The Gainesville City Commission declined to move forward at its Thursday General Policy Committee with a charter amendment that would eliminate the use of special elections to elect new commissioners who leave during a term.
The proposed amendment would have allowed the city commission to fill vacancies on its board until the next possible regular election—a potential maximum of just over two years. In order to be finalized, the proposal would need to pass the commission in a six/sevenths vote before being placed on the ballot for approval by Gainesville voters.
The attorney’s office presented the charter amendment to the commission and explained the origin of the proposal during the last Gainesville special elections on Nov. 16 with a runoff on Jan. 25.
Interim City Attorney Daniel Nee said favorable conditions and a lot of work allowed the special elections to take place at all.
Commissioners acknowledged the tight schedule the Supervisor of Elections had to abide by to pull it off.
“The genesis of this was not the attorney’s office,” Mayor Lauren Poe said. “It was the Supervisor of Elections and the clerk because they about broke themselves trying to conduct this election.”
Nee said elections have changed dramatically in the decades since the city charter was drafted and the time frame lacks feasibility.
The city charter requires a special election be held within 60 days of the vacancy occurring if the next regular election is more than six months away.
If the next regular election is less than six months away, the remaining commission members may appoint someone to fill the vacancy until the voters provide the new commissioner at the regular election.
Because former Commissioner Gail Johnson announced her resignation in advance, Nee said the city had more like 90 days to prepare.
After selecting one of four drafts, Commissioner Harvey Ward motioned for the attorney’s office to finish drafting the amendment and ballot language—striking the word “available” from the ballot language—before bringing it back to the commission for vote.
“Make no mistake,” Commissioner Reina Saco said. “This will ultimately be decided by the voters when it comes up again. We aren’t going to spend more of your money on our election. But until then, we will be filling this spot to save everyone money and hassle.”
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos also expressed support for the ballot initiative and potential charter change, but after comment by Commissioner-elect Cynthia Chestnut and Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, the proposal stalled.
During public comment, Chestnut, who will join the commission on Feb. 17, expressed her opposition to the proposal.
“Citizens could view this as voter suppression, which I think it is,” she said, adding that it “smacks of cronyism.”
Chestnut added that last year’s charter review committee, which she served on, saw no reason to change the guidelines.
The past special election cost the city $400,000, half for the November election and half for the runoff. Chestnut said the city couldn’t change the price tag but the money was worth it.
“But really, the cost does not matter,” Chestnut said. “It is about democracy.”
After public comment, Duncan-Walker spoke for the first time and expressed similar concerns.
“At the end of the day, what I’m never interested in is taking away the right of the people to decide who sits on this dais,” Duncan-Walker said.
She added that the city should start talks with the Office of the Supervisor of Elections in order to figure out a better way forward.
Saco said the main issue isn’t the money but the dozens of workers scrambling to put on an election in 60 days.
“Elections are so vital which is why they should be done well and with consideration as Commissioner Duncan-Walker said,” Saco said.
She said the proposed plan might not be perfect but certainly better than the current system.
Commissioner David Arreola expressed concerns about how the word democracy was thrown around. He added that the proposal didn’t bypass it.
“We have one commissioner in opposition and the commissioner-elect who will be joining us is in opposition,” Arreola said. “This charter amendment will not reach the ballot. Democracy just happened all in front of you.”
While the motion for the proposed charter amendment died, a new motion directed the attorney’s office to bring the issue back for discussion at a future General Policy Committee meeting.
The commission discussed potentially lengthening the time frame for a special election from 60 days.