City Commission begins process of reviewing charter, possibly sending proposed changes to voters


FILE PHOTO - Mayor Ed Braddy, center, flanked by commissioners Randy Wells, left, and Todd Chase, right, addresses attendees during a Gainesville city commission's meeting in May.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun, File
Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 7:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 7:53 p.m.

Four months after voters rejected a proposal to move Gainesville away from annual elections in the spring, the City Commission again will mull potential changes to the election cycle.

That was one idea multiple commissioners want to revisit as the commission launches a review of the city charter that eventually could end with a series of voter referendums on changes to the document that establishes the framework for Gainesville's municipal government.

At a meeting Monday to begin the process, commissioners also voted to gather information on several other areas of the charter where they might consider changes:

The prohibition on paved trails on city-owned conservation property in the Hogtown Creek Greenway.

The distribution of powers and responsibilities among the six charter officers.

Options besides the current council-manager form of government.

The possible mandatory annexation of property served in the utility's service area.

Cleaning up the language of the charter.

Pointing to voter turnout hovering in the teens and, to a lesser extent, the approximately $200,000 cost of annual elections, commissioners sent a proposal to voters in March that would, over time, move elections to the fall of odd years and extend terms from three to four years. It failed with about 56 percent opposition, amid skepticism over whether the changes would boost voter turnout.

Monday, Commissioners Susan Bottcher, Thomas Hawkins and Lauren Poe each said they want the charter review to include another look at election changes. They did not talk specifics, but Poe said in a Tuesday interview he would like to move city elections to coincide with the cycle for county, state and federal offices.

On the Hogtown greenway issue, a charter amendment residents put on the ballot through a petition drive in 1998 banned paved trails. Commissioner Randy Wells said that has limited recreational opportunities on city-owned conservation properties. At Monday's meeting, Paula Stahmer, who was active in the original petition drive, said the ban has protected conservation properties from the clearing and destruction of land.

Discussing the roles and powers of the city's charter officers, Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said she would like to see the Equal Opportunity director given more authority in the areas of minority hiring and contracting. She favored putting the Human Resources department under the Office of Equal Opportunity.

On the city's form of government, Mayor Ed Braddy broached the idea of moving to an executive or strong mayor system, where that elected official runs the daily operations of city government. He qualified his remarks by saying, "I'm still inclined to stick with what we've got," but a comprehensive charter review should look at the form of government. Currently, the commission sets policy, and the city manager and other charter officers carry it out and run daily operations.

The city's talk of mandatory annexation of areas Gainesville Regional Utilities serves comes in the midst of community concerns and rumblings because GRU customers in unincorporated Alachua County do not vote in city elections or have a say in how the utility is run.

Bottcher said annexation would "give them that voice" on utility issues.

But she also pointed out that the Alachua County Boundary Adjustment Act might not allow for involuntary annexation. That law says annexation must occur either through a voter referendum or a voluntary application from a property owner.

The charter includes language requiring a voter referendum for the city to sell the utility.

Backlash and public debate over the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center biomass plant almost resulted in a state bill requiring such a referendum filed last session. A Chamber of Commerce ad hoc committee also is looking at potential options to change the governance of GRU.

While those discussions have happened, no city commissioners raised the possibility of a referendum on a sale of the utility, which generates a significant amount of the city's general fund monies.

Asked about that Tuesday, Poe said any discussion of taking away ownership of GRU from the city was a "non-starter to me."

The City Commission does not plan to appoint a temporary resident advisory board to review the charter and make recommendations on possible changes. Instead, the commission will, with public input at a series of meetings, take the helm of the process.

At Monday's meeting, resident Jo Beaty criticized commissioners for taking that approach, saying the commission should "empower a panel" to review the charter independently and report back with recommended changes.

The commission's next meetings on the charter review are tentatively scheduled for Aug. 20 and Aug. 27. It remains to be seen if referendums would be scheduled for the spring or fall of 2014.

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