Chatter on the Charter

In less than two weeks, qualifying will begin for the City of Davenport, Florida, election but may include a caveat, one that will ask voters if they want to vote; yeah, I’m not kidding. Our esteemed commissioners are thinking of asking the electorate, or those of us who actually take the time to cast a ballot in local elections, if we’d like to vote specifically for the mayor’s position.

Brandon Kneeld

Considering that the average number of votes hovers at around 400 per election, this proposal, made by Commissioner Brandon Kneeld, applies to a small number of folks who take the time to consider questions like this one; that is, if this measure even makes it past its only hearing. (It won’t be afforded a second.)

Kneeld brought up this issue because he believes a flaw exists in the way the commission is designed. His crystal ball surmises that, sometime in the future, Davenport risks having an election of more than half of the commission body.

To be sure, is Kneeld suggesting that it is a bad thing to allow this particular risk to exist, one that could hypothetically put in the hands of citizens the power to vote in a whole new body of commissioners?

Yeah, baby! If that’s the case, give me my riskiest risky dis-voting risk.

I don’t think, however, that this was the kind of risk about which Kneeld was speaking. What he was speaking of, I suspect, had to do with the back-to-back mayoral resignations that occurred about a year ago, putting our lil’ city into the glaring, international oh-we’re-fucked spotlight of the media. It was an embarrassment by any measure both to the city and the residents, who’ve lived here all their lives without a speck of controversy until that happened.

One has to admit that it’s been quite the soap opera in Davenport over the past few years, more than the usual cut-throat zealousness of other elections: candidates winning by lying about important issues while smearing other candidates on petty ones; candidates blowing out my light fixtures, for example, when my husband ran for commissioner.

Even current Mayor Rob Robinson contends that appointing over electing may “stop the abuse of power of the mayor’s position.” He’s got a very good point there and one that voters should consider when thinking about this ballot measure.

ordinance 881 ballot question
Proposed Ballot Language

Bottom line is that what Kneeld is really speaking about has to do with changing the city’s Charter. What Kneeld proposes is to turn the normally elected position of mayor into one that is appointed by the other commissioners.

There are clear reasons for discussing having the mayor’s position appointed, as Kneeld opined, advantages like taking the focus off the position of mayor as being “outside” of the commission. And one certainly doesn’t want, as Kneeld indicated, for all of our commissioners to run for the single seat of mayor. Has that actually ever happened?

There’s at least one other reason for considering making the mayor’s position appointed. It would render obsolete the use of the mayor’s power-by-position status to run ram shod over the policy-making role of the entire commission.

For example, until 2013, Davenport pretty much had one mayor for 16 years. During that time, Davenport fell into disrepair; its parks overgrown; its sidewalks a mess; and its water tower rusting. Davenport obviously needed a change, and something did.

Things were looking up. Then all hell broke loose from late 2017 to early 2018, when a double mayoral resignation rocked the city. One scandal was plenty, but two in as many months? That was an unheard of experience.

Kneeld’s suggestion that his question be posed to the people is a good thing if it opens a frank discussion into the role of our body of commissioners. What happened back then? And, what other measures can be taken to ensure it’s less likely to happen again?

It would fail the sniff test, though, if all discussion stops at this one vote. Commissioners need to face it. This one measure ain’t going to stop some neighborhood schmuck’s intent on raking in the “power” of the mayor’s position. There needs to be a multifaceted approach.

Talking is Good

So while citizens should welcome the opportunity to answer the question, “Do you want to vote for your mayor?” a wider discussion needs to be had on the whole mayor-commissioner thing; and – if our commissioners are acting responsibly – discussions like this should also be brought up more often. (I’m sure voters will also accept once in awhile.)

What does the mayors’ position really mean; and if it really means anything at all, shouldn’t responsibilities finally be drawn up and submitted to voters? Would attracting more to run for office help to get rid of the apparent abuses?

And, are those abuses so widespread that it is part of the reason why so few do in fact not run for office today? Regardless — with the tremendous amount of talent in Davenport — why aren’t we attracting more electoral candidates?

