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Cities decry charter proposals

Voters will decide whether cities lose the right to opt out of countywide referendums. Other ballot questions look at annexation rules.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published June 20, 2006


Local cities lost big at Pinellas County's Charter Review Commission Monday night.

Over their full-throated opposition, the commission approved several potential changes to the charter, which outlines the duties and responsibilities of county government.

Those proposals now go to voters as ballot questions Nov. 7.

Eight members, the minimum needed for the 13-person body to recommend a change, voted to get rid of the dual referendum, which has drawn the most opposition by many city leaders.

The charter requires a dual vote for a regulatory policy, such as one governing environmental standards. It must pass a countywide referendum to take effect, but if it is rejected by voters in a municipality, it doesn't apply there.

Pinellas is Florida's only county with that requirement, adopted in 1999 but never used.

St. Petersburg City Council member John Bryan, a Charter Review Commission member, warned colleagues before the vote that they risked a bitter feud and perhaps court battles over the ballot question.

Also going to the ballot will be proposals that the commission hopes will curb perceived abuses in the way cities annex land.

Cities also oppose these proposals.

"We have a few cities who don't play fair," said Susan Latvala, a charter review member and county commissioner. "They annex people against their will."

Under the changes voters will consider in November:

nAny consent to annexation by a property owner would have to be in writing. Cities would have to wait seven years before making a second attempt to annex from an unwilling property owner. Under state law, the hiatus is two years.

nIncentives whose public purpose is questionable, such as the promise of landscaping improvements for those who agree to be annexed, would be prohibited.

nAnd in certain types of annexation, the cities would have to get consent from the owners of more than 67 percent of the property in an area to be annexed. State law requires just over 50 percent.

The new annexation rules must be approved by voters and the state Legislature.

Voters also will also be asked to consider a charter amendment they rejected in 2004. It makes explicit the county administrator's authority to hire and fire senior staff members without County Commission approval.

The commission, which includes four local elected officials, also proposed barring politicians and government employees in the future.

"This has turned into an arena for elected officials in this county," Latvala told the group. "And I don't think it's appropriate."