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City Commission considers strong mayor charter amendment

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During the General Policy Committee meeting on May 27, the Gainesville City Commission discussed a charter amendment implementing a strong mayor system of government. The proposal was brought forward by Commissioner David Arreola, who asked the Policy Research Team to do research on the idea.

Zeriah Folston and Morgan Spicer of the Policy Research Team gave a presentation describing the strong and weak mayor systems, the current Gainesville system, cities that have switched from weak to strong mayor (Pensacola; Pueblo, CO; San Diego, CA) and unsuccessful efforts to switch systems (Clearwater and Miami).

In a weak mayor or mayor/council system, a City Manager appointed by the city commission serves as chief executive of the City and oversees the daily operations and administration of the City. The mayor holds a ceremonial role. Under a strong mayor system, the mayor serves as the City’s chief executive. Generally, a strong mayor will be able to hire and fire charter officers and department heads and may also have veto authority over the commission. 

In Florida, about 2/3 of the cities have a weak mayor system. Most large cities, including Tampa and Jacksonville, have the strong mayor system. 

The switch would require a vote by the public on whether to implement the proposed charter amendment; it was unclear when that might happen, with Commissioner Reina Saco mentioning 2024 and Arreola saying, “I would like this to be decided in this calendar year… I think our voters have shown many times that when we put charter amendments in front of them that they very deeply appreciate the opportunities to vote.”

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Gainesville’s mayor was selected by the City Commissioners until 1997, similar to the way the County Commission currently selects its own Chair. Starting in 1997, the mayor was directly elected, with powers that included being the presiding officer at meetings. Charter officers take direction from a majority vote of the City Commission. If the Commission does not give direction, the charter officers have discretion in what they do. Arreola said he’d like the mayor to have more ability to direct charter officers, which he called a Hybrid Strong Mayor form of government. 

In Arreola’s proposed system, charter officers would serve at the will of the mayor, subject to veto by the City Commission. The mayor would still be the presiding officer at meetings but no longer have a vote. The City Commission could still give direction to the charter officers, but the mayor could step in if direction isn’t given or there isn’t consensus. Arreola said this would likely add one commissioner to the board – “we would want to add a voting member just to keep an odd number.” 

Arreola also acknowledged that the Charter Review Commission discussed this last summer and decided not to move forward with it.

“Entirely too much power for one person” – Commissioner Gail Johnson

Commissioner Gail Johnson asked what problem this is trying to solve, and Arreola said that the current system has six independent charter officers and seven supervisors (the City Commissioners), and “I think you lack a central executive that is accountable directly to elected constituents.” Johnson said she thought this is “entirely too much power for one person. So it ultimately goes against my values about governance and how I believe personally we should lead. Collaboration and compromise are important to me. And I believe the current system that we have lends itself to that.”

“It actually creates a better check and balance where you have kind of a legislative body and an executive body, and they have to work together to get things done.” – Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he wasn’t sure about his support for a hybrid version, “but I do support a strong mayor system… it actually creates a better check and balance where you have kind of a legislative body and an executive body, and they have to work together to get things done.” He also said he thought it would be a more understandable form of government because it would be similar to the way the state and federal governments work. He didn’t favor having the mayor sit on the commission because if the mayor wasn’t a voting member of the commission, the mayor could talk to individual commissioners without violating Sunshine laws. 

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he was concerned that such a big change was being proposed by a City Commissioner instead of “bubbling up from the grassroots.” He said it could be useful to have a mayor who could manage the charter officers. He agreed with Hayes-Santos that it could be good to “set it up as ‘this is the executive branch and this is the legislative branch, and they need to work together to get things done or not.’”

“In 2020, we put that Charter Review Commission to work. And now it feels like we’re saying… we really appreciate the work, but you didn’t do what we wanted.” – Commissioner Harvey Ward

Ward said that it was problematic to overrule the Charter Review Commission: “The people overwhelmingly said yes, we like the Charter Review Commission, in 2018. Then in 2020, we put that Charter Review Commission to work. And now it feels like we’re saying… we really appreciate the work, but you didn’t do what we wanted.” He said he’d be more comfortable if they were halfway between Charter Review Commissions, which meet every 10 years, instead of just a year after they went through the process. 

