Term limits debate gets testy in Palm Beach Gardens


Highlights

Term limit changes are up to voters in March.

Residents have criticized putting the questions on the ballot in March when no Council seats are up for grabs.

It would be easier for local candidates to get elected and stay in office longer if voters answer “yes” to ballot questions Palm Beach Gardens officials advanced on Thursday.

RELATED: Gardens residents to council: ‘Don’t touch my term limits’

About 15 residents holding signs and wearing stickers printed with “Don’t touch my term limits” protested outside City Hall before the City Council debated the changes proposed by a charter review committee.

RELATED: Palm Beach Gardens voters limit City Council terms

After an extended public comment period and a few testy exchanges among council members and the audience, officials voted 4-1 to ask the voters 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.
  • City Council members should be allowed to serve three consecutive, three-year terms, instead of two.
  • The city manager should no longer be required to live in the city, and the charter should be updated to eliminate outdated language and provisions that conflict with state law.

Voters put term limits in the city charter, which is essentially the city’s constitution, in November 2014. All five current City Council members took the place of officials who were not eligible to run for re-election because of the measure.

A provision in the City Charter requires it be reviewed every five years. The last charter review was in 2012.

Matthew Lane was the lone council member to oppose putting the questions on the ballot. He argued council members who benefited from term limits to move into office are making a mistake to alter them. The council had the option of rejecting charter review committee recommendations.

“It just seems to me like an amazing act of hubris and really terrible timing,” he said.

The committee’s work was rushed, and putting the questions on the ballot in the March election when there are no City Council seats up for grabs means only a small number of voters will decide, Lane said.

Lane echoed the comments of Sid Dinerstein, perhaps the most vocal of term-limit supporters.

“You guys have set this up for a March election on which nobody is going to be on the ballot,” Dinerstein said. “It’s crazy, and frankly, it’s lacking in ethics and morals.”

The elections office doesn’t favor cities putting items on the August or November ballots, City Attorney Max Lohman has said.

Vice Mayor Mark Marciano backed putting the measures on the ballot, telling the audience, “We were elected because you trusted us to do what we thought was right.”

But Marciano took offense to Lane’s comments.

“To think that I’m going to sit here and try to do things to manipulate a system is completely asinine. I don’t like the way this is going. It’s not supposed to be this way. Everybody in this room loves the city.”

Term limits supporters wore stickers that said “Vote Matt for Mayor” and applauded after he spoke. Mayor Maria Marino told them “sit down, please, and no clapping, please.” Residents don’t pick the mayor. The council does.

Marino chided a resident for talking during the council discussion. Later, she apologized but the resident refused to accept the apology.

Residents favoring the proposals stressed the benefits of having more experienced politicians who develop institutional knowledge. Opponents said two terms are enough to learn the job.

Rick Sartory, a supporter, said “term limits are every election,” meaning voters have a chance to oust incumbents every time they vote.

“All we’re asking you to do is put it on the ballot,” he said.

Councilwoman Rachelle Litt agreed, saying extended term limits will put more power in citizens’ hands because they will have an extra election to vote oust council members they don’t like.

The discussion spanned more than two hours, running past 11 p.m.

Another contentious issue facing council members: Should elected officials who reach the end of their terms be allowed to run again after sitting out an election cycle? A court has ruled that those who were in office when term limits were enacted cannot run again.

The council directed Lohman to draft a ballot question on the issue.

Lane worried that the council’s actions could end up misleading voters.

“If we’re going to put these on the ballot, we should at least be honest about what we’re doing,” he said.



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