other cities with strong mayor form of government. We recommend YES.

2. Adding a ninth member to City Council: NO

This is a well-intentioned effort to help break tie votes on the council, but it has some potentially negative political impacts that need further study.

Since voters approved the strong mayor form of government eight years ago, the mayor is no longer a voting member of the council, leaving the council with eight members. That means the council sometimes has tie votes on issues, which can be frustrating but of no real adverse consequence. A tie vote, by parliamentary procedure, loses. In trying to break the tie, the Charter Commission has recommended that a ninth council member be added. But the ninth council member would be elected at-large, meaning one council member would have the same election status as the mayor. Prior to the strong mayor form, in fact, there was a council member at-large, and that member was the mayor.

We think an at-large ninth member might become a political foil to the mayor, which could be counterproductive. It would also add cost without any clear benefit. We recommend NO.

3. Direct access to city staff by council members: NO

Call this the Kathleen Ford amendment. The Charter Review Commission was trying to come up with a way to give council members explicit access to City Hall records while preventing them from going overboard and consuming too much staff time. But this amendment is poorly worded and may not serve the purpose the commission intended.

All citizens, under Florida law, already have the right to ask for public records from their government, and the council and mayor already have the ability to establish policies that prevent any single council member from consuming too much staff time. At the same time, the Charter explicitly forbids council members from interfering in the administration of the city _ and for good reason. This amendment could serve to confuse the issue, so we recommend that voters reject it.

4. Dates of primary and general elections: NO

The intention here is worthy. The Charter Commission wanted to provide more transition time for a new mayoral administration, time between the spring election and the summer budget preparation. But the solution proposed in Amendment 4, which is to move city elections from odd-numbered years in February and March to odd-numbered years in September and November, has not been adequately researched.

All cities in Pinellas and most cities in Florida hold their municipal elections in the spring, and some counties have wisely consolidated those municipal elections on a single date to create stronger voter awareness. Would moving the St. Petersburg election to the fall make such consolidation less likely? Would it help or hurt voter turnout? Those vital questions have not yet been sufficiently explored, which causes us to recommend NO.

5. Overriding mayor's line-item budget veto power: YES

The current Charter gives the mayor the right to veto a line item in the city's budget, but says the council can override that veto with a simple majority vote. The commission proposes to make that override slightly tougher, requiring a two-thirds vote, which would strengthen the mayor's hand and be consistent with other cities. We recommend YES.

6. Extending time for mayor to exercise veto power: YES

The mayor now has two business days to exercise veto power, and the commission thinks that's too short. This amendment would extend that to five business days, which is fair and reasonable. We recommend YES.

7. Waiver of general election: YES

Under the current Charter, in provisions adopted prior to creation of a strong mayor, a mayoral candidate faces a runoff election even if he or she wins more than 50 percent of the citywide vote in the primary election. This would eliminate that electoral oddity. It would provide that any mayoral candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the citywide primary would be automatically elected. (This would not affect the current council members, who are nominated through a primary vote in their districts and then face voters citywide in the general election.) We recommend YES.

8. Redistricting every 10 years: YES

Under current provisions, the city must examine whether to change the boundaries of its council districts every four years. This amendment would relax that standard, requiring a redistricting report every 10 years. That's the way state and federal election districts are considered and falls in line with the U.S. Census interval. We recommend YES.

9. Charter Review Commission: YES

The Charter Review Commission itself is supposed to be formed every six years, but members thought that was too often. The City Council always can place charter amendments before voters, as can citizens in certain circumstances through petition, and this amendment would require that a Charter Commission be appointed only once every 10 years. That's sufficient. We recommend YES.

10. General clarifications and modifications to entire Charter: YES

This amendment cleans up language in the current Charter that was not updated when the voters went to a strong mayor form. It is strictly ministerial, and we recommend YES.