Commissioners suggest residents may be upset with board's decisions

MANATEE COUNTY — If at least 15 percent of Manatee County’s electorate signs a petition in favor of initiating a charter government, the County Commission will be compelled by state law to honor it.

Yet that does not mean the county’s elected officials will not express uncertainties about what that potential charter could say, and whether it could be a benefit or detriment to how the government they oversee functions.

Last week, the League of Women Voters of Manatee County conducted a program promoting charter county government. Counties without charters are structured according to state law. Counties with voter-approved charters have more flexibility in determining how their governments are structured, such as which campaigns are nonpartisan and which offices are elected or appointed.

After that forum, the League helped launch a petition drive.

The petition calls for the County Commission to create an 11- to 15-member committee to draft a charter that would be put on the ballot for the voters’ approval or rejection. It does not specify the makeup of that committee or any details about what the charter would include.

For the petition to prevail, organizers will need to collect more than 35,000 signatures of registered voters.

“If the citizens want to look at this, that’s their right,” County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said. “Whatever the citizens decide, we’ll work with them.”

Yet Whitmore remains skeptical that a charter will be an improvement.

About two decades ago, former county commissioners raised the issue of a charter that could impose uniform rules about growth and development countywide.

Whitmore, then the mayor of Holmes Beach, was among the representatives of the municipalities who argued against it.

According to the Florida Constitution: A county charter “shall provide which shall prevail in the event of conflict between county and municipal ordinances.”

“That’s why we fought it last time,” Whitmore said of that stipulation, which can be interpreted as giving the county clout over the municipalities. “I (as a city official) didn’t want the county to tell me what to do.”

Whitmore believes the petitioners want a charter because they are upset about the County Commission making “decisions they don’t agree with,” especially land use matters. Yet she is not alone in doubting that a charter will resolve their complaints.

Study the 'nuts and bolts'

“I’m not surprised about the petition,” said Commissioner Charles Smith, who has cast dissenting votes against phosphate mining and various housing developments that most commissioners have approved. He said many Manatee residents are “frustrated.”

“Power to the people if that’s something they want to do,” Smith said of the petition drive.

Even so, Smith, a former Palmetto city commissioner, also expresses doubts that a charter will be beneficial.

“I don’t support a charter government, as I see it today,” Smith said.

Although municipalities are required to have voter-approved charters, county governments are “totally different,” Smith said. Counties do not function like municipalities and have other responsibilities, such as providing a courthouse and jail and funding the constitutional officers such as the sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, court clerk and elections supervisor.

“Charter government does not mean things will be better,” Smith said. “Sarasota County has a charter and you hear the same complaints (about local government) there as you hear in Manatee County.”

County Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace, who was elected in November, said she is “on the periphery” of the charter issue and needs to study its “nuts and bolts.”

“There are probably some good things and probably some bad things” about enacting a charter, Trace said. “That would be a big change. We need to make sure it’s the right thing to do.”

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said she is also undecided about whether adopting a charter would be a positive move. “I’m just leaving it up to the citizens to weigh in,” DiSabatino said. “I’d like for us and the citizens to discuss it further and to explore all options.”