Judge could toss Gardens ballot questions, including term limits

6:47 p.m Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 Local
Circuit Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen is seen in his courtroom during a hearing in former Palm Beach County GOP chair Sid Dinerstein’s lawsuit against the city of Palm Beach Gardens and Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher in the Palm Beach County Courthouse on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach Gardens’ ballot questions have come under the scrutiny of a judge who questioned whether their wording is clear enough but stopped short of throwing them out.

RELATED: Gardens resident sues to stop term limits questions on March ballot

Voters will decide the four questions — two of which would alter term limits — in the March 13 election, in which no City Council seats are up grabs. That could change if Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen rules that any of the four questions is not “clear and unambiguous,” as state law requires.

RELATED: Term limit tweak among 4 questions on ballot

A potential problem — Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher has already sent ballots to people serving in the military and living overseas. They cannot be changed or reprinted. If the judge throws any questions out, the election would proceed but voters will be notified that their votes for the tossed questions won’t count.

Sid Dinerstein, a former Palm Beach County Republican Party chairman, sued the city and Bucher to block the four questions from appearing on the ballot. He argued the questions are misleading and that holding the election in an off-year will disenfranchise 16,000 voters who approved term limits in November 2014.

Gillen said Friday he would not allow the case to turn on the timing of the election but would focus on whether the city adequately informs voters what they’re deciding.

“Either the language is sufficient, or it isn’t,” Gillen said during a scheduling conference Friday.

A Charter Review Committee appointed by the City Council suggested the changes, which City Attorney Max Lohman then drafted into ballot questions.

The judge focused most of his comments on the first question of four questions, which he said seems to do more than the ballot summary suggests.

“I’m concerned that the electorate is not getting the message. They need to know what they’re voting about,” he said.

Lohman has described the question as an update to the City Charter to eliminate inconsistencies and conflicts with state law. If approved by voters, it would also remove a requirement that the city manager be a resident of the city and undergo yearly performance reviews by the council.

The other questions:

- The second would ask voters if council members should be able to serve three uninterrupted, three-year terms instead of two.

- A third would ask if council members who have been forced out by term limits can run again after sitting out three years. Currently, past council members can never run again, but sitting members could run again after taking a break for a year, the city attorney has said.

Dinerstein attorney James D’Loughy disputes that, pointing to a 2016 appeals court ruling on the term limits he wrote, which state no council member may run after they are elected to two consecutive terms.

- The final question will ask if the highest vote-getter in council elections should be named the winner, even if the candidate doesn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote. That would eliminate runoff elections.

Palm Beach Gardens has maintained the questions comply with election law. The city set aside $60,000 for Cornerstone Solutions to do a public education campaign.

Dinerstein was pleased with the outcome of the hearing.

“The judge went right to the point. You cannot discern the intent of the voters on term limits with the way the question now reads,” he said outside the courtroom.

Gillen scheduled the next hearing 1 p.m. Feb. 20.