Largo commissioners reject proposal to put term limits on ballot

Beverly Gatewood, bottom right, chairwoman of the Charter Review Committee, said the driving force behind this year’s proposal for term limits was to create a more diverse board, which has only ever had one Black commissioner.

Was it any surprise that the Largo commission with obvious bias flat-out rejected the suggestion and decried the issue presented to them by its Charter Review Committee to permit voters to voice their opinion on term limits for Largo elected officials.

After open discussion and debate, the committee recommended by a 6-1 vote that this issue be placed on the November ballot for its citizens to voice their opinion. Would it be a good thing or a bad thing? We could have had a town hall meeting for public debate and media coverage to educate everyone on the issue. Then the citizens would have “their” voice heard in the methodology of selecting “their” government representatives.

The past two review committees had also discussed term limits but both times failed because of the make-up of the appointed committee members and officials who appointed them. For some reason, the 2020 committee was more independently minded and saw the merits of the issue. As factually reported, in Pinellas County seven of 24 municipalities have term limits, including neighboring Clearwater.

One Largo commissioner touted the fact that last election had four unopposed incumbents and this year two of three seats are unopposed and in argument against committee chairwoman Beverly Gatewood stated, “about $20 worth of petition cards is all it takes to get on the ballot.” The difference is we are not talking about just getting on the ballot, we are talking about a viable chance to win the election and the fact remains that incumbency itself is a major advantage and the very facts dealing with why so many local governments have seats won due to no opposition is in itself a reason for term limits.

And believe it or not folks, money talks locally just as it does on state and national levels, so deriding the cost of elections is a falsehood. While some in the past have spent little, like myself in 1987 when I ran for Largo City Commission and won, I spent all of $289 of my own money, but the year I ran for re-election the special interests in the city backed up my opponent with over $5,000, an unheard-of amount for a Largo election up to that time. Also, a review of recent Largo elections indicates a much different picture of money necessary to win a seat which, as Mayor Woody Brown stated, “we don’t get paid a whole lot. … I’m not making money on this, I’m losing money on this.”

Two things about that comment:

(a) I would debate you or any other commissioner on “losing money” with this very part-time job, and (b) you ran for office with full knowledge of what the position entailed, including the salary, so don’t complain about it.

Two very important facts about compensation for the City Commission.

If I recall correctly, my time as a commissioner paid just over $5,000 annually and the mayor got about $7,000. The salary today for our mayor is about $22,000 and for commissioners over $14,000 with automatic 3% COLA increases annually. Not too bad for very part-time jobs.

To support Chairperson Gatewood’s commentary about people not being able to afford to run, there has been a recent history in Largo of candidates spending between $2,000 to $8,000 for campaigns, but it is exemplified by the Holmes-Gerard race this year, which as of June had Commissioner Holmes raising $20,935 and his opposition Gerard $50,000. Both amounts are obscene. Mr. Gerard is the husband of County Commissioner Pat Gerard, a big money raiser herself.

Wrapping up the argument in favor of term limits or at least letting citizens vote on the issue are these:

Term limits do not eliminate an incumbent’s opportunity to run; we’re simply asking to eliminate unrestricted “successive” terms. (Mayor Brown winning unopposed this year will serve 17 successive years by the end of his next term).

Term limits, even on a local level, curb the influence of special interests and abuses of power, and even in Largo, we have had past instances of special interest influences.

Term limits will promote fresh ideas and perspectives that are not wedded to the status quo.

An election is an election for the people’s choice. Where in any city or county charter does it state you may stay in office as long as you wish?

Term limits: If it’s good enough for our president and all state elected officials, why not local officials?

Here’s a final “hello” moment:

Mayor Brown was quoted as saying, “I think if this amendment were put on the ballot, it would pass.” More importantly, if the people want this, who are a handful of local office holders to thwart the will of the people?

Ernest Bach is a former Largo city commissioner, member of the 2020 Charter Review Committee, and state chairman of the Independent Party of Florida. He can be reached at FlaIndyParty@aol.com.