County hears about potential charter — again

196 registered voters have signed petition for change of government

Droves of local residents attended Tuesday’s Putnam County Board of Commissioners workshop to voice their opinions on whether the county should adopt a charter. 

In fact, the number of people in attendance required the board to move the workshop from its main conference room to its large meeting chamber. 

There are 20 counties in the state – including Alachua, Clay, Duval and Volusia counties – that have adopted charter governments, which give counties more of a say in their government functions, according to the Florida Association of Counties. 

But Clerk of Courts Tim Smith, who referenced the association during the workshop, said charter and non-charter governments are still subject to state and federal rule. 

“Under non-charter counties, counties have powers of self-government as prescribed by the state Legislature,” Smith said. “And under charter counties, counties have all powers of self-government unless they are inconsistent with the Constitution or state law.”

Some local resident still wanted to make the move to a charter government. Roxanne Weeks, who spoke about the matter at a previous commission meeting, said the change should be made to give the county “home rule.”

In addition to giving the county more of a say in its matters, Weeks said, a charter would give the county an opportunity to separate itself from the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, who she and others in the past have said doesn’t provide the quality of services to merit the funding it gets from the county. 

“The whole reason why this was started was because there is a disconnect,” she said. “(Many residents) have not felt they’ve been listened to or (had) their problems addressed for several years now.”

There are three ways to establish a charter, but no matter the route to create a charter, Putnam County voters must approve the charter for it to be adopted, County Attorney Stacey Manning. 

He said to create a charter:
n The board must adopt an ordinance to establish a charter commission.

n A petition to create a charter commission must be signed by 15 percent of voters – as of Monday, that number was 7,185. 

n The board could create its own charter. 

The commission, which must have 11 to 15 members, would have 18 months to research the pros and cons of charter and non-charter governments to decide whether adopting a charter would be a good fit for the county, Manning said. 

If the charter commission creates a charter, it must be approved in an election. 

Supervisor of Elections Charles Overturf III said he asked Manning and state officials if the charter vote could be pushed back to a general election or if the county was required to have a special election for only the charter vote. But no one could provide that answer, Overturf said. 

When the county had a special primary and election in 2015 to vote for a state senator – who is no longer the county’s senator because of district changes throughout the state – it cost the county about $135,000. 

A special election would cost close to $90,000, Overturf said, which is why it would benefit the county to have the matter pushed to the 2018 election. 

“In that way, we can add it, and it wouldn’t cost anything because it’s just another race on the ballot,” Overturf said. “As of this moment, they’ve turned in 213 (petition signatures), but only 196 were valid.”

Commissioners and other residents voiced concern establishing and having an election for a charter – and any charter amendments that would require other special elections – would cost the already cash-strapped county even more money. 

But other officials said the costs and details of the charter would be discussed during charter commission meetings. 

Former County Attorney Russ Castleberry said this isn’t the first time talks of switching to a charter government have been brought to the board. And just like the board did about 10 years ago, he said, the current board should allow the petition process to proceed. 

“Frankly, this came up years back, and the board then decided there would be a petition process that … I’m not sure what ever happened,” Castleberry said, noting it’s likely not enough signatures were submitted on the previous attempt. “I would think that the board would want to … follow the petition process.”

Michael Woodward, the attorney who 10 years ago represented the group that wanted to adopt a charter, said most government entities have a charter. So it makes sense the county shouldn’t even question if it should have a charter. 

Talks of a charter have become “adviserial,” Woodward said, with many residents on one side and elected officials – and residents who hold substantial influence – on the other.

But a charter should be a tool to bring together a county’s residents so they can determine how the county could better govern itself, Woodward said. 

“A charter is a constitution,” he said. “It’s not a scary thing to have a constitution. Every level of government we have in this country has a constitution. Every municipality has one; the state has one. 

“The question isn’t, ‘should we have one?’ It is, ‘Why don’t we have one?’”

Because commissioners were in a workshop, they did not vote on the matter. But residents could still sign the petition to establish a charter commission.

Palatka Daily News

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