Progress of Fernandina Beach Charter review

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 28, 2020

City Commission sits in workshop session to review Charter Review Committee recommendations. Vice Mayor Len Kreger chairs in the absence of Mayor John Miller.
CRC Chair Arlene Filkoff addresses other CRC members attending via Zoom. City Manager Dale Martin and City Attorney Tammi Bach look on.

The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) and the City Charter Review Committee (CRC) met in workshop session on June 23, 2020 to discuss CRC progress in light of an upcoming final report deadline of June 30, 2020.  The FBCC raised questions and concerns over some of the CRC recommendations — and lack of recommendations with respect to election changes.  While the FBCC attended the meeting in person, only chair Arlene Filkoff attended in person while other CRC members participated via Zoom.

The Coronavirus-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of some CRC meetings, limiting discussion and consideration of all parts of the Charter.  CRC Chair Arlene Filkoff sought guidance from the FBCC on whether the June 30 deadline for a final report should be extended  to allow full consideration of the entire Charter prior to the committee’s full recommendations. 

The FBCC had already approved Ordinance 2020-21 on First Reading which contained the CRC’s recommended changes to date.  These recommendations would result in eleven ballot questions for voters.  City Clerk Caroline Best advised the FBCC that they had three options in presenting recommended Charter changes to the voters, based upon her discussions with the Nassau County Supervisor of Elections:

  1. Place all Charter amendments on the November 3, 2020 General Election ballot:  approximate cost >$80,000.  According to Best, this option is the least feasible, least desirable and most expensive due to the number of Charter amendments which, when translated into Spanish, creates a ballot with 6 or more pages.  Because the voting equipment requires all Nassau County ballots to have the same number of ballot pages, this option would place an undue burden on all Nassau County registered voters.
  1. Place all Charter amendments on the December 8, 2020 Runoff Election ballot:  approximate cost $23,840.  This ballot would only be sent to City of Fernandina Beach voters, greatly reducing the cost, assuming a runoff election is needed.
  1. Conduct a mail ballot election in 2021 to include all Charter amendments.  Approximate cost $25,760.  Best suggested that this option is the most favorable because each registered voter in the City would receive a mail ballot which could be thoughtfully reviewed from home with no Covid-19 exposure.  A postage paid return envelope would be provided.

City Commissioners appeared to support allowing the CRC to continue its work through the end of the year, if necessary; and opting for a mail ballot election in 2021.

The eleven Charter amendments pending at this time include:

1. Prohibiting the sale or lease of City-owned Conservation lands and restricting the sale or lease of City-owned Recreation lands by requiring unanimous vote of the City Commission and approval at a referendum by at least 70% of City electors;

2.  Binding election by the voters for Mayor and Vice Mayor;

3.  Requiring a reviewed of the City Charter every 7 years by a duly appointed Charter Review Committee;

4.  Providing that a City Commissioner convicted of a felony, is absent from 3 regular meetings in a year or violates the Florida Code of Ethics for Public Officers is suspended from office pending a hearing that can result with the accused Commissioner forfeiting their Commission seat, and that the City Commission fills vacancies on the Commission by appointment;

5.  Requiring that the City Manager must have experience managing a government organization of similar size, be a member of a professional organization for city managers, that the City Commission must consider more than one City Manager candidate for appointment and that the City Manager has 90 days to become a resident of the City after taking the oath of office;

6.  Providing that City Commissioners must complete annual performance evaluations for Charter Officers, and that City Commissioners who directly interfere in administrative duties of City employees may be subject to sanctions by the City Commission and forfeiture of their Commission seat after a public hearing;

7.  Holding the Mayor responsible for ensuring that City Commissioners complete annual performance evaluations of all Charter Officers;

8.  Correcting errors in the description of the City;

9.  Providing that Charter Officers and advisory board members as well as City Commissioners have the power to cause any City department or the conduct of any City officer or employee to be investigated in accordance with City procedures;

10.  Permitting City Commissioners, in case of serious medical conditions, to attend and vote at Commission meetings in real time by using communication media technology instead of being physically present in Commission Chambers, as permitted by Florida law;

11.  Change the word “groups” to “seats” to be more clear that City Commissioners do not serve districts but are elected at large.

During the workshop, City Commissioners questioned why recommendations were not forthcoming to address changes in the election process, in light of what had appeared to be strong initial interest among CRC members in identifying ways to increase voter turnout and avoid runoff elections.  While CRC members had discussed making changes, they concluded that at this time they believed that such changes might cause confusion among the electorate.  It was also noted that while at least one Florida municipality has voted to adopt “Ranked Choice Voting,”  the State of Florida is not yet able to implement such a voting system.

According to ballotpedia.com, “A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.”

Another election method considered is sometimes called a “jungle election.”  In such elections, candidates do not compete by seat or group.  Rather all candidates run for election to the two or three seats to be filled, with the top two or three vote getters deemed to be elected, even if they only receive a plurality of votes cast.

A Second Reading and Public Hearing of the Ordinance is currently scheduled for July 21, 2020.

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