Palmetto wants answers on election changes

myoung@bradenton.comMay 6, 2014 

PALMETTO -- What appeared to be a routine ordinance tweak to come in line with changing election rules, had Palmetto City Commissioners demanding answers from the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office Monday night.

Commissioners want a representative from the Supervisor of Elections office to come to their next meeting to discuss issues about polling locations, the canvassing board and the numbers of polling places inside the city limits.

Among the proposed changes to the ordinance was to disband the city's canvassing board responsibilities and to allow the Supervisor of Elections canvassing to certify city elections. City clerk Jim Freeman said it was not uncommon for municipalities that conduct elections during regular state and federal elections to turn the responsibility over to the elections supervisor, but the request opened a Pandora's box into other underlying issues the commission had with upcoming election cycle.

Ward 3 Commissioner Brian Williams objected to the city giving up its place on the canvassing board and also questioned how the city lost its authority with picking polling locations.

"How did that get away from us?" Williams asked.

City Attorney Mark Barnebey said changes to the Florida statutes give that power to the elections office, or in this case, Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett.

"It's not right that the county is taking control of our polling stations," said Williams. "It affects us all when we don't have enough polling places. We should tell Mr. Bennett that this is not something we want to do. Somebody has to look out for us, too."

Ward 1 Commissioner Charles Smith said he already has an issue with Bennett over mandatory electronic filing of financial reports, claiming it's an illegal request under the laws of a chartered county. Smith said the polling location issue also is illegal and could put the city into a situation of an election being legally challenged.

It isn't the first time, the commission has taken up discussion on election changes. In a discussion earlier this year, the commission agreed to write a letter to the Bennett objecting to various changes, "But I have not seen that letter we said we were going to send," said Smith.

At Large Commissioner Tamara Cornwell said the polling location issue is a home rule issue. Barnebey agreed and said the city may have a case based on that principle even after reading the statutes to the commission that gives the authority to the elections supervisor.

"Having said all that, there is an argument on the home rule side of it and I should be able to give you more input soon," Barnebey said.

Williams said he wasn't happy with the way the county is interceding in the local election and said if the city needed to take legal action, it should.

"I don't think they have the right to create their own way of doing things," he said, while noting the number of polling stations were reduced to one per ward, which creates a hardship for voters.

Freeman said there were three polling stations being mapped out within the city and three outside the city, which made even less sense to Ward 2 Commissioner Tambra Varnadore, who objected to giving up the city's place on the canvassing board as well. She also said having polling stations outside of the city limits was only going to confuse voters.

Smith agreed and took it one step further.

"He's made it difficult for the city of Palmetto," he said.

Williams said he understands that Bennett is trying to save the county money, "but this is not the way to do it."

Varnadore recommended the commission extend an invitation to a representative of the Supervisor of Elections office to attend the city's next workshop to address the city's concerns and the commission agreed.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

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