Countywide mayor could shake up Palm Beach County

How would you like to have a countywide voice on the Palm Beach County Commission, a leader who speaks for and is elected by all the county’s residents, whether he or she is called commission “mayor” or “chairman”? You may have the chance, if this bold, new idea takes hold and paves the way for a major change in the way government would operate in the county.

Discussions are going on among business and community leaders about how such a change could be structured, but no one has come out to champion the issue yet. It would require voters to revise the county charter. A similar idea is now front-burner news in Broward, where the Broward Workshop, a group of top business executives, has been pushing a plan for several years to create an elected countywide mayor. At the moment, the effort is stalled until a disagreement can be resolved about whether to decrease or expand the size of the Broward County Commission.

The concept of an “elected mayor” has been discussed in Palm Beach County in the past, but prior proposals called for a strong mayor with more powers than the other commissioners, including some management roles currently under the county administrator’s duties. The local business community fought that proposal in 2004, and defeated it.

The current concept under discussion is different. First, the County Commission would have an elected chair whose powers would be no different than those now wielded by the current commission-designated chair – no more, no less. Each commissioner would still maintain all the authority he or she has today. Powers, and the weight of each commissioner’s vote, would not change. Second, the elected chair would not replace or shift power away from the county administrator system. The size of the County Commission would also stay the same, since there would be no need for additional members. Under the concept, the chair would be an equal, voting member of the commission, with six single-district seats and one countywide elected position. Finally, the elected chair would be governed by the same term limits as current commissioners. But discussions are still underway as to whether to allow term-limited commissioners to run for countywide mayor, since it would be a different position under the county charter.

Voters would elect their single-district commissioners and a county chair – giving them two votes to determine who is representing them on the commission. They would also get to decide who their chair is versus the county commissioners selecting one of their peers.

The concept is familiar to the public, since many voters select a chair or mayor in their own cities.

The proposal for an elected chair could be attractive to business leaders because it would provide leadership from someone who could focus on the interests of the entire county, not only his or her own district, someone who could promote a long-term vision for healthy growth and who would be responsible for recruiting businesses and jobs.

Typically, to be effective, countywide elected officials have to be business-friendly so they can increase the tax base, and they can negotiate better with state and federal officials for support for county programs and funding.

“Voters are ready for a change, and an opportunity for the ability to elect their own commission chair,” said Rick Asnani, a political consultant and expert on charter changes. “This is not a partisan issue, and both parties could have reasons to support it.”

Several other counties in Florida (Hillsborough, Volusia, Orange, Broward, Miami-Dade) have looked at or implemented concepts of an elected executive or countywide mayor.

But, as with all projects like this, the devil is in the details. If structured properly, an elected commission chair could be effective in attracting new business and job growth. If done well, the change could provide a large county like ours with a more efficient government. If structured poorly, it could lead to political cronyism and power resting in the hands of a small group. The business community looks forward to exploring the idea and determining whether it would improve the politics and governance of the county.

John R. Smith

John R. Smith is chairman of BIZPAC, the Business Political Action Committee of Palm Beach County, and owner of a financial services company. He is a frequent columnist for BizPac Review.
John R. Smith

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