Still remains to be seen where city charter review will lead
Published: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 7:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 7:49 p.m.
A boardwalk runs through the pines and marsh of Loblolly Woods Nature Park.
City Commission meeting on charter review
What: Discussion of city's form of government and election laws
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday City Hall, 200 E. University Ave.
But since a 1998 voter referendum, Gainesville's charter — the basic framework for city government — has prohibited paved trails on conservation lands in the Hogtown Creek Greenway.
With the City Commission in the midst of a charter review that may send proposed changes to the voters in March, that ban was the first section of the charter raised and debated at a meeting Aug. 20.
It was also the first area of the charter that a significant majority of the City Commission expressed no interest in trying to change via voter referendum.
Moving ahead, it remains to be seen what charter changes, if any, might draw the high required threshold of support to get sent to the voters.
Six of the seven commissioners must vote in favor of a charter amendment for it to go to a referendum.
"From what I've seen, I don't necessarily anticipate anything making it onto the ballot," Commissioner Todd Chase said. "At this point, I haven't seen any compelling changes that need to be made to the charter."
Some changes could have a significant effect on city government. The charter dictates the seven-member size of the commission, the three-year terms for commissioners and the May swearing-in date, which in turn play a role in the current system of annual spring elections, the powers and authorities of the six charter officers and the current commission-manager form of government.
As part of an overall attempt to move elections to the fall of odd years, the commission sent proposed changes to the voters in March that would have changed to four-year terms and moved the swearing-in date to early January. Those changes got thumped by voters with 56 percent opposition.
"The way it shook out was not what voters were looking for so they defeated it," Commissioner Susan Bottcher said.
This time around, Bottcher and Commissioner Thomas Hawkins say changes to the election cycle remain their priority issue. Bottcher said she seeks to increase turnout that now hovers in the teens and reduce costs by moving off an annual election schedule. Each year, the city's costs for elections run in the range of $200,000.
Hawkins said he would favor moving away from nonpartisan elections each spring to partisan elections that follow the schedule for county, state and federal offices.
The commission will discuss its elections laws when its series of meetings on the charter review continues at 6 p.m. today. The agenda also includes a review of the current form of government, in which the commission sets policy and the city manager runs day-to-day operations.
At an earlier meeting, Mayor Ed Braddy suggested that review. Braddy said he favored the current system but wanted to look at other options, including the strong mayor system that has that elected official running city operations.
The commission had already set a schedule to launch its charter review before Braddy took office, and he said the process is not a priority to him.
"I inherited this series of meetings, and I'll honor the commitment the commission made to hold these," he said. "But I have yet to hear anything that convinces me we have to put anything on the ballot to change the charter."
The commission has faced some criticism for not appointing an advisory committee to make recommendations on charter changes. When that last occurred in 2005, the charter review committee met for about eight months, and the commission then rejected the committee's recommendations on proposed changes to the election schedule.
As for the ban on paved trails on city-owned conservation property in the Hogtown Greenway, a political action committee's voter petition drive put in on the ballot in 1998 in response to a city plan for a seven-mile paved trail. It passed with 59 percent support.
Today, Commissioner Randy Wells said the ban inhibits the ability of bicyclists and people in wheelchairs to use Loblolly park.
But the commission is overwhelmingly cool to the idea.
"I think the reality of the matter is if we try to bring this forward as a charter amendment, it ain't gonna happen," Commissioner Lauren Poe said. "There's going to be organized local public opposition to it. It's going to be a loser. It's going to sow ill will when we don't need it."