Calls for charter review have become the cicada song of the Palm Coast City Council, except that those periodic re-emergences take place at shorter and more irregular intervals than do those of the winged and tymbaled ones.
One of those calls is again buzzing in the city’s ears. But there is no more clarity about an end goal this time than there was in previous attempts, with one difference: this time, there’s at least some agreement among council members about process. Something would start happening in the fall, it would entail a series of town-hall-style public meetings where public input would be solicited, possibly facilitated by city staffers who’d weigh the feasibility of the proposals right then and there, and based on that, the council would decide how much further to proceed.
At every step, the council and the administration would be guiding the process and the agenda, so if a charter change or a set of charges were to emerge, the council would draft the proposals and place them on the next general-election ballot.
“My feeling is we’re going to get through that process and we’re not going to have a whole lot to work with,” Council member Bob Cuff said. “And that’s fine, at least it will make me feel like I’ve done what I feel like I need to do to represent the citizens here in Palm Coast. If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there. If there is something there, then we can act on it.”
“It makes sense,” Council member Steven Nobile said.
Palm Coast’s charter is its municipal constitution. It’s a brief, 22-page document that sets out how the city is to govern itself, leaving the details to ordinances. The charter has been amended in small measures, but it’s never had a top-to-bottom charter review, even though it called for such a review in 2009, or 10 years after the city’s creation. The charter also calls for decennial reviews, though not as a mandatory requirement. In its words, “it may be reviewed every 10 years.”
There’s never been a public call for a review, let alone a groundswell for one, in the 18 years of the city’s existence, though from time to time constituents or, more recently, council members, have called for one. Nobile did so twice in 2015, at a six-month interval. His council colleagues rebuffed him both times, not always elegantly, arguing—correctly—that there was neither urgency nor evidence that the charter needed reviewing, but also arguing—less correctly, in Nobile’s view—that absent such urgency, there was no need to visit the matter unless something specific came up.
There’s been few such specifics, and fewer still that couldn’t be addressed through the ordinance process, or the occasional charter tweak, as was the case when, for example, the council (with little fanfare) changed the electoral system from off years to coincide with general-election years, thus saving money and greatly increasing turnout. But there’s been issues.
Earlier this month, Council member Heidi Shipley told the council it was time for a review, even though she, too, did not have specific issues in mind. “It’s time,” she said. Nobile joined her call. On Tuesday, the council heard a presentation from its attorney, Bill Reischmann, summing up the council’s options as set out by the charter.
One of those three options is out of the council’s hands: the public may petition for charter amendments to be placed on the ballot. But to do so, at least 10 percent of registered voters in the city, or somewhere in the range of 7,000 to 8,000 voters, must sign each given petition for a charter amendment proposal.
While not impossible, that scenario is unlikely, the hopes of one resident pushing for that approach notwithstanding. Shipley shared a Facebook message from George Meegan, who told her that the council need not get involved in the charter review process because a “City Charter Review Board” will be established. “We will have an election Referendum on the ballot in 2018 for the electorate to pass it,” Meegan wrote. “The board will exist [sic.] of 5 members serving 4 year terms elected by the people for the people not appointed by your council.”
There are a couple of hurdles with that approach. First, no petition in the city’s history has come near to securing 10 percent of the electorate’s signatures for anything. Second, Meegan is misreading the charter, which makes no provision for an elected charter review panel, or one that would sit for four years. It is theoretically possible for a charter amendment proposal to call for such a convoluted plan, and panel, but no such permanent panels exist in any cities known to municipal democracies. And what Meegan is calling for does, in essence, already exist in the form of the council itself.
According to the charter, the council may itself appoint a charter review panel, with each council member choosing an appointee, or it can propose its own charter changes.
But most council members are leery of appointing a panel. “If we were to pursue this I’m definitely not sold on the idea of the appointments for a committee,” Mayor Milissa Holland said, “just due to the fact that I think each of us as an elected body are exposed to a lot more information than every resident every day since we’re doing this every single day.”
Holland would rather invite residents to share ideas, but not to control the charter review process, and to do so after the summer, once the budget is taken care of. Part of her reasoning, she claimed, was based on her experience as a county commissioner.
“It doesn’t really necessarily appeal to me just because I went through this whole charter review as a county commission,” Holland said, “and I can tell you that those that served it was a huge learning experience for them, and they came back to the table after six months of meeting weekly for six months, and when that commission said, we’re not going to move forward with any of the recommendations, because we understood as a government body that really that was not necessarily the most efficient, effective way to do the day to day business of running our county government.”
“You had a commission, separate?”
“We did,” Holland said, explaining how the appointments were made. “We really wanted it to be broad, but I can tell you, after speaking to a lot of them, they were really shocked about what goes into running the day to day business, and it took a tremendous amount of resources from our staff to really inform them and educate them.”
Holland was simplifying an issue that was more complicated than that, and not exactly comparable to Palm Coast’s current discussion.
The panel Holland is referring to had a different mission than a charter review. It was convened in April 2009 as an ad-hoc committee to study the possibility of establishing a charter government. Its task was not to draft a charter, nor to review one, since the county is not a charter form of government, but to analyze existing charters in other counties and cities, and determine whether going any further was feasible in Flagler County. (Flagler County held a referendum in 1990 to determine whether voters wanted a charter form of government. The referendum failed that November by a 2-1 margin, with 6,780 opposed, 3,656 for, with 69 percent of registered voters casting ballots.)
The chairman of that 2009 panel, former County Commissioner Jim O’Connell, recommended that the commission appoint a Charter Commission for it to decide whether to propose a charter form of government. But commissioners rejected the proposal. While the vote was unanimous, their reasons were not: two commissioners (Barbara Revels and Alan Peterson) thought the charter approach could work, but they thought the timing, during a severe economic downturn, was wrong, and the size of the county just then may not have warranted it, since most counties that go that route are much larger by population. Then-Commissioner George Hanns also cited economic times, but also the sense that government just then was working, in his opposition. Only Holland and the late Commissioner Bob Abbott were opposed on principle, doubting that it would improve home rule.
But the process had involved the community to a great extent, as reflected by the large number of people who spoke for and against moving ahead with a charter commission when the county voted on the proposal that December. In other words, the “learning curve” of the committee had not been the issue. (Curiously, when O’Connell was asked by a county staffer for his final report, he refused to turn it in, according to the minutes.)
Still, that experience convinced Holland to conclude Tuesday: “I hate for us to go through that entire exercise of each getting an appointment, or making an appointment to one individual, and then having our staff to take an extraordinary amount of time to educate them. We were elected by the majority of the residents of this city to make decisions on their behalf, in the best interest of the residents.”
“There ought to be some way to solicit public input,” Council member Bob Cuff said. His frustration, he said, is that while he hears calls for public review, he doesn’t hear specifics. He is also perplexed by whatever petition may be circulating for charter changes, when he or other council members have hardly received any requests to look at specific changes.
Nobile, who had previously favored an independent panel, took a more conciliatory approach: “Ultimately it’s going to come back to the council,” Nobile said. “I’m OK with just leaving out the board, an assigned group of people, and letting the council do it, as long as it’s open, because that’s the process.”
Shipley put it this way: “I feel comfortable with the fact that I’m staying consistent with how I felt two years ago when the whole charter thing came up. I think it should be done by us because most people don’t understand what it takes and what we have learned in the last two years that I’ve been here. My ideas of what I would change in the charter have totally turned around, but I still feel it should be the city council that does the charter review, with the open meetings with the public, because we need their input.”