MADEIRA BEACH — The mayor’s suggestion that voters be given a chance to change the city’s charter so that commissioners are only voted on by electors from their district, rather than at-large citywide, was soundly rejected by fellow commissioners after a lively debate.

Commissioner David Tagliarini took exception with Mayor John Hendricks’ proposal to put the issue before voters, suggesting it could lead to a doomsday scenario that allows a newly elected commissioner from just one district to initiate drastic changes, without input from all voters.

But Hendricks said the change will prevent a big voting block from taking control of an election and the city.

During the May 25 City Commission meeting, City Clerk Clara VanBlargan noted the mayor requested a discussion on the proposed charter amendment. It would require each commissioner to be elected only by the qualified voters residing in that commissioner’s district. The mayor would be elected at-large.

“This is a charter amendment we’ve discussed before, and actually gets us in line with the way a number of the other communities are, and that is if you are running in a district, your district votes for you,” Hendricks told commissioners. “There are some things that may be of specific interest to a certain district, and you’ve got your commissioner that’s looking out for your district’s best interest.

“My opinion is that this would be a good move to make, because different parts of town have different interests as to what happens in town. If you have a certain part of town that is voting for certain elected officials then they can, in essence, take control of the town, and I don’t think that’s right,” the mayor added.

Commissioner David Tagliarini told fellow commissioners he conducted a survey and all but one person was opposed to this, and that person said they weren’t sure. Some negative comments opposing it were the potential for divisiveness and unequal representation.

“One problem that it may create, that I feel pretty strongly about this, is that we’re a small community with many diverse resources for our residents and tourists to enjoy,” Tagliarini said. “Since we’re so small, residents can easily enjoy (all areas of the city from District 1 to District 4) and have strong feelings about ordinances and plans” that might impact any location.

He offered  an example of what could transpire with district voting. “John’s Pass Village is in District 1 (on the city’s south side), ROC Park is in District 4 (on the far north side). Hypothetically, let’s say commissioner (David) Hutson decides not to run after his term is up, and I hope that doesn’t happen. Now we have some candidates running for district 4 — holy cow, there’s this one candidate who’s campaigning on a platform of reimagining our beloved ROC Park and turning it into a shopping mall, and he says it’s good for business and good for the community.”

He continued his scenario: “Now let’s just take a second (to look at the 2018 vote). According to our city clerk, there were 915 registered voters in District 4, that’s the largest district. According to Julie Marcus, the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, the average turnout in Pinellas County for the municipal election this past time was 28 percent. This means that likely only 256 residents (of District 4) would vote in this hypothetical election. This means this candidate who wants to turn ROC Park into a shopping mall could win with 129 votes, and none of these votes came from any one of our districts 2, 3, or 4; we didn’t have any say so about that.

“We all enjoy ROC Park but none of the residents in our districts would be able to say anything on this matter,” he said. “If he won, could the commissioner actually get this accomplished? Probably not, but do you even want to take the chance to have someone on the board?”

He said the same situation applied to his District 1. “Do you want the residents in your district to stop having a voice in any candidate who might have some crazy vision about the future of John’s Pass?  Do you want, like me, (for the Pass) to continue to have the charm and the small-town fishing village feel? Then don’t take the chance that you’ll lose your ability to vote for a candidate in District 1, who might have some crazy ideas to change the village. It’s obvious I’m strongly opposed to this.”

Hendricks noted the proposal would be a charter amendment. “It will go to the voters. Don’t you think it’s something the voters should decide?” 

Commissioner Doug Andrews said he agreed with Tagliarini “almost completely.”

“The problem is if we were a bigger city and there were more votes I would say, ‘OK, that makes a little more sense,’ but he is a thousand percent correct … even on a good election we get 1100-1200 people coming out,” Andrews said. “Our problem is we never have an election that falls like a presidential election in November, we’re always doing it in the off-months, so we’re never going to have massive turnout unless something is going on. Even when this came up originally, I was never a huge fan of this. And sometimes we just leave well enough alone. We’re all supposed to be voting what’s best for the city as a whole, not what’s best for a particular section of the city.”

Commissioner David Hutson said the city’s districts “are very different from each other, making the candidate talk to people from other districts and hear different perspectives. I think that is important. This would take that away… I think it’s probably more important that the whole city pays attention to candidates from other districts and helps decide.”

Andrews added the change would also lock people out of a vote every other year, because terms are staggered. Shutting voters out every other year is “creating more of a problem than we need,” he said.

Commissioner Ray Kerr said in the last election half the city would not have shown up to decide on charter amendments, because they wouldn’t have had anybody to vote for.

“I guess I’m old school,” Kerr said. “I feel I was elected at large and try to make decisions at large and not specific for my district, so I would be against putting this” out as a charter referendum.

With only the mayor in favor, there was no consensus to move the question forward.