County Undecided On ‘Chairman’ Or ‘Mayor’ Title

The Palm Beach County Commission approved amendments to its procedural rules Tuesday, but postponed a decision on the most high-profile suggestion — whether to give the commission’s leader the title “mayor” rather than “chairman.”

“I’ve tried to explain the reasoning behind this,” said Chairman Steven Abrams, who proposed the change. “I agree you can operate under either system. It isn’t about me. I certainly don’t want anyone up here to vote based on whether it hurts my feelings or makes me happy. For one thing, the chair rotates, but it does recognize that the leader of a governmental body has a distinctive role.”

Abrams said he discovered the difference in recognition when he served as mayor of Boca Raton, adding that the difference of attitudes is starkly different when considering the other two counties that make up the South Florida metropolitan area.

“Yesterday I met the mayor of Miami-Dade County and the mayor of Broward County to discuss topics of mutual interest,” he said, explaining that they discussed issues to take to Washington, including transportation financing. “We can go and say, ‘Senator, we have these leaders, two mayors and a chairman of the three most populous counties in South Florida.’ Perhaps we can have a stronger voice when we can say we have the mayors of the three largest counties in South Florida.”

Abrams further noted that out-of-town CEOs who want to locate companies in the county usually want to speak to a mayor. “I guess they often wind up speaking to the mayor of West Palm Beach,” he said.

Abrams also brought up President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Palm Beach County, when he thought Commissioner Shelley Vana, who chaired the commission until last month, did not get what he felt was proper recognition. “I believe that Palm Beach County would have gotten more exposure if we had had a titular mayor of Palm Beach County,” he said.

Legislative Affairs Director Todd Bonlarron said the issue has been discussed several times. “There is a sort of hierarchy of government and titles involved in government,” he said. “Presidents equate themselves with governors, who equate themselves with mayors, regardless of how much power actually exists in each of those different titles. There is an assumption of authority.”

Bonlarron said he sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Counties and works with other organizations where they look to the U.S. Conference of Mayors for feedback on local issues.

“It’s one of the most powerful groups that exist, and they are not all strong mayors in that organization,” he said. “Certainly with Broward County — their mayor is essentially the chair — I think it has lent them some additional credibility in the 10 years or so since they have had that in place. I can cite time after time when the president has come to our community where on a staff level they seek out mayors.”

Vana said a change might be appropriate, but felt more discussion is necessary so the public understands the purpose. “I think Todd’s explanation was a good explanation of why we might want to do it,” she said. “You don’t have the power, you’re just the spokesperson.”

Vana added that there are also good reasons for moving to a strong mayor system of government. “I know everybody will want to crucify me for bringing up those two words, but with the mayor [discussion], I think we should have more time for people to understand why we might just change the name,” she said.

Abrams pointed out that moving to strong mayor form of government would require a charter change. County Attorney Denise Nieman added that the charter change would require public hearings, adoption of an ordinance and a public referendum.

Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said she did not know whether just a title change is needed or something more, but added that something needs to be done for the county to get appropriate recognition.

“I just attended the National Association of Counties meeting in Atlanta, and this exact conversation came up,” she said, explaining that Fulton County had put out millions of dollars for a project to locate there, and the mayor of Atlanta, rather than the county commission, got invited to the reception. “The actual entity that put up the dollars did not because of the confusion. I know that it’s not an issue just here in Palm Beach County.”

Commissioner Jess Santamaria said he thought deeds rather than titles make the most difference. “I find this topic rather humorous,” he said. “One of the first things I brought up when elected and re-elected as part of my thank-you speech was, ‘My name is Jess.’ I don’t think I need a title, even the title ‘commissioner.’ I’m the same person I was before I was elected. I want to be accepted for my actions and my public service.”

Santamaria said he did not understand why the commission would want to have a mayor when there are 38 mayors already in the county. “President Obama is going to think, ‘Which of the 38 mayors are you?’” he said.

Santamaria pointed out that the position of “chair” relates to running the meetings. “That is a very important role, to run the meetings,” he said, “but once the meetings are over, we are all equals. There is no one who is higher than the other.”

Commissioner Paulette Burdick said she appreciated Bonlarron’s explanation but felt it did not necessitate a change in the title. “It’s misleading to the public if you consider a commissioner a mayor,” she said. “It indicates it’s elected countywide.”

Commissioner Hal Valeche said he thought they were elevating the question to more importance than it deserved. “We’re not granting the mayor, if that’s what we choose to call him or her, any new powers, and they know that, and we know that, and if they try to exercise more powers than what they are entitled to, we’re going to speak up about it,” he said.

Commissioner Mary Lou Berger said she thought the title of mayor and concept of strong mayor should not be lumped together. “They are two different and distinct things,” she said. “I know we spent a lot of money doing a charter amendment process last year, and that was not a topic that came forward… As far as changing the chair’s title to mayor; I’m OK with that.”

Abrams said he thought the public identifies with and wants access to a particular person. “The public in my opinion identifies more with a mayor than a board chairman,” he said. “That is the basis for my proposing this.”

Vana made a motion to bring the question back to another meeting and allow more public comment. The motion carried unanimously. Meanwhile, Taylor asked that there be more research on other possible titles.