Want to weigh in on charter government in Manatee County? Petition boxes going into all county libraries

Yellow boxes labeled “Manatee County Charter Petition is Here!” are being placed in the county’s public libraries this week as a group of Manatee County citizens spearheads a petition drive to “get as many signatures as fast as we can,” the group’s leader says.

“We’re moving fast,” said Barbara Elliott, who is with Stone Soup Community Unity Political Action Committee, which is spearheading the charter government petition effort. “We want to reach people. We want to give people a choice, and the best way to give themselves a choice is to sign this petition to get a charter.”

Elliott, along with Kim YoungShepherd, dropped off six yellow petition boxes Monday afternoon at Bradenton’s Central Library. The boxes will be distributed to the county’s library branches.

Stone Soup Community Unity PAC has been active in local politics before. Members previously fought to save Glacier Gates Park, and they attempted to recall Bradenton City Council members.

Kevin Beach, Manatee County’s library operations manager, said the petition boxes will be distributed to the other branches immediately, noting that some branches are closed Monday.

“We’ve had these kind of things in the library before,” Beach said. “We figured it is a local place. We want the library to be one of the hubs in the community. ... It is a good way for people to learn about it.”

“Citizen Power!,” “Recall BOCC from office,” “Ethics,” “Take Back Manatee,” “Bye Bye Beruff & Neal,” and “No Mining in Manatee” are some of the phrases written on the side of the yellow petition boxes.

“We feel like the process, the checks and balances, don’t work,” Elliott said. “This could help us. We want our power back in the cities and the county, and the best way to do that is to sign this petition. And let’s get a charter commission, and let’s see if we like the charter and if we do, let’s get one.”

The latest effort for Manatee County to become a charter government officially began last Monday when the League of Women Voters of Manatee County had a luncheon titled, “Is Manatee Ready for Charter Government?” By the end of the luncheon, residents were signing a petition, which is now also on the League of Women Voters of Manatee County website, to have the charter government proposal move forward.

Charters, according to the Florida Association of Counties, are formal written documents — similar to the federal or state constitutions — that confer powers, duties or privileges on the county. Constitutional experts say charters allow for greater self-government free of state oversight, and give the county electorate greater control over regional affairs, according to the FAC.

It will take having 15 percent of registered Manatee County voters, or about 35,000 people, sign the petition to have the charter government measure move forward. The county commission can also elect to start the initiative.

“Of all the counties that have a charter, not a single one had to be started by the citizens’ petition,” Rosalie Shaffer, the League of Women Voters of Manatee County president, said at last week’s luncheon.

Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said she hopes the citizens “understand what is possible and what’s not possible under charter government,” noting that the state Legislature has preempted certain items.

“I personally don’t see a benefit to a charter,” Benac said Monday afternoon. “I see what goes on in Sarasota County as being an additional layer of government.”

If citizens want term limits, which is one of the provisions in Sarasota’s charter, Benac said they can vote commissioners out of office during elections.

“That’s how they will get term limits,” she said. “Charter government is another layer of government. I don’t think they understand what they will gain from charter government.”

But Elliott said she hears from people all the time that they are fed up with what’s happening in local government.

“They feel like they are not listened to, and they are tired of being ignored,” she said.

YoungShepherd added: “This will give the general public a voice and an opinion in their government, which a lot of people feel helpless in that regard.”

Claire Aronson: 941-745-7024, @Claire_Aronson

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