DUNEDIN — It would be unlawful to build memorials or leave items in city parks, rules regulating nonpartisan elections could be relaxed, and distance requirements could be removed between churches and establishments selling alcoholic beverages under a series of changes suggested to the City Commission by the Charter Review Committee.
City staff will review the suggestions and present proposed charter changes to commissioners during a series of work sessions. Residents would eventually have to approve charter changes in a series of referendums.
After meeting for a year and going over 23 chapters in the City Charter, Mark Bowman, Charter Review Committee chairman, presented his group’s suggestions during the Jan. 16 commission meeting.
In a city that prides itself on holding nonpartisan elections, one suggested change that raised comments was to a section of the charter titled “unfair campaign practices.” The committee recommended it be changed to allow candidates to receive donations and in-kind contributions from a political party.
Under current local election laws, which charter review changes would eliminate, it is “an unfair campaign practice for a candidate to elective city office, or an agent or authorized representative of the candidate on behalf of such candidate to: Solicit or accept contributions, or open assistance or support, from any partisan political club or association affiliated with any political party, or from any political party; (or to) participate in any partisan political party function.”
The change would also eliminate a restriction that states a candidate “may attend and speak at a political party function or event, provided that all candidates for city office have been invited and permitted to participate in the same manner and to the same extent.”
During public comments, resident Stacy Rush alleged the charter was violated by at least three commissioners running for office during previous local elections, when they accepted campaign and in-kind contributions from the Democratic Party.
She noted no action was taken against them by other commissioners. She objected to the committee wanting to change local election law, after-the-fact, to make their actions now seem legal. She said it is unfair that the city issues hefty code enforcement fines when residents break the law, but commissioners who flout rules go unpunished.
City Attorney Tom Trask said state election statutes preempt the local charter as it relates to the municipal campaign contribution ordinance, according to the minutes of the Charter Review Committee from Jan. 7.
Trask told the committee “research came across an old Attorney General opinion, which basically said that contributions under campaign practices are preempted to the state of Florida, so the city cannot adopt a provision in its code that would otherwise limit someone's ability to accept contributions.”
If the city were to levy fines on commissioners and mayors, “either this one currently or those in the past, the first thing they would do is show up with that opinion and the judge may say that is a complete defense,” Trask said.
Rush argued if residents are expected to follow city ordinances then the same should hold true for elected officials, and she vowed to run for office in the next municipal election.
Under the proposed change, it would still be unlawful for a candidate in a Dunedin election to “campaign by way of announcements, publications, or other forms of political advertising, as a registered member of any political party.”
Bowman told commissioners a Charter change requested by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department would make it illegal for a person visiting a city park to create, build, install or leave any items in the park, including umbrellas, canopies, chairs, picnic tables, memorials, or other personal mementos.
He said people are actually building forts or lean-tos and leaving them in the park.
Another change would remove distance requirements relating to churches and eating establishments and bars serving alcoholic beverages.
The only limitation remaining would be a requirement making it unlawful to sell alcoholic beverages within a certain number of feet from a school, with the distance depending on the district. For example, the distance limitation is 300 feet from a school for an eating establishment selling alcohol in most of the city, but the distance is reduced to only 50 feet in the downtown core; a downtown bar would have to adhere to being 300 feet from a school.
According to the Charter Review minutes from Jan. 7, Planning and Development Director Greg Rice told the committee “staff thinks the distance requirements are antiquated in terms of from churches and schools and from other alcoholic beverage establishments.”
He said a current proposal for a type of whiskey bar under the Artisan Apartments cannot be done right now.
Rice said church hours, especially downtown with the Methodist church, are opposite the average alcohol establishment.
City commissioners will hold several work sessions, with dates to be announced, to discuss suggested charter review changes.