PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – That’s the question voters could decide Nov. 6 on the city charter, the municipal constitution since 1976. Eliminating annual reviews of City Manager Ron Ferris and ending runoff elections are among changes that could be proposed to city voters.
“It’s too much too fast. This hurried action leads to suspicion,” said Gardens resident Pat Hughey.
The council earlier this month voted 4-0 to tentatively approve a referendum to repeal the charter and replace it with a new one. Councilman Eric Jablin was absent. A council vote on final approval is scheduled July 12.
The council could approve the Nov. 6 referendum to ask voters to vote yes or no on repealing the charter. Another council option is approving individual charter amendments to place on the referendum. Or, the council could put off a decision until a later date.
Charter changes in Gardens are being proposed to streamline the document, which in some cases is vague and in others conflicts with state law. For example, city regulations allow a majority of the council to vote to remove another council member, said City Attorney R. Max Loman.
But state law, which supersedes city law, says only the governor or a voter recall election can remove a council member, Loman said.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we are arguing with our own charter. That’s no way to govern,” he said.
A vote to repeal the charter would leave much of the document in place. Rules for city elections, pay and length of terms for mayor and council members and boundaries of the city would remain unchanged.
Other proposed charter changes include:
- Elimination of the requirement for an annual audit of the city’s finances. State law already requires the city hire an independent auditor to file an annual audit with the Florida Dept. of Financial Services, Loman said.
- Eliminating the requirement that a special election be called if a council member resigns or leaves office before the completion of his or her three-year term. Currently, a special election must be held if there is no municipal election scheduled within 180 days. The change would let the city hold the election at the next scheduled city, state or federal election.
- Eliminating mandatory charter review every five years. When to hold a charter review would be up to the council.
- Eliminating the requirement that the city manager live in the city within a year after appointment. Ferris, manager for 11 years, lives in Palm Beach Gardens.
- Clarifying the requirement that hiring and firing by the city manager of all department heads be confirmed by the city council. The current charter is unclear if council approval is required. The new charter would give that authority to Ferris without council approval. Hiring of the city manager, city attorney and city auditor would remain under the council.
Hiring and firing authority for city managers without council approval is common in council/manager forms of government such as Gardens. Requiring council approval would inject politics into the hiring process, said Tom Baird, town attorney for Lake Park and Jupiter. Those two towns don’t require council approval when the manager fires or hires a department head.
County Administrator Bob Weisman is required to get approval from Palm Beach County commissioners when he fires and hires a department head. Under West Palm Beach’s strong mayor system, Mayor Jerry Muoio can fire and hire department heads without commission approval.
“Requiring council approval can undermine the manager’s authority,” Baird said.
Resident Carol Estrada countered that council approval increases accountablity.
“It would allow Ferris to do whatever he wants without the council overseeing it,” she said.
Ferris denied that the proposed changes increase his power.
“The proposed changes to the charter do not grant any more authority to the city manager than is exercised under the current charter,” said Ferris, 65, who earns about $192,000 annually.
The proposed change to election rules would end the requirement for a runoff when no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote. The winner would be the candidate with the most votes.
The elimination of runoff elections would save taxpayers the cost of holding an election, estimated to be at least $10,000. Runoff elections usually only attract about 5 percent of voters, Loman said.
“We are not trying to protect the incumbent. I want to save money,” said Councilman Joe Russo, who was elected in 1989 and is serving his eighth consecutive three-year term.
“But you could also get someone elected with 18 percent of the vote,” said resident Hal Valeche, a former council member.
Rather than repealing the whole charter, parts of the document should be amended, said Gardens resident Kevin Easton.
“There is no real call to repeal the whole document. Why not bring the issues to voters individually?” Easton said.
The proposal to eliminate annual reviews for Ferris would reduce oversight of the council, Estrada