The Gainesville City Commission approved on first reading Thursday a change that will increase the fees future commission candidates will have to pay but also added a petition option that allows office seekers a cheaper choice.
Under the current election ordinance, anyone who wants to run for office pays a state-required election assessment that is equivalent to 1 percent of the salary of the office for which they are running. In the most recent election, candidates for an at-large city commission seat paid a $351.18 fee.
The revised ordinance, which would go into effect in 2024, triples that amount, charging candidates 3 percent of the salary of the office. It also eliminates the hardship fee waiver that candidates could request when they filed to run for office.
However, the additional fees can be reduced if the candidate collects signatures from the city’s registered voters. If candidates collect enough verified signatures, they only have to pay the state-required 1 percent.
“If you make the check a little bit painful then it pushes you out, hopefully, to go get petitions, which is the intent anyway that people get the petitions and talk to the voters before they are on the ballot,” said Commissioner Harvey Ward.
The number of signatures candidates need depends on the seat for which they are running. Citywide seats such as the mayor and the two at-large commissioner positions will need to collect signatures from 1 percent of Gainesville’s registered voters—about 800 signatures.
Candidates running for any of the city’s four districts will only need to collect about a quarter of 1 percent—roughly 200 signatures.
“It’s a very useful thing as a candidate to collect petitions,” Ward said. “I think that while you are out there knocking on doors, getting a petition at the same time, it’s a really positive thing. I think it connects people to the process in a way it hasn’t in the past.”
The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office charges 30 cents per signature to verify petitions. However, the commission will charge candidates only 10 cents per signature and pay the remainder of the signature verification costs out of city coffers.
The draft ordinance originally had the increase going into effect in time for this August’s election. However, Ward, who just announced his candidacy for mayor, urged the commission to postpone the changes to the 2024 cycle.
“I knew what I was getting into, but we can’t assume those other folks did,” Ward said. “I am uncomfortable putting that burden on people who filed to be candidates without knowing this was going to become part of the process.”
Commissioners also agreed to allow district candidates to gather signatures from citywide voters versus getting signatures just from people in their district.
Also at Thursday’s regular commission meeting:
City expands use of training funds
The commission approved a change to allow them to use their travel and training funds for community engagement activities. Commissioners suggested the community engagement money could be used to host a town hall in their district or to bring an expert speaker for a public talk.
Each commissioner gets $5,000 a year to help cover official travel and training expenses. The new proposal doesn’t expand that amount but does allow them to fund different types of events.
City staff will develop a policy to determine what types of activities will and will not qualify. City Clerk Omichele Gainey said she would bring back the policy to the commission for discussion.
“We’re going to work with the department of financial services to develop a policy that sets some parameters about the use of those funds because we don’t want the use of the funds to run afoul of our procurement policy,” Gainey said.
Contract approved for interim GRU general manager
As part of passing its consent agenda, the commission approved a $296,000 contract with Anthony Cunningham, now the interim general manager for Gainesville Regional Utilities.
Cunningham, GRU’s water and wastewater officer, was appointed interim general manager after the commission fired GRU’s Ed Bielarski last week.
Under the contract, Cunningham will also receive a city vehicle or a $450 car allowance.
City approves changes to comprehensive plan
A state-required change to the city’s comprehensive plan also passed first reading during the city’s evening session.
A law that went into effect in June 2021 requires the city to add language to its comprehensive plan that spells out basic property rights for landowners.
The amended plan will include specific language that says: property owners have the right to control easements to their properties as well as leases and mineral rights. Property owners also have the right to improve and maintain their property and exclude other people from the property.
The change to the comprehensive plan was initially on the agenda of the city’s January 20 meeting but was held over to Thursday’s meeting.