Weak’s Our State Today

Davenport’s a fast growing city. With a vote to appoint over elect, we would be putting ourselves, politically in a weaker position than we’re already in. Is that really what constituents want? Is that really what the commissioners want?

While permanently weakening a municipality’s form of government may work in other communities, Davenport’s got a long history of pride in its local elections. Just peruse the two history books written about us to see that elections have always been highly regarded.

Davenport appears to have a strong mayor but that position is unequivocally ceremonious. Davenport has a “weak-mayor” form of government.

The mayor runs the commissioners’ meetings, attends social functions, sits in the lead car during the annual WinterFest parade, and, pretty much, whatever the mayor in power feels like doing (with certain limitations, of course); or not doing, as the case has been.

mayor-council chart
Weak vs Strong Mayor in a Nutshell

As a voter, I would personally prefer being asked if I want the commission to give the mayor, and themselves, some damn responsibilities. For that, I’d vote yes in a heartbeat.

We’re a hundred-year-old community. Haven’t we figured out in all this time what the mayor should be doing? You know, like, no one wrote it down anywhere?

What are the responsibilities of the commission and commissioners? Why are they only ceremonial when the electorate is spending precious time, our precious time, voting?

What do our votes count for when we elect someone in Davenport? A bunch of literally ceremonial guys with titles? Really?

Are our votes relegated to leaders who rubber-stamp housing developments when the voters are screaming, “No more!” Is the vote for any commission position of any real value to the voter?

Now Kneeld wants us to decide if we should take this mayoral horse down for good? I hear you, Kneeld. And, my twitchy finger so much wants to say, “Yes!” but I have my head shaking no, no, no on a downside.

The Downside

The only real downside to Kneeld’s measure, that I can see, is that this appointment thing is what gave us an unelected vice mayor. As it stands to date, the commissioners appointed a vice mayor who wasn’t even elected by the people when there were three other, elected commissioners with more experience who could’ve taken this mantel.

Why should taxpayers trust that the commissioners will act wisely in the future when it comes to mayoral appointments? It doesn’t stop there however.

Why Aren’t We Friends with Bartow?

There this one little issue with the job description for the mayor’s position. You see, the municipal code for Davenport indicates one responsibility for the mayor that is actually not ceremonial.

It is one the one thing that is somewhat adhered to, for example when it comes to participation with the Florida League of Cities, but when it comes to Davenport’s relationship with county commissioners, school board, and other county opportunities? Not quite so much.

Neither the mayor nor anyone else on our commission “represent the City in intergovernmental relationships” when it comes to Bartow’s commissioner’s meetings. What’s up with that? Too far? Not the right time? Is that, maybe, the reason why Bartow ignores Davenport?

As Davenport grows, maybe, instead of asking voters to weaken the mayor’s position, commissioners should be asking, “What is our job? And, are we doing it?” Why weaken the position of this body of leaders when you, Our Elected Leaders, have the opportunity to strengthen it?

Pay Those Bastards Already

Folks who run for Davenport’s commission run for two reasons: they love Davenport or they love power; and some, for both. They certainly don’t come in for the pay, which is so measly …

How measly is it?

salvation army bell ringerIt is so measly that a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army makes more than our commissioners. (It’s true; I checked it out!)

Seriously, pay is an important issue.

Residents can’t expect commissioners to do much about anything – neither about congested roads, traffic studies for our upcoming elementary school, general economic development, businesses that dump hazardous waste, park improvement and expansion, recreation for all, ambassadorship, forward thinking, nor intergovernmental relations – if we don’t pay them commensurate with these kinds of responsibilities. (Yeah, those same responsibilities no one’s bothered to write up in over 100 years! Oh, my god, my blood pressure!)

haveyoursayThe old adage, You Get What You Pay For, is at work here and either needs to be put down, like the dead horse, or finally brought into the 21st century, where commissioners I dream are one day touched by Disney’s Tinkerbelle fairy dust wand and do more — a lot more — than just approve stuff.

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