CLEARWATER - To most city residents, the words "Clearwater" and "Referendum" conjure up images of current and past efforts to redevelop Coachman Park and its waterfront. But the City Council took action during their meeting last week on a county referendum issue, one that promises its own storm of controversy during the November election.
At issue is the notion of home rule, and the process used by the Pinellas County Charter Review Commission to recommend a charter amendment that threatens the home rule of the county's 24 cities.
Mayor Frank Hibbard told his council colleagues on Thursday night that the Mayor's Council, which he chairs, voted unanimously to approve two resolutions in opposition to the proposed county charter amendments, and asked the respective cities to approve those same resolutions and to cooperate in defeating the proposed amendments.
The most onerous of the proposed charter amendments is Question #4, which seeks to eliminate the "dual vote" requirement from the County Charter. Clearwater and the other 23 cities represented on the Mayor's Council oppose it because it would eliminate some of the autonomy that they currently enjoy.
The "dual vote" that is now a part of the County Charter requires that a countywide ballot question be measured in two ways, both countywide and within each of the cities where it would become effective. The "dual vote" provision allows voters in a municipality to defeat the measure within their own city even though it may have passed countywide.
Councilmember Bill Jonson provided a hypothetical example, a proposal to adopt a countywide resolution to allow billboards on all roads. "Today, each city would have to approve that for it to apply within that city," he said. But if the "dual vote" amendment passes in November, a simple majority of all voters would make it a countywide regulation, applicable to all cities.
Jonson opposes elimination of the "dual vote" requirement, and thinks that ballot question 4 might be misleading; "I don't think the ballot language accurately describes the change being proposed," he said.
Mayor Frank Hibbard has also been a vocal opponent of question 4; "By eliminating the dual vote," he said, "you're eliminating a municipality's ability to choose their own destiny."
There are also questions about the process used by the Charter Review Commission, an appointed body, to produce its recommendations. "Procedurally, we believe that process was flawed," said Hibbard. One issue was with the crucial vote taken to advance the "dual vote" amendment. Eight votes in favor were needed; the issue passed 8-4, but two favorable votes were cast via telephone by commission members who were not in physical attendance, Hibbard said.
The City Council voted unanimously to initiate legal action to ensure that the ballot language is correct and done according to Florida law. Clearwater will be joining the other 23 cities represented on the Mayor's Council in disputing the ballot.
The City Council also unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the use of city funds and staff time to "educate the public concerning the proposed referendum questions and the negative impact they will have on the city and its citizens."
The vote-no campaign will coordinated across the county's 24 cities by the Mayor's Council. "There should be a single message that's consistent across the county," Hibbard said. The costs of the campaign and legal action will shared by the cities; Hibbard estimated that Clearwater will be asked to contribute about $20-thousand to the effort.
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