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A Times Editorial

State and local ballot questions

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 2000


For Pinellas voters

Three countywide referendum questions will appear on Pinellas County ballots. The first two are charter housekeeping matters related to the change in the size of the County Commission from five members to seven approved by voters last year. The third question concerns new rules for voluntary municipal annexations.

COMMISSION VOTES ON HIRING AND FIRING COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR: The current charter requires a vote by four of five members to hire an administrator; the ballot language changes that to five of seven members. The current charter also spells out how an administrator can be fired: either by a single vote of four members or by two votes of three members in meetings at least two weeks apart; the ballot language changes those numbers to five and four respectively to reflect the new majority and super majority. The Times recommends a "Yes" vote.

RESTRICTIONS ON CITIZEN INITIATIVES: The current charter sets restrictions by saying no more than 30 percent of petitioners shall reside in any one of the five commission districts, which no longer makes sense. The ballot language corrects the problem by saying no more than 40 percent of petitioners shall reside in any one at-large district and no more than 30 percent shall reside in a single-member district. This change provides the same protection for the citizens' right to the initiative process. The Times recommends a "Yes" vote.

METHODS AND BOUNDARIES FOR VOLUNTARY ANNEXATION: If this referendum question is approved, the Pinellas County charter will be amended so the county can create new procedures for voluntary annexations of county land by cities. The new procedures will replace state law.

Currently, if a property owner in unincorporated Pinellas wants to join a city next to his property, he files a request for annexation. If the city wants the property, it adopts an ordinance to annex, and the county and state are notified later.

It is a simple process, but in densely populated Pinellas County with its 24 municipalities, there were many complications. Border wars broke out between Pinellas cities during the last two years, landing several local governments in court. Residents of unincorporated areas complained that they were being harassed by cities trying to acquire land to pump up their stagnant tax bases. Everyone agreed that something had to be done to bring order to the chaos.

During two years of negotiations with Pinellas cities, the Pinellas Planning Council came up with new voluntary annexation procedures that will take effect if the referendum passes.

First, planning boundaries drawn around each city would show the area eligible for future annexation. If an owner of unincorporated land within that boundary wanted to annex, he would file an application with the city, which would send a copy to the Planning Council. If the council staff determined that the property was within the boundary, contiguous to the city and reasonably compact, the annexation would proceed.

But if the Planning Council saw a problem, it would do a fuller review and send its recommendation to the County Commission, which would decide whether the annexation could proceed. Property owners could appeal that decision to Circuit Court. Cities would be allowed to annex inside another city's boundary only by getting the county boundary map amended by the County Commission.

The Planning Council proposal would allow one other type of voluntary annexation not provided for in state law. The owner of a property located inside an enclave of county land surrounded by a municipality could apply for voluntary annexation, even if his property did not touch any of the city's property.

Some residents of unincorporated Pinellas believe the proposal would force cities to annex all of the land within their planning boundaries. That is not true. The proposal applies only to voluntary annexations initiated by property owners who want to join a city.

Other critics say it adds another layer of bureaucracy to the process of annexation. It does. And they say it doesn't address all of the troublesome aspects of annexation. It doesn't. This is a compromise proposal, and it isn't perfect.

But it takes a first step toward reducing the border conflicts by establishing boundaries, letting owners of unincorporated property know where they stand and inserting a third-party review of annexation proposals. Those are all positive.

The Times recommends a "Yes" vote.

Tampa charter amendments

AMENDMENTS 1 AND 2: N

At present, the mayor and members of city council are limited to two consecutive four-year terms. These amendments would repeal term limits, allowing the mayor and council members to seek election to an unlimited number of consecutive terms.

We have generally opposed term limits because they curtail democratic rights by limiting the choice for voters. But these proposals are designed to close, not open, the field in Tampa politics. A small band of lawyers and lobbyists are behind this effort as a means to engineer a third term for Mayor Dick Greco. Changing the charter to reward any one politician is bad public policy. The mayor, under Tampa's city charter, also has control over much of the council's business. To further concentrate that power by laying the foundation for a monarchic mayor rids what little balance exists between the two branches of government.

Supporters showed their ulterior motives. They should have collected signatures to place the amendment on the ballot. A petition drive would have shown whether repealing term limits had any popular support. Backers, instead, persuaded the city council to place the measure directly on the ballot -- even though a repeal benefits council members. This campaign was dishonest and designed to keep public participation at a minimum. The Times recommends "No" on amendments 1 and 2.

AMENDMENTS 3 AND 4: NO

These amendments would give the mayor's office more discretion to spend and limit public notification of the annual city budget. Top city officials could spend up to $25,000 without having to seek prior approval by the council. The mayor's office also could send its budget to city council later in the year, making it more difficult for citizens to debate the mayor's budget priorities.

The council already has a weak record of vetting the budget. With these measures, the mayor could easily squirrel away pet projects in the budget; poorer neighborhoods would lose leverage fighting for city services. The proponents' goal of cutting red tape is a phony excuse. The Times recommends "No" on amendments 3 and 4.

AMENDMENTS 5 AND 6: YES

Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio proposed two ways to increase public involvement in the electoral process. Amendment 5 provides that any redrawing of precinct and council district lines be completed five months earlier than now required. The net effect is that candidates and voters would be better informed. Amendment 6 would allow all Hillsborough voters to participate as poll workers, a privilege now open only to Tampa city voters. The change would create a larger pool of workers to ensure the precincts are adequately staffed. The Times recommends "Yes" to amendments 5 and 6.

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