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Election change question could make May ballot

Mike Cazalas
The Star

PORT ST. JOE — It does not sound complicated: extend city commissioners’ terms from 2 years to 4, allow candidates to qualify by petition if the $500 qualifying fee is prohibitive and hold elections in the fall to coincide with state and national races.

But it is.

More:February 2020: PSJ commissioners ponder election questions

More:From 2020: Hoffman, Lowry re-elected

“Every little change brings up three other little changes that have to be made,” city attorney Clint McCahill told Port St. Joe commissioners after a lengthy discussion at their Feb. 2 meeting. “It’s more complicated that you would’ve thought.”

It’s complicated because it involves the city charter - which requires a voter referendum to change commissioners’ terms – and a lot of timing for the city to get it on the ballot at a time when a high turnout is likely.

Supervisor of Elections John Hanlon

The city has tread lightly with the proposals with council discussion going back well over a year. After Tuesday’s meeting it appeared possible there might be a proposal ready for the city’s May election – if there is a need for one.

Commissioner Scott Hoffman

Again, commissioners noted, it is not simple.

In addition to allowing qualifying by petition and moving commissioners to four-year-terms, the city also wants to move its municipal elections to the fall to line up with state and national elections.

“If we want to move the election it would have to be by referendum as well because it is set forth in the charter,” McCahill said.

Essentially the city has an election every year because, with two-year-terms for the commissioners and to avoid having all of them be up for re-election at once, seats 1 and 2 and 3 (the mayor) are up in odd years and seats 4 and 5 are up in even years.

That means three incumbent seats are up and would be on the ballot in May. That would be a prime time for the referendum question – unless none of the incumbents are challenged in which case there would not be an election. That's what happened in 2020 when no one qualified to run against the incumbents.

And they won’t know that until after qualifying, which doesn’t start until noon, March 24 and ends March 31 at noon.

In the end, commissioners decided to have the city attorney work with Supervisor of Elections John Hanlon to prepare language for the charter amendments in hopes of bringing back something that could be ready for a Spring election. And if there isn’t one, it will be ready for the next one. A special election would cost the city about $10,000 and they’ve previously agreed it isn’t a justifiable expenditure.

“The changes, qualifying by petition, it’s encouraging more people to be involved,” said Commissioner Scott Hoffman. “But if we’re going to do it, I think we should do it correctly. If the people of St. Joe don’t want to move forward with that idea then they’ll vote against the referendum and then we’ll just be where we are.”

Commissioner Eric Langston has been a proponent of allowing people to qualify by petition for the same reason, it will remove roadblocks from anyone who wants to get involved in city government.

“I just feel like having a petition gives everybody the opportunity and the citizens the opportunity if they want to run but may not have the funds to run,” Langston said. “And moving the election to the general election, I think that’s the way to go and we’ll let the citizens decide.”

One last curve that will have to be dealt with is that if the charter amendments are approved, it would mean commission seats that are up for re-election the following spring would not be filled until a general election in the fall, theoretically leaving them empty.

McCahill said that will have to be addressed in the language of the amendments so that the whoever happens to be in those seats following a successful vote would have their terms extended about six months.