Friday, October 16, 2009

Charter vote

On Thursday, October 9th the City Council voted to send the new proposed charter to the voters. This charter, which is the product of the Charter Review Commission, proposes substantial changes to the government of the City of Pensacola. The Supervisor of Elections will send out mail ballots in early November, and they will be due Nov 24. There will be only one question on the ballot, and it will read as follows:


Shall the City of Pensacola replace its current Charter with a completely revised Charter providing for:

  • A Mayor-Council form of government, replacing a Council-Manager form of government;
  • A nine-member Council with two at-large seats and seven district seats;
  • Four-year staggered terms of office instead of two-year terms of office;
  • Term limits of three consecutive terms;
  • Recall, initiative and referendum

as described in Ordinance #35-09.

There are, appropriately, many questions that people have about this vote, and I hope everyone will take every opportunity to educate themselves on this. The following are some frequently asked questions:

Where can I see the two charters to read them for myself?

Both the current charter and the proposed charter are posted online. In addition, the videos and minutes of the Charter Review Commission are available.

What's the difference between the charter and consolidation?

The charter is for the City of Pensacola only. City voters will vote on the charter this November. Consolidation is an effort to combine the governments of the city, the county, and the Town of Century. It is anticipated that consolidation will come before the voters throughout Escambia County in the fall of 2010.

What are the differences between the two charters?

The ballot language (above) highlights the key differences between the two charters, including the form of government, term lengths and limits, and changes to the referendum process. Other differences include some stylistic updates, like including a preamble, as well as putting into the charter some things which are currently governed by ordinance.

What if I like certain provisions of the new charter but not others?

The charter review commission put many, many hours of work into drafting this new charter. There are a variety of provisions that they changed, including the form of government, council terms, term limits, and referendum provisions. Each of these could have been a separate ballot item. The council decide to simplify the current vote by having only one question. In the future, however, it is likely that individual items could be brought forward, if the new charter does not pass in its entirety.

What is Mayor-Council and Council-Manager?

Council-manager describes our current form of government. The council (and the mayor) can be likened to a board of directors. One of their tasks is to hire a city manager, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the city. In a way, the city manager is like the CEO.

Mayor-council describes a system more like the federal or state government systems. The mayor acts as the head of the executive branch, in this case hiring city department heads and overseeing operations. The council is like the legislative branch, controlling the budget and passing ordinances.

Will the Mayor be governed by the Sunshine Laws?

The Sunshine Law is a law which governs the communication between members who serve on the same elected body. Under it, two members of the same body can not speak to each other outside of a public meeting about any matter upon which they might vote. The communications between council and mayor are governed by this law, but it does not apply to individual council/mayor communication with members of another elected body (e.g., individual members of the county commission or the Gulf Breeze city council).

Under the new proposed charter, though, the mayor no longer serves on the same body as the council. The mayor then may have private meetings with individual council members to discuss issues, including issues that may come up for a vote before the council. Under both the current charter and the proposed, though, all written/email communication is still subject to public records, though face-to-face and phone conversations are not.

Do we have a charter currently?

Yes. Our current charter was adopted in1931. Like other constitutions it allows for amendments, which must be ratified by the voters. One amendment, for example, allowed for the direct election of the mayor in 2000 (previously the mayor was chosen by the council). On the other hand, Escambia County does not have a charter. Several years ago, a group worked on "charter government" for Escambia County, but that referendum failed. Without a charter, the county relies on the state legislature to control certain aspects of our county government. However, the existing city charter and the proposed one both confer the benefits of home rule, so we do not have to get legislative approval for changes.

If the charter passes, what happens next?

The outcome of this referendum will be known in the end of November. If it passes, the city government will begin the transition process. In either case, the next election for council members and mayor will be in August 2010.

How many people will I vote for?

Under the current charter, each city voter votes for four people: a district council member, two at-large (city-wide) council members, and the mayor. That will remain the same under the new charter. Currently every vote of the council is deliberated by 10 people, requiring 6 people for a majority. Under the proposed charter, the council will consist of 9 people, requiring 5 people for a majority, and the mayor will have veto power. The council, however, will be able to override the mayor's veto.

Will the elections be partisan?

Current city council elections are non-partisan, meaning that the candidates are not listed based on their party affiliation (e.g., Democrat, Republican) on the ballot. The new charter preserves this form. Some individuals, because of their employment, are prohibited from participating in partisan politics, so under either charter they are still able to serve on the city council.

Why not wait until the next election cycle to save on the cost of the ballot and give voters more time to study the issue?

The charter commission has spent over a year and a half working on drafting this new charter. They revised many provisions. However, after all of their study, they created a short document that can be reviewed in a short time. If we postpone until the next election cycle, citizens will be voting on state referendums and a large number of elected officials. Our charter, the underlying structure of our government, deserves to be considered separately from all of the other clutter. If we postpone until this spring, there would be insufficient time for candidates to file and run for the new positions, if the new charter passes. If we postpone and vote either in the spring or next fall, we would have to consider holding a special election for the new officials in the new government (again, a cost to the city) or electing a caretaker government to wait until the 2012 election. For quite some time now the potential of the new charter has caused some uncertainty in city government, and it is in our best interest to resolve this as soon as possible so that we can all again come together to creating the best city we can, under whatever form of government the voters choose.

So, which form is better?

That is the question that the voters must decide. In the multiple meetings we have had on this issue, we have heard examples of great cities with both forms of government. The underlying issue is ensuring that we have people in the government that are leaders and best represent the citizens.