Civics 101: Representative Democracy, Commission-Manager Form of Government, The City Charter

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

Suanne Z. Thamm

Reporter-News Analyst for the Fernandina Observer

(Second in a series of articles on local government)

“The people have spoken.” “No taxation without representation.” “If the people have not approved this project via referendum, then it is illegal for the city to implement it.” We’ve all heard comments like this. Maybe in a moment of frustration, we have even made some of these comments. The question is: are these statements true always, sometimes or never? The answer goes straight to the heart of the type of government we have: a representative democracy.

Pure, or direct democracy was not supported by our Founding Fathers, because such a system can easily degenerate into mob rule, with no rights left for the minority. Think of a posse in the Wild West, where a group of men act as judge, jury, and executioner. Our nation was instead founded as a republic, so that the rule of law prevents tyranny of the majority. This concept has been adopted by states and localities under various names; in Fernandina Beach, it is the commission-manager form of government.

The City Charter is to the City of Fernandina Beach what the United States Constitution is to the United States of America. The basic charter of the city of Fernandina came into existence in 1921, following a voter referendum and a special act of the legislature. In1951, the city of Fernandina and the city of Fernandina Beach were combined into the current city of Fernandina Beach via another voter referendum and another special act of the Florida legislature. The Charter we have today has been revised several times since then, most recently to incorporate voter referendum-authorized changes recommended by the 2007 Charter Review Committee and approved by the Fernandina Beach City Commission.

Section 8 of the Charter reads:

The form of government of the City of Fernandina Beach provided for under this Act shall be that known as the “Commission-Manager Plan,” and the commission shall consist of five (5) citizens, who shall be elected at large in the manner hereinafter provided.The commission shall constitute the governing body with powers as hereinafter provided topass ordinances, adopt regulations and appoint a chief administrative officer to be known as the “City Manager,” and to exercise all other powers hereinafter provided.

This section makes it clear that the citizens who voted to approve the City Charter were authorizing 5 people to represent them in governing the city. Upon adoption, the citizens of the city eligible to vote were ceding their individual governing rights to representatives, who would exercise those rights on their behalf. This is an important distinction, sometimes lost in campaign rhetoric. The city does not operate as a direct democracy, where all the citizens come together to debate and decide policy. Such a form of government, called a Town meeting, does operate in parts of the United States today in various forms. While it puts public decision-making directly in the hands of the people, it can be extremely unwieldy and inefficient, and is increasingly being replaced by commission-manager government.

Because we are a representative democracy, the statement “The People have spoken” can only technically apply in two situations: selecting City Commissioners and approving/disapproving ballot referendums authorized by the city commission or filed by citizen petition. Also, the phrase “no taxation without representation” is rendered moot,since the people who vote to set our taxes are our elected representatives. Every year the City Commission is required by law to set our city tax rate.

Is the Commission-Manager form of government the best form of government for Fernandina Beach? Every five years or so the Fernandina Beach City Commission convenes a group of citizens to review the city’s Charter, looking especially to fix areas where there is a lack of clarity or conflict with new state or federal law. During the 2007 review, the Charter Review Committee examined the most frequently mentioned alternative form of government: strong mayor. The Committee concluded, after a briefing by a representative of the Florida League of Cities and research into other communities, that our current form of government is the best for us at this time in our history. It combines citizen input in the form of elected City Commissioners with professional management skills of the City Manager to insure that the government remains separate from politics, thus allowing for continuity of government services as elected representatives come and go as a result of elections and/or term limits. It is also the most popular form of government for a city of our size in Florida.

In short, when things don’t go smoothly or work properly, it is not due to the type of government we have. It could be due, however, to the people who make decisions or those who carry them out. For this form of government to operate properly, both the Commission and the Manager need to understand and respect their roles as defined by the Charter and Code of Ordinances. Without such an understanding, a lack of clarity ensues, sometimes leading to inefficiency, wasteful spending and poor personnel decisions.

So what recourse does the average citizen have if s/he believes that the City Commission does not properly represent the people? The People are at the top of any city organization chart. The People have the authority to amend the charter; report Charter violations to the State’s Attorney’s office for investigation and prosecution; hire and fire city commissioners through elections; and recall sitting commissioners via petition.

Over the years Fernandina Beach citizens have made their impact on city government through Charter amendments. In 1987, the date of the City election was changed to April from July; in 2010 it was changed from April to November. In 1989 and 2010 the voters rejected changing the term of city commissioner from 3 to 4 years. In 1992, voters instituted 2-term limits for commissioners. A close reading of the City’s Charter will yield many other examples of changes.

Average citizens have also devoted countless hours of service over the years on any number of standing and ad hoc committees that help commissioners develop policy on matters ranging from land use to recreation facilities. Vacancies regularly occur on these committees, and interested citizens may download an application form from the city’s website.

An easier way to become engaged in the political process is to communicate regularly with City Commissioners, who may decide to support or not support an agenda item based upon public reaction in terms of phone calls or emails. Commissioners get their report cards from the voters at the ballot box. The voters wield the ultimate term- limiter in the November elections.

And of course, every registered voter in the city has the right to seek office as a city commissioner.

Next installment: Civics 102: The City Commission