LARGO — When voters head to the polls in November, they will have two decisions to make about the city’s charter. Whether they want term limits for city commissioners won’t be one of them, though, because city leaders unanimously rejected the proposal July 8.
Every seven years, the Charter Review Committee convenes to review and recommend changes to the charter, which serves as the "Constitution" for Largo's government, providing the framework for city operations such as approving a tax rate, electing city commissioners and selling or leasing city property.
The past three committees, including this past one that met monthly from February to May, have discussed term limits for commissioners, but all three pushes failed.
Beverly Gatewood, chairwoman of the committee, said the driving force behind this year’s proposal was to create a more diverse commission, which has only ever had one Black commissioner — Rodney Woods, who was elected in 2006.
“I’m looking at this board. There’s no diversity on that board,” said Gatewood, an African American woman speaking to the seven white commission members during the virtual meeting held via Zoom. “I’m not saying everybody on this board is going to be voted out, but I feel like we need to give other people, citizens, residents in the community a chance to sit on that board.”
Gatewood added the city is becoming more progressive and some residents feel their voices are not being heard, so term limits might attract citizens of diverse backgrounds that will lead to fresh ideas.
“I have been a resident since 1993 and I’ve seen its growth,” she said. “However, the minority residents in the community, it appears this commission board is not servicing their needs.”
The committee’s proposal would have limited each elected official to two four-year terms as a city commissioner. They could then run to serve two full terms as a mayor. If they wanted to return to their post, they would have to sit out one four-year term and run again. In Pinellas County, seven of 24 municipalities have term limits, including neighboring Clearwater.
Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who has been on the board since 2009, said term limits aren’t needed because there are plenty of opportunities for office. He cited the 2018 election where four commissioners were unopposed and this year’s election where, thus far, two of the three candidates have no challengers.
“The term limit arguments as far as diversity is concerned, anybody can file to run for office,” Holmes said. “There’s nothing to preclude you from doing it.”
Gatewood responded that the financial cost of challenging an incumbent is another factor preventing people from running.
“Somebody like me, I don’t have the means,” she said.
Holmes again disagreed, and said about $20 worth of petition cards is all it takes to get on the ballot. He admitted that advertising campaigns can cost more, but added that knocking on doors is free.
“You can get on these things for the cheap,” he said. “The first time I ever ran for election, I spent very little money on it.”
The man who beat him in that election, Mayor Woody Brown, agreed with Holmes and said there is no shortage of opportunities to gain a seat.
“When I ran for City Commission initially, it was to represent a group of people that I didn’t feel was represented,” he said. “And I think it’s an important thing that everybody has an opportunity to run. I don’t think that doesn’t exist. I think anybody has an opportunity to run and represent the city.”
Brown, who was first elected in 2007 and is the longest serving member of the commission, said people shouldn’t confuse municipal races with state or federal ones, which can be much more costly and incumbents hold a large advantage.
“In Congress, if you want to stay, you’re likely going to stay,” he said. “Here, you have to be doing a good job. If people are ready for a change in the seat, you’re probably going to move along and somebody new is going to be here.”
To make his point, he said three members of the current commission ousted incumbents to earn their seats.
He also agreed with Holmes that it doesn’t take a lot of money to run a campaign, citing candidates who have won elections raising less than $3,000.
Brown, who is seeking reelection to his post this year, has raised $2,557 as of July 7, but is currently unopposed. Holmes is also making a bid to return and has raised $20,935 in a bid to defeat challenger Eric Gerard, who has raised $50,000. Commissioner Jamie Robinson, who is also unopposed thus far, has raised just $254.
“I think if this resolution was put on the ballot it would pass in spite of the good things that we’re doing here as a City Commission,” Brown said. “In spite of the opportunities that people have here in the city of Largo to run for City Commission. We don’t get paid a whole lot. … I’m not making money at this, I’m losing money at this. I do it because I like it and I think we’re doing some good things, and we’re making changes.”
Two proposed charter amendments likely will be on the ballot, though.
Commissioners agreed to let voters decide if the Charter Review Committee should convene every 10 years instead of every seven years.
Voters also will decide if the city can lease city-owned property for up to seven years, instead of five years, without requiring referendum approval.
City Attorney Alan Zimmet said the proposal makes sense because utilities prefer longer leases for properties such as new cell towers.
“It just makes us more competitive for cell tower locations,” he said. “Since they are just money makers and usually they take up a portion of property that otherwise does not disrupt city facilities, there’s really little reason not to do this.”