Is it time for charter government in Manatee?

September 8, 2013 

What do Sarasota, Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Polk counties have that Manatee County lacks? We lack the charter form of county government. Our surrounding counties and 16 others have adopted charter, which provides more options for a smarter, more responsive county government, and allows a county to custom-fit its structure and functions to changing needs and preferences.

What we currently have in Manatee County is called the constitutional form of county government -- the default option under state law. However, charters are not unknown in our county, since all of our cities are charter governments.

The constitutional form our county government developed when Florida was still mostly rural, and counties were considered to be subdivisions of the state, with specific powers and duties conferred by the state. Charter government, also called "home rule," was first allowed statewide in 1968, and growing numbers of counties have adopted it, or are considering doing so.

The most populous Florida counties have led this transition. The 20 counties that have made the switch to charter represent 75 percent of the state's population. However, even some small counties have converted to charter government. For example, Wakulla County (population 30,877) adopted a charter in 2008.

The differences in the two systems are significant. In the constitutional form, a county only has the powers specifically granted by the state. Under charter, a county has all powers of self-government except those that are pre-empted or prohibited by the state. As a county grows, becomes more complex, and is delegated more responsibilities by the state and federal governments, the options under a charter provide greater flexibility and permit changes that make it more effective and economical to operate.

For example, some structural options that would be available for our county commission include: number of commissioners, length of terms of office, creation of at-large or single member districts, and partisan or nonpartisan elections. Constitutional officers, e.g., tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of court, etc., could be appointed positions rather than elected ones. The reverse also applies, and some currently appointed positions, e.g., county administrator, could be made elected positions.

Under charter, there are also more opportunities for citizen involvement. Citizens, as well as the county, may propose charter amendments for a referendum vote, and citizens may recall elected officials. Many charters include a citizen's bill of rights, significant county policies, or an ethics code for government officials.

Charter counties seem to be well-satisfied with their decision to adopt. While most of them have amended specific provisions of their charters, none has repealed it altogether and gone back to the older form of government.

The development of a county charter begins with the appointment of a Charter Commission. Citizens may also start the process through petition. The public is very involved throughout. County charters are adopted, repealed or amended only by a vote of the electorate.

While county charters vary greatly in length and content, one thing they all have in common is that they reflect the unique history and outlook of their local communities. It has been a long time since we talked about adopting a charter for Manatee County. Perhaps it's time to start this conversation again.

To provide more information about charter government, the League of Women Voters of Manatee County will sponsor a presentation on Sept. 16 from noon to 1 p.m. at the Bradenton Woman's Club, 1705 Manatee Ave W. Our guest speaker will be Virginia Delegal, general counsel for the Florida Association of Counties. For more information, visit www.lwvmanatee.org.

Rosalie Shaffer, is vice president of the League of Women Voters of Manatee County and chair of the organization's Charter Government Committee.

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