By Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
Originally posted July 2015
Editor’s Note: We are taking a “Look Back” to honor the great works of our volunteer reporters. This article, written by Suanne Thamm, is the third in a series of 5 articles about Charter County government. (Links are provided below for the complete series.) The series is one of our most popular articles, and it captured a lot of attention across the state of Florida and nationally. Although this series focuses on county government, Suanne’s normal “beat” is city hall. Suanne has spent countless hours covering city commission meetings and workshops for the last ten years. Her in-depth reporting and her ability to present complex issues clearly have served our city well. We thank Suanne for the many gifts she has given to our community.
Now retired, Chief Judge Donald Moran spoke to the Nassau County Board of Commissioners during a dispute between Clerk of Courts John Crawford and Nassau County Circuit Court Judge Robert Foster. Moran urged the county commission to change their current form of government. “Your system of governance that you have in this community is, in my opinion, is kind of antiquated.” (The City of Fernandina Beach operates under a charter form of government, however, Nassau County does not.)
“How to create a charter county government,” is the third in a series of four articles published by Suanne Thamm in July of 2015. Her articles focused on the Charter Form of Government when now retired Chief Judge Donald Moran spoke to the county commission and urged them to change our current form of government. “Your system of governance that you have in this community is in my opinion is kind of antiquated.” (The City of Fernandina Beach operates under a charter form of government, however, Nassau County does not.)
The process required to develop a county charter is laid out in Florida Statutes, Chapter 125, Part II, Sections 125.60-125.64:
- Any county not having a chartered form of consolidated government may, pursuant to the provisions of ss. 60–125.64, locally initiate and adopt by a majority vote of the qualified electors of the county a county home rule charter. The county commission may form a charter commission by resolution. Alternatively, if citizens submit a petition to the county commission signed by at least 15 percent of the county’s registered voters, a charter commission must be appointed. [Today Nassau County has more than 56,000 registered voters, meaning that any petition would need to bear around 8,500 signatures.] In either case, the charter commission must be formed within 30 days of the passage of the resolution or filing of said petition.
- The charter commission is composed of an odd number of members, not less than 11 or more than 15. If the commission is established by resolution, members are appointed by the county commission. If the petition method is used, the legislative delegation may make the appointments. In any event, no member of the legislature or county commission may serve on the charter commission.
- Within 30 days following appointments, the commission must hold an organizational meeting to elect a chair and vice chair and decide any procedural matters. All meetings are open to the public. Expenses of the commission must be paid from the general fund of the county, upon verification of a majority vote of the charter commission.
- The charter commission shall conduct a comprehensive study of the operation of county government and of the ways in which the conduct of county government might be improved or reorganized. Within 18 months of its initial meeting, unless such time is extended by appropriate resolution of the board of county commissioners, the charter commission shall present to the board of county commissioners a proposed charter, upon which it shall have held three public hearings at intervals of not less than 10 nor more than 20 days. At the final hearing the charter commission shall incorporate any amendments it deems desirable, vote upon a proposed charter, and forward said charter to the board of county commissioners for the holding of a referendum election as provided in s. 64.
125.64 Adoption of charter; dissolution of commission.—
(1) Upon submission to the board of county commissioners of a charter by the charter commission, the board of county commissioners shall call a special election to be held not more than 90 nor less than 45 days subsequent to its receipt of the proposed charter, at which special election a referendum of the qualified electors within the county shall be held to determine whether the proposed charter shall be adopted. Notice of the election on the proposed charter shall be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county not less than 30 nor more than 45 days before the election.
(2) If a majority of those voting on the question favor the adoption of the new charter, it shall become effective January 1 of the succeeding year or at such other time as the charter shall provide. Such charter, once adopted by the electors, may be amended only by the electors of the county. The charter shall provide a method for submitting future charter revisions and amendments to the electors of the county.
(3) If a majority of the voters disapprove the proposed charter, no new referendum may be held during the next 2 years following the date of such disapproval.
(4) Upon acceptance or rejection of the proposed charter by the qualified electors, the charter commission will be dissolved, and all property of the charter commission will thereupon become the property of the county.
Previous interest in charter government
While the subject of charter government for Nassau County has been discussed informally over the years, there has never been a charter commission formed. In 1996, the Public Affairs Committee of the Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce produced The Government Alternatives Study, which stemmed from the Chamber’s 1995-96 legislative agenda to “Encourage the Nassau County Commissioners, as part of their efforts, to improve county administration to explore the costs and benefits of a charter form of county government” and “Support the Yulee Area Council in its efforts to study the pros and cons of incorporation under the Florida Statutes.”
The committee was not charged to make recommendations or take positions any of the forms of government identified in the study. Their charge was “to develop information that could be used by the membership, public officials, media and the public to educate themselves on alternative forms of government to best meet the needs of a growing and diverse population and economy.”
Any interest in charter government expressed at the time did not lead to formation of a charter commission. Indeed, the study appeared to be overcome by other events when the City of Fernandina Beach moved forward with its ultimately unsuccessful efforts in 1996 to annex the unincorporated portions of Amelia Island into the city.
Dissatisfaction with county government continued, however. The most public expression appeared in a Florida Times Union editorial dated April 6, 2006:
NASSAU COUNTY: Examine charter
A power struggle is afoot in Nassau County government.
Clerk of the Circuit Court John Crawford is overstepping his boundaries, Nassau County commissioners say. Commissioners don’t agree with this constitutional officer having ultimate control over the county budget. As it stands, Crawford signs off on all budgetary matters, basically making him the most powerful elected official in county government.
The chase for power is leading to a muffled, and most times hushed conversation about changing government in Nassau County to a charter. Such a change would be serious, but could have positive consequences for a county struggling to create a financially secure and well-run county government.
Charter governments are able to coordinate service delivery on a regional basis. Moving the budget under the watchful eye of the county administrator, who reports to the county commissioners, would be a step closer to implementing consistent practices. Under a charter, the role of constitutional officers could be eliminated, or powers can be decreased.
Also, Nassau County would have a method to recall those who are elected, something residents don’t have. Another perk for the county is it would have all the taxation power of a municipal government.
The discussion about charter government might be closer than anyone thinks. Commissioner Jim Higginbotham said residents should keep an eye out for discussions to start within the next six months. Higginbotham strongly supports the move to a charter government.
“We have to do what’s best for the community,” he said. “It’s hard to say if charter government is the way to go, but I don’t think this [a noncharter government] is the way we should be.”…
Something as important as changing the structure of government deserves public discussion and a thorough study.
Nassau County is booming. It needs a government that bypasses its rural roots and looks forward to its more populated future.
Despite then District 1 County Commissioner Jim B. Higginbotham’s support for more discussion of charter government for Nassau County in 2006, Nassau remains a non-charter county today.
If the Board of County Commissioners does not support such a move, then it is up to the people. The question remains as to whether any individual or group of individuals is concerned sufficiently with the current direction of county government to begin what could be a drawn out, contentious process to get to the next step.
To view the complete series of articles on charter government, click below.
First in a series –The Future of Nassau County Government
Second in a series: Charter vs non-charter County Government
Fourth in a series: Charter government in other Florida counties
Fifth in a series: Charter Form of Governent Q & A
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.