Changes to charter looking unlikely


Published: Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 10:54 p.m.

During meetings spread over three months, the Gainesville City Commission has debated moving the election cycle or changing the authority of some charter officers.

On Monday, commissioners are slated to revisit those issues during what is currently the last scheduled meeting in a charter review process that began in July.

Right now, it appears that no proposed change to the document establishing the framework of city government has the support needed — at least six of the seven commissioners — to go to the voters in a referendum.

"I think it is unlikely we will do anything," Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said. "I would like us to put several things on the ballot. But based on the comments that I have heard, I think it is unlikely."

With Gainesville now on an annual election cycle and voter turnout hovering in the teens, a common occurrence for municipal elections, commissioners such as Hawkins and Lauren Poe have supported a move to an every-other-year schedule that coincides with the primary and general election schedule for county, state and federal offices.

That move appears to lack the needed support to make the ballot.

In March, voters rejected a move to odd-year elections in the fall and a related change to four-year terms. On the heels of that vote, Commissioner Todd Chase has said he will not support any changes to the election schedule. Chase also has argued that moving city campaigns to coincide with county, state and federal races will have less-informed voters deciding elections.

Mayor Ed Braddy, whose term began after the commission decided to start the charter review process, said he does not feel a case has been made for advancing any changes.

"I haven't heard anything that I find particularly compelling to warrant a change to the charter," Braddy said.

He said he has heard no clamoring from the public for the changes the commission is now considering. Braddy said he felt the process would have gained more public confidence and participation if the City Commission had established an advisory group to vet potential changes and make recommendations on what should go to the voters.

A previous City Commission, with Braddy in office, did establish a charter review committee in 2005. That committee met for several months, and the commission did not move forward with the election changes it proposed. Several years later, a different commission pushed ahead with the same changes that committee had recommended. Those were moving to elections in the fall of odd years and four-year terms, which the voters rejected in March.

Talking about election changes, Commissioner Susan Bottcher said she would like to move to a schedule of elections every other year as a money-saving move when annual elections run in the range of $200,000. Bottcher said she would like to move from three- to four-year terms, with elections remaining in the spring. She said the commission could phase in such a change so that no current incumbent has his or her term extended.

But Bottcher said she does not see support on the commission to put any election changes on the ballot.

Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said she wants to see higher turnout but does not see enough support to put any election changes to the voters.

As for other potential charter changes commissioners have proposed, Hawkins has raised the possibility of a new charter officer to oversee Planning and Development, the Community Redevelopment Agency and Public Works — three departments he says should be more closely aligned.

Hinson-Rawls said the Equal Opportunity charter officer should be given "more teeth" to advance diversity in hiring and promotions. To that end, she said she favors putting the Human Resources Department under Equal Opportunity.

Commissioner Randy Wells previously has spoken in support of loosening the ban on paved trails in the Hogtown Greenway, a previous charter amendment advanced by a voter petition drive. Wells said wheelchairs and some bicycles could not travel the current network of boardwalks and unpaved trails with the ban in place.

During an August meeting, the majority of the commission did not support pursuing that move, with Commissioner Lauren Poe saying it would cultivate "ill will" and ultimately fail.

There also has been talk of putting before voters a referendum to clean up outdated language and scrivener's errors in the current charter.

One section that dates back to a five-member commission states that a four out of five vote is needed for any charter change to make the ballot. With the current seven-member commission, that threshold means the support of at least six commissioners. Some commissioners have supported reducing the required level of support to five of the seven commissioners, saying the current language makes charter changes almost impossible.

Braddy has reservations, saying the intent behind the current charter language might have been to make it difficult to change the city's governing document.

"On matters that rise to such seriousness, they want everyone on board," he said. "If you lose one, that's one thing. If you lose two, that's too many."

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