“And part of me wants to go ‘That could never happen,’ but then I remember 2016. It’s a very real possibility that a completely – what’s the word? – unqualified person who is popular with the people gets elected… And that is terrifying to me.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Commissioner Reina Saco was concerned that an incompetent person could be elected. “And part of me wants to go ‘That could never happen,’ but then I remember 2016. It’s a very real possibility that a completely – what’s the word? – unqualified person who is popular with the people gets elected… And that is terrifying to me.” She said she could envision a situation in which the mayor and commission are at polar opposites, so every appointment of the mayor gets vetoed by the commission. 

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she shared Saco’s concerns: “That type of centralized power could potentially lead to abuse of power. And then you’re stuck with that for a number of years.” 

“Somebody can get elected… and cause incredible damage in a short period of time. You know, we have seen that in our own country.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Mayor Lauren Poe said that members of the public generally think he has more power than he does, so he spends a lot of time trying to find assistance for people who think he can help with their problem. He said he could see advantages and disadvantages to the proposal. Someone could make “incredible transformational change in relatively short periods of time,” but it could also happen that “somebody can get elected… and cause incredible damage in a short period of time. You know, we have seen that in our own country… I think you could find some incredible cities. I’m thinking about, you know, Bottoms in Atlanta, Cantrell in New Orleans, Mayor Schaaf in Oakland, Melvin Carter up in St. Paul, like they are doing amazing things, and they are all strong mayors.”

Poe went on to discuss the time commissioners spend on commission work: “The majority of you, including myself, if not all of you, have quit your primary job, your primary source of income, because this takes so much… time and it takes so much emotional energy, that you can’t do it. You can’t do both. And so we need to have a conversation if we want people to really dedicate themselves to this… you’ve got to compensate it so people can support themselves and their families… I think all of us fight very hard for fair pay and fair wages for our City staff, for everybody else in the community… not for ourselves.”

He added that removing his vote would mean he doesn’t really have any power, “like that power is being stripped away.” So he thought a mayoral candidate wouldn’t be able to run on any issues because he would only be implementing the will of the commission. He was also concerned that it would be a very complex job to oversee all the departments of the City, and the number of people who both have that skillset and are politically inclined would be very small. 

Hayes-Santos said they could do their job better if they were allowed to directly hire aides: “I think that would make a significant difference in how we can serve our residents.”

“And… to your point, Reina, about the—I guess we’ll just call it sort of a worst case scenario of a Mayor Trump—oh, God, that sounded horrible when I said it.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Arreola summer up the discussion by saying he didn’t think the change added much power to the mayor but instead would streamline things. “And… to your point, Reina, about the—I guess we’ll just call it sort of a worst case scenario of a Mayor Trump—oh, God, that sounded horrible when I said it.” He read from the charter about how it already says that the commission may punish its own members for misconduct and that he had mentioned that an impeachment provision would need to be added to the charter.

Arreola moved that they ask staff to come back with a community engagement process about Gainesville governance at a future meeting. 

“You have already been acting as a strong mayor for years. And the illegal use of power under these emergency orders from the State is a shocking abuse of power.” – Brian O’Brien

During public comment on the motion, Brian O’Brien said Arreola’s “attempt to get an opportunity to recast history here is just fascinating and hilarious at the same time. The Charter Review Commission just rejected this idea… You have already been acting as a strong mayor for years. And the illegal use of power under these emergency orders from the State is a shocking abuse of power.”

