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News Story
Updated: 04/11/2013 08:00:42AM

Election reforms for better government

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Bartowans turned out in modest numbers last week to choose one city commissioner, re-electing Adrian Jackson for his third three-year term.

We supported his candidacy, even as we encouraged his challenger, Gerald Cochran, to continue his role of criticizing what he sees as shortcomings in city government and its leadership.

While it is easy to marginalize Cochran’s criticisms, it is a mistake not to realize that in his 21 unsuccessful runs for office, he typically has garnered about one-fourth of the votes.

This means that of the people who bother to go to the polls, about a quarter are dissatisfied with the status quo at city hall.

We believe the commission can improve the elective process — and hence the quality of city government — by adopting three election reforms. Each would require voter approval.

• Shorten commission terms from three years to two.

• Establish a limit of four consecutive terms.

• Eliminate, or scale back, the district election system.

Here is our rationale.

Shorter terms: Two-year terms would mean that three commissioners would be elected in one year, two in the next. That should increase voter interest in elections. A ballot with only one race doesn’t create much voter excitement.

Is two years long enough for a commissioner to make an effective contribution to city government? Two years is long enough for members of the House of Representatives of both the United States Congress and the Florida Legislature to make their mark. City government is easier to master than either Congress or the Legislature.

Term limits: Given the option to vote on term limits, voters almost always approve them. The “eight is enough” initiative in Florida imposed maximum terms of eight years in the Legislature and the Cabinet.

Florida’s governor and the president of the United States are limited to eight years to put their imprimatur on government.

Newcomers to public office bring a infusion of new ideas. It is easy to suggest that the voters can impose term limits every time they go to the polls, but the reality is that incumbents have a tremendous advantage, and at the city commission level, often draw no opposition.

District elections: The establishment of three political districts in a city the size of Bartow makes no sense. A town of 15,000-plus citizens does not have “regional” interests that need their own advocates.

The reason Bartow’s district system was created was to virtually ensure that at least one minority candidate would be elected (though for the record, Bartow’s first minority commissioner was elected before the city adopted this ward politics approach).

To make the concept more palatable, one minority district and two majority districts were created. The majority districts presumably guarantee that at least two white candidates will be elected. Is that really needed? The real effect of having three district seats and only two at-large commissioners is that any given citizen can run for only three of the five positions on the commission (his own district, and the two at-large posts). This year, with only the north district on the ballot, two-thirds of the citizens were denied the opportunity to seek office.

If there is a perception that one minority district is needed to ensure minority membership on the commission, we could accept that.

With two-year terms, there could be one minority district and two at-large posts on the ballot in one year, and the other two at-large posts in alternate years.

We believe that two-year terms, four-term limits, and having no more than one geographical election district would make for more interest in city elections by both candidates and voters, and bring about a more vibrant, responsive city government.

We urge the city commission to explore those options.


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