Charter government discussions continue in Pasco County

Pasco County commissioners spent nearly three hours at a special workshop on Feb. 12 learning about the intricacies of the process for putting a charter-style form of government on the ballot, but they still have more to talk about.

So they decided to take it up again at a Feb. 17 workshop.

Commissioners could decide to vote on an ordinance to establish a charter advisory committee and that action could be decided at the commissioners’ Feb. 24 meeting.

But the debate over the issue of shifting to a charter-style form of government could play out for months, and the earliest that voters are likely to weigh in on the matter would be in a referendum on the 2016 general election ballot.

The idea of adopting an ordinance to appoint an advisory committee emerged during the Feb. 12 workshop.

That approach gives commissioners more control of the charter process than an autonomous charter commission.

The issue is sparking interest.

More than 50 people filled the commission chambers at the Feb. 12 workshop.

Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Paula S. O’Neil, Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley and Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning were there, in addition to a number of residents who are interested in the issue.

Ginger Delegal, general counsel for the Florida Association of Counties, provided a primer on charter governments and Kurt Spitzer, a Tallahassee-based private consultant, provided insights on how charter governments operate in various counties across Florida.

Pasco now operates with five county commissioners elected countywide, and an appointed county administrator.

In recent months, State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has advocated to give Pasco voters the option of changing to a charter style of government which could allow for such things as single-member districts for county commissioners, term limits, an elected county administrator or an elected county mayor.

Twenty of the state’s 67 counties operate with counties, including Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Under state law, either a majority of county commissioners or a petition signed by 15 percent of the county’s registered voters can create a charter commission. In Pasco, that would require more than 46,000 signatures.

Proponents of a charter argue that it can make local government more responsive to voters. Opponents worry that a charter government would mean increased taxes and more bureaucracy.

Fasano has voiced strong objections to the charter form of government.

There would be potential, he said, for the county to impose unfunded mandates on cities for certain services such as storm water management.

“We have cities barely getting by now,” Fasano said.

Most speakers during the public comment period were skeptical, too.

“Part of me feels, as a citizen, that I’m being sold a bridge over a river of problems I didn’t know existed,” said Calvin Branche, a planning commission board member.

“What is the agenda?” asked Pat Mulieri, who retired last year after serving two decades on the county commission. “I cannot understand what is driving this because I don’t believe right now it’s the people of Pasco.”

Wesley Chapel resident Steve White said change for the sake of change is risky. So he wondered, “What’s driving this? Is there something the county wants to do that they can’t do today? Is there some benefit that a charter could provide the county that would aid citizens that we’re not getting today?”

Most charter initiatives are petition driven by citizens, said Chairman Ted Schrader.

But in this case, he said Corcoran brought the matter to the county commission “because he believes that it is something (on which) the citizens should have the opportunity to express themselves. But, this board is not pushing the charter form over the non-charter form of government.”

Corcoran, reached by telephone, said he hopes county commissioners agree to establish a charter commission —rather than an advisory committee — that empowers voters to choose their form of government.

The advisory committee, which would enable commissioners to retain control, is not the way to go, Corcoran said.

Corcoran also rejected suggestions that either he, or the legislative delegation have an agenda. He said delegation members just want to make sure that the community “where we grew up in and love, gets better.”

Some people don’t want to give up the status quo, Corcoran said.

“They are afraid to be held accountable by the people,” he said.

Published February 18, 2015

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