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    Tarpon Springs debates referendum questions: Con

    By MICHAEL N. MATTIA
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2002

    Editor's note: When Tarpon Springs voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will find six referendum questions on the ballot. The first five of those would, if approved, make changes in the city charter; the sixth would give the city permission to buy a small piece of property. There has been considerable debate on the ballot questions, so today the Times gives two residents the opportunity to present arguments on opposing sides of the debate. Michael N. Mattia is chairman of a group formed to urge voters to vote "no" on ballot questions one through five. He represents the "con" side today. City Commissioner Cindy Sanner represents the "pro" side. She has served on the commission a total of nine years but is not seeking re-election.

    * * *

    Friends Advising Citizens on the Charter of Tarpon Springs appreciates this opportunity to provide voters with additional information on the five charter amendment referendum items being proposed by the Board of Commissioners.

    The city has used taxpayer money to prepare, print and send out three mailings telling citizens why these proposed revisions will "help" Tarpon Springs. When our organization asked to include opposing views in the same water bill mail-outs, we were turned down by the city attorney and commission with the excuse that the city's efforts were educational but that our views were political.

    Four of the proposed revisions will empower the City Commission at the expense of the citizens, and the fifth will empower the city manager at the expense of the commission. Our recommendation is that each item, 1 through 5, should be voted "no" by the voters.

    Item No. 1 would eliminate any restriction on the Board of Commissioners to sell or purchase real property. The present requirement that a voter referendum be held on the sale or purchase of any real property has been in the charter since at least 1940. A compromise that would have allowed the commissioners by a 4 to 1 vote to purchase property valued at up to $250,000 without a voter referendum was voted down in 2000. The city's contention now that substituting a 4 to 1 vote of the commissioners for a referendum vote by the citizens maintains "checks and balances" defies logic. The exact opposite would occur. Eliminating voters from the process eliminates the only check on the commission's ability to sell the golf course or the hospital or the marina or purchase property at inflated prices.

    Item No. 2 requiring a 4 to 1 vote of the commissioners to hire or fire a city manager is a prescription for gridlock in government. We have had only three city managers since 1991; there has not been rapid turnover.

    Item No. 3 concerns term limits. We have had term limits in Tarpon Springs for more than 30 years. When this same question was on the ballot in March 2000, the vote was 77 percent to keep term limits. Term limits do not restrict voter choice; on the contrary, they encourage new faces to enter public service. Term limits also decrease the possibility of undue influence by vested interests by placing a time limit on the power of elected officials. Our term limits law is quite liberal, requiring only a one-year absence from office before running again. The statements by the city regarding catastrophic events show how self-centered and out of touch with reality they are. They need to look and learn from New York City and the statesmanlike actions of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who turned aside all efforts to overturn New York's term limit law after 9/11 and graciously accepted the end of his term of office.

    Item No 4: The commission has stated that the city is restricted from entering into any lease or contract that exceeds five years unless it submits that contract to a referendum election. It now has the power to sign leases of 10 years for personal property such as fire trucks and computers. The present system has worked well for more than 60 years, and the city has not provided convincing evidence that would justify giving it unlimited authority to enter into longterm leases without a voter referendum.

    Item No. 5: This is another item where there is no demonstrated need and which may have unintended consequences. There are numerous methods for obtaining the advice of nonresident business people without taking away the seat of a resident who may wish to serve on these boards. The perception of residents is going to be different and broader in scope than that of nonresidents on issues which will affect where we live.

    Item No. 6: We have chosen not to comment on this item because it does not relate to a charter amendment issue.

    Good government requires public involvement and participation, and that is encouraged by the referendum requirement. The referendum process has the added benefit of throwing light on subjects which might not otherwise come to public attention. It helps to keep people honest. In many past instances, the referendum vote has been far different from that of the City Commission. It is therefore imperative that this vital check on the power of elected officials not be eliminated.

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