West Palm Beach Commission puts term limits on ballot

West Palm Beach city commissioners voted Monday to place seven ballot questions before voters in the March election. Mostly affecting commissioners’ terms, the proposals were a result of almost a year of study by the Charter Review Committee.

While commissioners approved much of the committee’s recommendations at their Nov. 14 meeting, term limits did not make the cut – until the public pushed for the restrictions.

Drawing the most criticism was the question of extending commissioners’ terms from two years to three. With that question unresolved, commissioners had a difficult time reaching consensus on the next issue: how many terms a commissioner should serve.

Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell said the overriding sense she had was that the general public supports term limits and opposes lengthening the number of years served per term. Mitchell said that while she disagrees with term limits for a number of reasons, she said it’s a decision voters deserve to make.

In the end, commissioners agreed to ask voters to extend commissioner terms from two to three years. The next ballot question will ask if voters wanted term limits, explaining that commissioners’ time in office would be limited to eight years if the terms remained at two years and nine years if the terms were expanded to three years. The language was approved with Mitchell opposing.

Another ballot item will ask voters to limit instances where run-off elections are required. Currently, a run-off is held when no candidate receives 50 percent plus one of the total votes cast. Voters will be asked to lower that threshold to trigger run-offs only when candidates fail to receive 40 percent or more of the vote.

Commission vacancies will also be addressed. Right now, vacancies caused when commissioners resign to run for another office are filled by appointment by the City Commission. Instead, voters will be asked to fill those empty seats at the next regularly scheduled March election.

They’ll also be asked to change the requirement for special elections, in the interest of saving the city money. If the amendment is approved, the city would get an extra month to put voter initiatives or referenda on the ballot if a regularly scheduled election is no more than four months away. That would allow the city to avoid the cost, and hassle, of holding a special election so close to a regular election.

Another ballot item would give city commissioners more leeway in questioning city department heads. As it stands, under West Palm Beach’s strong-mayor form of government, the mayor manages city staff without “interference from city commissioners,” as the referendum points out. Voters, though, will be asked whether commissioners can “reasonably summon” a department head to appear at a public meeting to answer questions and provide information when needed.

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