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Tarpon rules to be put to vote Tuesday

In an exercise that takes place every five years, residents have a chance to tweak the city's charter through eight proposed amendments.

By NORA KOCH
Published March 6, 2005


TARPON SPRINGS - Questions, questions.

Voters will be asked eight on Tuesday. Some of the city charter amendments would make minor changes to technical language. Others would have larger implications.

Every five years, a seven-member appointed committee meets to pore over Tarpon Springs' guiding document. This year, former Mayor Frank DiDonato led the committee.

"When we started this group, we really looked at what would help the city run more efficiently but still keep a lot of the checks and balances in the system," said DiDonato, who is running for a City Commission seat.

The committee met 11 times between May and August, interviewing commissioners, city staffers and the public. After considering their comments, the committee presented eight proposed amendments to the City Commission, which put the questions on this week's ballot. The proposals have generated little public discussion.

The minor questions in Tuesday's election include whether it's okay to get rid of language in the charter that duplicates state law (Question No. 2), how to number different sections of the charter (No. 6) and how to address the commissioner who fills in for the mayor (No. 5). Currently it's mayor pro-tem, but the referendum wants to change that to vice mayor.

"There are people who don't even know what "mayor pro-tem' means," DiDonato said.

The other five questions pose bigger issues. They are:

Referendum 1

Limitation of Powers

The Charter restricts land transactions and contracts for lease or sale of real and personal property without referendum vote. Shall the time period for leases be increased from five to 10 years and additional exceptions be provided for sale to charitable organizations for less than appraised value and a lease, sale, buying exception for real property valued less than $250,0000 approved by four commissioner votes be approved?

Despite the title, this question actually asks voters to boost the City Commission's power.

This question has three prongs, asking voters for permission to:

Extend a normal lease from a five-year maximum to 10.

Sell property to charitable organizations at less than appraised value.

Approve land purchases under $250,000 with a supermajority vote.

Limits on buying and selling property have frustrated city leaders for years. Voter approval is required for all land purchases, except when the property is needed for streets and other infrastructure. That forces the city to wait to buy land until the next scheduled election. Or it requires a special election, which can be costly and time consuming, DiDonato said. Given the increasing demand for land in Tarpon Springs, city leaders fear that the charter requirements could hurt their dealmaking.

DiDonato said the committee selected the $250,000 figure based on property values in the city, and said the public's interest would be safeguarded by requiring a supermajority - at least four of the commission's five votes - to pass a sale.

But in 1995 and again in 2000, voters upheld the idea of requiring voter approval to buy property.

Some commissioners worry that it won't pass again. Commissioner Peter Dalacos stated his concern last week, saying that he didn't feel the question should pass.

The question also asks voters for permission to sell land to charities at below-market value. For example, DiDonato said, cutting a deal for an organization like Habitat for Humanity to buy land in the Union Academy neighborhood would "encourage continued development in the area."

Finally, the proposal to extend leases is necessary, DiDonato said, because many companies want to negotiate leases longer than five years. The city has to renew five-year leases over and over.

Referendum 3

Form of Oath and Excused Absences

Currently the City Charter provides for a form of an oath of taking office and excused absences from City Commission meetings. Shall subparagraphs (b) and (e) be amended to allow for an affirmation of said oath and allow for an absence to be excused following the occurrence of said absence?

City commissioners who miss meetings must be excused in advance - even if they fall ill that night. If voters approve this referendum question, the commission will be able to approve an absence after it occurs.

The question also would allow commissioners to "affirm" an oath rather than be "sworn in," at the suggestion of city attorney John Hubbard.

"We're just adding that in so you can say you swear or affirm instead of just swear, because there's a religious thing where you don't want to swear," DiDonato said. "Some people just won't do it."

Referendum 4

Deleting Listing of Specific Duties of Internal Auditor

Currently, Section 14 of the City Charter provides for a specific listing of duties of the City's Internal Auditor. Shall Section 14 be amended to delete specific list of duties and provide that such duties be determined as the Board of Commissioners shall direct?

About 20 years after voters put an internal auditor position in the charter, residents are being asked to delete a list of duties and functions of the job.

City officials say auditing needs and practices have evolved in the past two decades, and rather than spelling out the job responsibilities in the charter, the City Commission should have the freedom to define the duties.

Others, advocating for more internal auditing within the city, have questioned this proposed amendment, but they acknowledge it will not kill the position, just change it.

The city hasn't had an internal auditor on staff in four years, but city officials say the job is getting done in other ways. Nowadays, they say, state regulations require thorough financial audits by outside companies, computer systems perform checks better than humans, and an outside consultant can provide operational assessments more cheaply and objectively than someone on staff.

DiDonato said this proposed amendment would not get rid of the internal auditor job, just let the commission assign the duties.

Referendum 7

Currently the City Charter provides that purchases for budgeted goods and services may not exceed $10,000 without competitive bidding. Shall Section 23 of the City Charter be amended to allow for this purchase amount to be increased to $25,000?

This question proposes a 150 percent increase in the amount that can be spent on general budgeted goods without going out to bid.

DiDonato said this increase is still conservative and is a necessary function of inflation.

"When adopted, this will live for at least five years, so we have to put a value in there with some kind of growth factor," he said.

Referendum 8

Currently the City Charter provides for emergency purchases without competitive bidding up to $50,000. Shall Section 24 of the City Charter be amended to allow for the purchase of goods or services in an emergency condition without competitive bidding to be a maximum of $100,000?

When a pump goes down in the wastewater treatment plant, it can cost more than $50,000 to fix - and the city staff should have the authority to make reasonable purchases in emergencies, DiDonato said.

"This just allows them to fix what they need to fix," he said.

Nora Koch can be reached at nkoch@sptimes.com or 727 771-4304.

[Last modified March 6, 2005, 00:14:20]


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