Palm Beach County municipal leaders lobby for cities in Tallahassee

Jan 31, 2018
  • By Kenya Woodard
  • Post Capital Correspondent
Wellington Mayor Anne Gerwig in Wellington in December. (Kristina Webb / The Palm Beach Post)

For the past two days, elected officials from several Palm Beach County towns and cities canvassed the capital talking with legislators about home rule bills and other priorities during the Florida League of Cities’ Action Days.

But what – if any – effect they’ve had likely will remain unknown for several more weeks, said Richard Ratcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities.

“It’s hard to measure because most things happen at the end of the session,” Ratcliffe said on Wednesday.

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Wellington Mayor Anne Gerwig concurred.

“It’s really up in the air until the end,” she said following the completion of a jam-packed itinerary Tuesday and Wednesday that included a legislative briefing and a luncheon featuring a keynote speech from Florida League of Cities President Gil Ziffer.

Bills launched in a Richard Corcoran-led House of Representatives are seeking to stifle local leaders’ ability to govern their own municipalities, Gerwig said.

“It just feels like House leadership doesn’t have a good impression of cities,” she said. “I’m not sure where they got that idea.”

West Palm Beach Commissioner Keith James said the municipal delegation made “some headway” in voicing its concerns to Palm Beach County legislators about proposed legislation that would shift many municipal and county government powers to the state.

But “unfortunately, they aren’t at the top. They aren’t leadership,” James, president of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, said generally of lawmakers from Palm Beach County, even though Senate President Joe Negron’s district includes north Palm Beach County.

But cities are not powerless, Ziffer said.

Calling and emailing legislators, writing op-eds, and working alongside allies can create an effective backlash against the Legislature’s attempts to snatch control from local governments, he said.

“You’re going to have to make a lot of phone calls; you’ll have to make a lot of visits,” he said during his speech on Tuesday. “Don’t give up.”

Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite of Wellington said while his efforts to secure workers compensation for first responders has put him at odds with some local officials, the conversations are necessary.

“They’re expected to be responsive to their constituents’ needs,” he said. “It’s good for us to have the feedback whether we do good or bad.”

Engaging citizens is important too and local officials should encourage them to contact legislators and share their concerns, said Royal Palm Beach Councilman Jeff Hmara.

“Doing what we can do to inform our residents is part of our responsibility,” he said.

It will be difficult to change the minds of some legislators, who have made it clear that they believe the state is better positioned to govern, Ratcliffe said.

“They realize the severity of the assault,” he said. “It’s really apparent that there’s true division here.”

But now“there is a sense of camaraderie” and city officials realize that they are not alone in their battle to retain control over their jurisdictions, he said.

And if cities lose this year’s battle over home rule, there is future hope, Ratcliffe said.

“If one group gets too assaultive, too authoritative, or too draconian, democracy will take over,” he said. “You can’t punish people and not pay for it.”