(Second in a series of articles on Nassau County government)
The basic difference between charter and non-charter counties is the extent of home rule and freedom from state control. The Florida Constitution states that charter counties “shall have all powers of local self-government not inconsistent with general law…” and that non-charter counties “shall have the power of self-government as is provided by general or special law.” This is a subtle difference, according to Aubrey Jewett in the Florida County Government Guide, but in essence means that charters counties can do what they wish as long as it does not conflict with state law while non-charter counties can only do what state statute allows them to do.
In addition to more general powers of self-government, charter counties have a structure of government specified in the charter and approved by county residents tailored to meet county needs whereas non-charter counties such as Nassau must use a structure specified in state law and those options could only be changed by the Florida Constitution or legislature. Charter counties can provide direct democracy for their residents while non-charter counties do not. County charters can require an administrative code detailing regulations, policies and procedures while state statutes do not require an administrative code for non-charter counties. Non-charter counties cannot levy a utility tax in the unincorporated areas while a county charter can provide for a “municipal utility tax” to be levied in the unincorporated area.
And county ordinances do not apply within municipalities in non-charter counties while a charter can decide which ordinance would prevail in the case of conflict.
Advantages and disadvantages to home rule charters
According to the website Ballotpedia, there are both advantages and disadvantages to home rule charters, as listed below.
Four main advantages of home rule charters commonly cited are:
- Reducing legislative interference in local affairs;
- Allowing citizens to determine the form and administrative organization of their local government;
- Relieving the state legislature of the time-consuming burden of special legislation, allowing it to devote its exclusive attention to state problems;
- Granting citizens a greater voice in the determination of local government policies, thereby encouraging many more citizens to become interested in and participate in local affairs.
Four potential disadvantages of home rule charters commonly cited are:
- Frequent changes in the charter may cause instability in local government;
- Home rule allows local political and interest groups increased freedom from state supervision and interference;
- The system makes the solution of area wide problems more difficult as a local government could refuse to participate;
- Proposals to amend charters may result in long ballots that discourage citizens from casting a vote on each referred issue.
Another advantage frequently cited by those supporting charter government is an ability to save general fund money by consolidating administrative functions and avoiding duplication among constitutional offices. A chartered county may also set salaries for commissioners and constitutional officers higher or lower than the formula provided by the state for non-chartered counties.
Charters are unique
There is no “one size fits all” formula for counties in Florida. There seems to be only one commonality among the 20 county charters: a 4-year length of term for county commissioners. But charter counties vary widely, based upon the wishes of their citizens, in most other respects. Some examples:
- How commissioners are elected. Some counties elect commissioners by district, in others commissioners serve at large, while in some there is a combination.
- Some counties require partisan elections, others do not. In some counties the charter is silent on this point.
- Term limits may or may not be specified.
- Some counties elect to follow the state statute in setting salaries for commissions, others set salaries by ordinance.
- All except two counties, which remain silent on the item, have a provision for recall of commissioners.
- All provide for a county executive, but that person may be elected or appointed.
Most Charter counties have changed the existing status of constitutional officers (Clerk of Courts, Property Appraiser, Sheriff, Superintendent of Schools, Supervisor of Elections, Tax Collector), while some have opted to leave these positions largely unchanged. Some counties have chosen to convert constitutional officers to charter officers or otherwise amalgamate them into county government. Where they remain elected officials, some counties have made their elections all or in part nonpartisan.
Duval and Brevard counties reference school boards, but others do not.
Citizen initiative and County Charter amendments
County charters provide for citizen initiatives to enact, amend or appeal county ordinances. They also may provide methods to amend the charter by petition, by county commission and by Charter Review Commission.
In general, items of paramount interest to voters in a county may be addressed in a variety of ways through a local charter. In Nassau County, Fernandina Beach is the only chartered municipality. In chartered counties, for the most part, municipal ordinances generally prevail. However, the counties can and have set out exceptions for topics as wide ranging as growth management and impact fees to adult entertainment.
Next installment: How to create a charter government
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.