Judge tosses half of Gardens ballot questions, but election will go on

March 02, 2018
Chris Matula
Palm Beach Gardens voters will decide two ballot questions in the March 13 election. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

A judge Friday threw out two of four Palm Beach Gardens ballot questions, saying they don’t adequately tell voters what they’re deciding.

RELATED: Palm Beach County judge could toss ballot questions, including term limits

Voters will still decide on two changes to the city charter, which is comparable to the city’s constitution, when they head to the polls March 13. Those changes relate to how long a term-limited city council member must sit out before he or she can run again and how candidates get elected.

RELATED: Should term-limited Gardens council members be allowed to run again?

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge G. Joseph Curley tossed the first two questions on the ballot in a ruling Friday afternoon. The ruling is in response to a challenge by former Palm Beach County Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein alleging the questions are misleading.

“It’s a victory for the people. Sixteen thousand of them voted in favor of two-, three-year terms, and the judge understood there was a reason for that,” Dinerstein said. “I’m thrilled and honored to be a small part of that victory.”

RELATED: Accused of bias, judge quits case challenging Gardens ballot questions

Palm Beach Gardens is weighing its options, spokeswoman Candice Temple said.

Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher has already sent out the absentee and vote-by-mail ballots, and some of them have been returned, she said. Votes won’t count on the first two questions that the judge threw out.

Poll workers will tell voters about the voided questions on Election Day.

The ballot questions have prompted dueling public information campaigns.

The city hired Cornerstone Solutions to handle its public information campaign, which so far has included two robocalls from Mayor Maria Marino, two mailers, a fixourcharter.com website, a hotline and promoted Facebook posts.

Opponents to the changes planned two sign-waving protests at the corner of Military Trail and PGA Boulevard, on March 2 and March 9. PBG Watch, a local blog, has published posts on why to vote “no” on each of the questions.

A look at the questions:

Question No. 1

Voters will no longer decide this question, which asks if the charter should be changed to eliminate inconsistencies and conflicts with state law.

If voters said “yes,” the question also would have eliminated a requirement that the council review the city manager’s job performance every year and that he or she live in Palm Beach Gardens.

The city would no longer be required to review the charter every five years, had the question been approved.

Curley found that the ballot summary did not adequately inform voters of what they were deciding.

Question No. 2

Curley also tossed the second question, which would have asked voters if city council members should be limited to serving no more than three consecutive full terms. A full term is three years.

What the ballot summary didn’t say is that city council members are already limited to no more than two consecutive full terms. So if voters had approved Question No. 2, they would have given current and future city councils the chance to serve an additional three years in office before they must step aside.

The omission implies term limits don’t exist, Curley wrote.

“The failure to communicate that the amendment’s effect is to increase — rather than create — a term limit, renders the summary so misleading that it must be invalidated,” he wrote.

Question No. 3

This question, which voters will still decide, asks if council members who leave office because of term limits should have to sit out for three years before they are re-elected. A city mailer says the question “prevents council members from seeking office in perpetuity.”

Opponents say term limits approved in November 2014 already ban term-limited council members from running again.

City Attorney Max Lohman disagrees. He said term limits affect current and prior council members differently under an appeals court’s ruling in 2016. That could leave the city open to a lawsuit.

Right now, former council members may never serve again if they’ve already been elected to two consecutive full terms, Lohman said. Current and future council members, however, could serve again after sitting out for only a year.

If voters approve the three-year cooling off period, it will apply equally to everybody, he said.

The third question is not misleading because of the ambiguity of the current term limits, the judge found.

Question No. 4

This question, which voters will still decide, asks 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.

If voters say “yes,” there will be no more runoff elections. Eliminating runoffs will save the city more than $70,000, according to a city mailer.

Opponents say it also makes it easier for a candidate to get elected because a nominal candidate could divide the vote.

KNOW YOUR CANDIDATES: A full look at candidates in all races in Palm Beach County on March 13