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Madeira Beach faces a charter upheaval

(ran WEST, BEACH, SEMINOLE editions)

Voters here likely will get a chance this spring to overhaul their city charter, which governs everything from how local officials are elected to how property owners win variances.

Already, a citizens group called WE VOTE, which stands for Watchful Eyes _ Voters of Tomorrow's Elections, has gathered enough petition signatures to get one referendum question on the ballot.

That question will ask residents if they want to switch to a system where voters can cast ballots only for their district commissioner. Currently, everyone citywide votes in all four commission races.

Len Piotti, president of WE VOTE, said the group is thinking about gathering signatures for a second ballot question. "We could get together all the members, and they could whip up those signatures in no time."

Today, the City Commission will begin its own review of the city charter, which hasn't been significantly changed in at least 10 years. The city staff has suggested several changes.

City Manager Jim Madden calls the 47-page document presented to commissioners "a white paper for discussion. It really hadn't been reviewed in a while, and therefore it was probably appropriate to take a look at it and see if it needed to be updated."

Some of the key charter changes proposed by staffers would:

Allow city commissioners to sell city property without a voter referendum.

Give more authority to the city manager, such as how much money the manager may spend without commission approval. Currently, those limits are set by the charter and can be changed only by referendum.

The city manager also would take on the responsibility of creating personnel rules. Those rules are now set by the Civil Service Commission, a citizen board.

Update some antiquated processes in the charter, such as the procedures for municipal court, which no longer exists.

Provide rules on issues the charter doesn't mention, such as how to recall elected officials.

Eliminate runoffs. Also, in the event of a tie, the winner of an election would be settled by lot, which could mean anything from drawing straws to flipping a coin.

The proposals likely will prompt debate. City Commissioner Charles Parker said he is displeased with how many staff recommendations call for taking decisions out of the hands of voters or citizen committees and giving them to the city manager.

WE VOTE, meanwhile, is hoping the commission will consider one of the issues it made a priority when the group formed in September. The group, whose leaders include two people who sued the city over decisions made by the city's Board of Adjustments, want the City Commission to reshape the process of applying for variances.

Currently, if the Board of Adjustments turns down a property owner's request for a variance, the individual has to take the case to circuit court to appeal. WE VOTE wants property owners to be able to appeal to the City Commission rather than go directly to court.

If commissioners don't want to place that issue on the ballot, WE VOTE might create another petition. The group needs to collect signatures from 10 percent of voters to get the issue on the ballot.

WE VOTE collected 534 verifiable signatures for its first petition, well over the 10 percent of Madeira Beach's 3,138 registered voters.

If nothing else, city officials hope to correct a poor geographical reference in the existing charter, which calls the body of water that makes of most of Madeira Beach's eastern boundary the "Intercoastal Waterway." It is, of course, the Intracoastal Waterway.