“So I think it is completely and utterly reprehensible that we would spend taxpayer money and staff time addressing this power grab. It’s even more reprehensible that you would waste taxpayer money going to community outreach.” – Nathan Skop

Nathan Skop pointed out that the Charter Review Commission “had no political diversity. They were all your hand-picked supporters,” but they still didn’t move this forward, and they didn’t support increasing salaries for the mayor or commissioners. “So I think it is completely and utterly reprehensible that we would spend taxpayer money and staff time addressing this power grab. It’s even more reprehensible that you would waste taxpayer money going to community outreach… How many hours have we spent today discussing this nonsense?… It blows my mind that you could be so arrogant as to have this discussion and put off other more important challenges facing the City… One way to hear from your community would be to listen to the people that comment on agenda items at the City Commission meetings, but you never like that input.” Skop said the commissioners should just put the proprosal on the ballot instead of spending a lot of money on community engagement.

Mary Lou Hildreth said that as Chair of the Charter Review Commission, she found the proposal “insulting… It looks to me like a recipe for disaster.”

The motion passed 5-2, with Johnson and Desmon-Walker in dissent. 

Postponed items

In other business, the agenda item on GRU’s proposed budget was postponed to the June 7 meeting, the agenda item for charter officer complaint procedures was postponed for a fourth time at the request of Director of Equity & Inclusion Teneeshia Marshall, and the State legislative update was postponed. 

Saco said she was “a little upset” that the charter officer complaint procedure item was postponed again; Marshall said they will be prepared to bring it back in “the next couple of weeks. After last week’s discussion, there were some things that we thought would be best to bring back along with the policy that we currently have.” Poe said they would target the next General Policy Committee meeting. 

  • The next meeting will propose no term limits for mayor or commissioners, the requirement of having a number imprinted on your forehead or palm of your hand to purchase food, the mandated abortion of any child of parents with conservative beliefs…you get the idea Gainesville?

    Educated? How about brainwashed idiots.

  • Another thing. Strong implies character, honesty, integrity and balls. There isn’t anyone currently in Gainesville government that can check those boxes.

    I forgot, they can check those qualifications – they are all great liars.

  • saco said it right when she said an incompetent might be elected. That ship has sailed.
    I noticed that poe is primarily concerned with compensation. What is new?

    • Mr Coe, this also needs to be mentioned again…”Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she shared Saco’s concerns: “That type of centralized power could potentially lead to abuse of power. And then you’re stuck with that for a number of years.” – WHAT..like what we are experiencing now?

      Hayes-Santos said they could do their job better if they were allowed to directly hire aides: “I think that would make a significant difference in how we can serve our residents.” – Typical DemoRat…more big government. Did he skip the budget meeting about the city being BROKE?

      Arreola, “And… to your point, Reina, about the—I guess we’ll just call it sort of a worst case scenario of a Mayor Trump—oh, God, that sounded horrible when I said it.” – Who is he kidding, he doesn’t believe in God, let alone a god. Best case scenario, we have one of those Thanos moments and rid the universe of ideas like this.

  • We’ll, it’s apparent that Areola plans to run for mayor! Why else would he be pushing so hard to get this on the ballot for 2022 instead of looking at doing it “right” (nothing is right about this, as it simply expands an already problematic system in Gainesville) and wait until the 2024 election? The only other possible to explanation is to ram it through and into the ballot before realize the impact! The biggest for this, I’m sure, is the elimination of the toxic culture created by their “wonderful” and experienced choice of Feldman for city manager. How about picking someone who has a respected background and wasn’t fired until a cloud by his previous employer? They also need to review salaries in Gainesville for many of these high level positions, as they are totally out of line for cities that are the size of Gainesville! An even bigger concern is that the mayor can load the city government with people that he/she and his/her allies on the commission want so that they get reports that they want to further their political agenda. This type of system is would make Gainesville almost a dictatorship because will be able to hire and fire at will and anyone who disagrees with the person in the position will be terminated quickly. The city will be stuck with someone who only pushes their agenda and eliminates any staff who may oppose any part of it!! I thought we had seen the fall of the Soviet Unionesque government’s, with the exception of China, back in the 1990’s. I guess Gainesville never got the memo!!

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