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Pinellas Charter Review Board public hearing brings flood of suggestions

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

When asking the public for suggestions to improve the county charter, Pinellas County probably hoped for a stream of ideas.

What they didn’t expect was a flood.

As commissioners for the County Charter Review board begin getting to work, citizens — especially those connected with the Tea Party — have been eagerly waiting to chime in.

During the most recent public hearing — and in e-mails which were sent both before and after the hearing — waves of recommendations came in on how to change Pinellas’ own miniature constitution.

Suggestions included everything from term limits for commissioners to revisions in selecting Charter Review Commission members. Also brought up were giving additional time for individual public comment at meetings, as well as reduced salaries for commissioners.

The most plausible suggestion, perhaps, were term limits. But that wasn’t anything new.

Pinellas County voters actually approved the idea nearly a decade ago — in 1996 — but term limits were never officially written into the charter (thanks to a long, tangled legal battle).

However, after speaking with charter review commissioners, including County Commissioner Janet Long, it still seems a bit early to tell whether term limits will be written into law.

Another proposal dealt with the commission membership selection process.

Currently, the Charter Review Commission has 13 members: one representative from county commission, one from the county’s mayors, one from its constitutional officers, and one from the legislative delegation: Long, Pinellas Park Mayor Sandra Lee Bradbury, Clerk of Court Ken Burke, and state Rep. Larry Ahern.

Nine others — all private citizens — are appointed by commissioners.

For people like H. Patrick Wheeler, a local Tea Party leader who sent a lengthy email on the topic to everyone on the Charter Review Commission, the beef lies in the power to select the nine public representatives.

“These nine [members should] be picked by a lottery,” Wheeler wrote.

Wheeler argues that a lottery would offer less incentive for those selected to side with county commissioners when deciding what is (or is not) included in the charter.

As for recommendations on reducing county commissioner salaries and allowing for more time for individual public comments at meetings, some believe using the charter for enforcement might be a bit of an overreach.

The state actually sets county commissioner salaries, based on population.

Whereas the length of time for public comment at county commission meetings (currently set at three minutes) is, in fact, a procedural issue and can be adjusted by the chair.

The next Charter Review Commission meeting is Dec. 9, from 3:30 to 6 p.m.

Every eight years Pinellas County assembles a group of elected officials and regular citizens to review the county’s charter and make possible changes. Meetings began in August of this year and will finish by July 2016. Any recommended amendments to the charter will be placed on the November 2016 ballot for a vote by the citizens of Pinellas.

Devon Crumpacker is a Tampa Bay based writer and reporter for Extensive Enterprises Media. He primarily covers Pinellas County politics for SaintPetersblog.com, but also makes time to write the occasional bar review for FloridaBarTab.com. He lives in St. Petersburg with his fiance, Sydney. To contact, e-mail devon@floridapolitics.com, or visit his Twitter page @DevonCrumpacker.

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