Citizens propose charter amendments that limit County Commission pay, go nonpartisan

Attorney believes these proposals go beyond charter's authority


Published: Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 4:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 4:25 p.m.

The citizen Charter Review Commission began to cull through potential amendments to the county's governing charter last Wednesday with a focus on the numerous citizen proposals seeking to change the way county commissioners are elected and to limit their salaries.

Facts

Some of the proposals

    Some of the proposed amendments to the county charter that focus on the operation of the County Commission:
  • Limit county commissioner salary to average county wage

  • Have voters set county commission salaries

  • Have county commission set their own salaries

  • Have non-partisan county commission elections set term limits for the county commission

  • Have single-member voting districts for county commission

Facts

What is the Charter Review Commission

Every 10 years the County Commission appoints a citizen Charter Review Commission to decide which proposed changes to the county's governing charter should go before the voters in the November general election.

Multiple county residents have submitted proposals to cap commissioners' pay at the average county wage, to set term limits, to switch to nonpartisan elections and to have commissioners elected only by the voters living in their district instead of countywide.

In spite of the greater home rule authority granted by a governing charter, Alachua County lacks the legal authority to make some of those changes, according to the opinion of the charter commission's contracted attorney.

While eight Florida counties with home rule charters have adjusted commissioners' pay instead of relying on the population-based salary formula in state law and six charter counties have gone to non-partisan County Commission elections, Sarah Bleakley, with the firm Nabors Giblin & Nickerson said it would be unconstitutional for Alachua County to follow suit. In Sarasota County, a charter amendment imposing two-term limits on county commissioners was also ruled unconstitutional by a circuit court, Bleakley noted.

Bleakley's analysis was that, unless a county charter is enacted by a special act of the Florida Legislature or -- as is the case with the Miami-Dade charter -- is included in the Florida Constitution, the state Constitution does not allow local governments to switch to nonpartisan elections, restrictions of commissioners' salaries or term limits.

On those issues, state law still preempted the legislative authority of counties -- even those with home rule charters, Blakeley said.

The fact that many of the significant amendments submitted so far were already in legal jeopardy sparked debate among some skeptical members of the Charter Review Commission during their Jan. 20th meeting.

Mitch Glaeser, the charter commission's vice-chair, said that, if voters in numerous other charter counties have adopted changes to commissioners' pay "we should feel pretty emboldened to move forward."

Rob Brinkman, chairman of the Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club, disagreed.

"The Legislature intended to control commissioners' salaries and frankly I do not believe they should be paid the median salary of the county," Brinkman said. "You would not pay the chief executive officer of a company the median salary."

Former Hawthorne city commissioner and mayor John Martin said the county manager provided some family history on the state law at the heart of the debate. While serving in the Florida House, Martin's father, the late Sid Martin, who had served on the county Commission before his election to the Legislature, was behind the law that set commissioners' salaries based on population.

Martin said that law had "unintended consequences" his father did not expect.

"In the not too distant future our county commissioners are going to be making over $100,000 a year," Martin argued.

Their current salary is $70,754.

The salary issue was not resolved. The Charter Review Commission directed staff to gather information from the other counties' that have changed the method of paying county commissioners.

Meanwhile, the potential change to single-member districts, or a mix of commissioners elected countywide and those only elected by voters in the district they represent, received the legal green light.

Martin, who has run for County Commission in the past, said that is the potential change in which he is most interested. Right now, he feels Gainesville voters have too much political clout over who represents the entire county.

"There is large frustration in the outlying areas that we don't have a true County Commission, we just have two City Commissions of Gainesville," he said. "I'm not saying that we have to guarantee that someone from Hawthorne or Waldo gets elected. That's ridiculous. I'm saying we have to give them a reasonable chance because I'd say right now there's no chance. This is something that will at least give a little political clout to those areas because right now, I hate to say it, they are pretty irrelevant."

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top