Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 9, 2020
At their November 4, 2020 Regular Meeting the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) took a second look at approving an ordinance incorporating the recommendations of the Charter Review Committee (CRC), which they appointed last fall. The lengthy ordinance (2020-21) includes minor changes to modernize current English usage — example: changing the word “shall” to “must” — as well as more significant recommendations that would change the election process.
Commissioner Phil Chapman moved to approve the Ordinance, and he was seconded by Vice Mayor Len Kreger.
Commissioners agreed with many CRC recommendations, but unanimously disagreed with a major one: changing the election cycle to avoid runoff elections by including races among more than 2 candidates for a specific seat in the August primary election. This proposal, if approved, would have resulted in advancing the top two candidates for each seat to the November General Election, paralleling the process used for most county contests.
Kreger quickly announced that the section dealing with including city elections in the primary election was unacceptable to him. Kreger explained that he felt by making the suggested change, City Commission elections would begin to look like partisan elections. Chapman accepted his amendment to delete that portion of the ordinance.
Before the vote, City Attorney Tammi Bach walked Commissioners through the major changes proposed. She recapped the discussion of two months ago when the FBCC discussed using a mail ballot election for city voters to decide on proposed charter changes. She said that in the intervening two months the CRC had proposed significant changes to their first draft:
- To hold initial elections for multi-candidate contested seats (currently called “groups”) to be held in conjunction with County and State Primary Elections.
- Section 141, a brand new section on citizen initiatives. With ten percent of registered electors, citizens would be able to place questions on the ballot. Bach said that other Florida cities have such a provision. Added to the language was a provision that in effect requires the initiative to be put forward to the voters, whether or not Commissioners support it.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich clarified the proposed amendment. He said, “The problem is that it would be a Republican Primary. So how would I know if I were a Democrat that I could vote in a Republican Primary, and [this proposal] makes the election partisan.” Lednovich said that he had attended CRC discussion about this proposal during which driving reasons were raised: increasing voter turnout and eliminating the cost of a runoff election. “These are non partisan seats,” Lednovich said. “The reality is that the City used to hold its elections in the spring to keep them separate. That way you are voting for City Commissioners only. The election is pure.” He said he would not support the CRC recommendation to change the current situation.
Commissioner Chip Ross said that his concern with the CRC report is that it recommends close to 20 changes that would require a vote by the citizens. He agreed with Lednovich and Kreger that inserting the non-partisan City election into the partisan primary was not appropriate. He said that there was no evidence that such a change would increase voter participation and that inserting the election in the Primary Election cycle would confuse voters. He also expressed disagreement with the proposal to make the straw ballot for mayor a binding vote. He stressed that he never wanted to be mayor, but that he could see situations where the FBCC might want to elect a mayor from the entire group, not just the 2 or 3 eligible at the time of the election.
Kreger said that he found Ross’ position on elected mayor was worth considering. He also expressed problems with the citizen initiative provision that could result in fiscal implications for the city if passed.
Mayor John Miller in light of FBCC questions and concerns and the lateness of the hour asked that the ordinance be brought back for further discussion at a future meeting. Commissioners voted unanimously against the original motion on the floor. They passed on a 5-0 vote a new motion to bring the entire ordinance back to the December 15, 2020 FBCC meeting minus the proposed change on election scheduling, which had been rejected. The new Commission, which will include a former CRC member (Bradley Bean), will be seated for that meeting.
The FBCC decision to reject one of the CRC proposals was an about face from the position of the Commissioners at the time they formed the CRC. During a joint FBCC/CRC workshop held on December 3, 2019, there was discussion over whether recommended changes would be allowed to go directly to the voters to decide or whether as with past Charter Committees, the FBCC would be able to veto certain recommendations. At that time the Fernandina Observer reported, “Consensus among City Commissioners was that the residents should be able to vote on all major changes proposed by the CRC.”
When asked via email why Commissioners had backed off their original position, two Commissioners replied.
Vice Mayor Kreger indicated that he would not be opposed to additional meetings with the CRC. He wrote: “The election process for Commissioners was not discussed previously, and my concern is it is moving to partisanship.”
Commissioner Mike Lednovich provided a lengthier reply:
“I remember well our pledge and speaking for myself “I’ll eat crow” for reversing my stance. However, the proposed change to the 3-or-more candidate group election doesn’t achieve the intended goal of increased voter turnout and saving election expenditures.
“I sat in those deliberations and this proposal was originally rejected and then late in game raised from the dead and passed on a 4-3 vote.
“As I stated, City Commission seats are non-partisan and should remain so. This proposal makes it more partisan and more obfuscated. It would also establish an unfair playing field with traditional two-candidate races, as well as, confusing the dickens out of voters.
“Please pass the gravy, I like my crow moist.”