About 40 residents attended a public forum staged by the Wellington Charter Review Task Force on Tuesday to get input, following up on its meetings during the past year to review possible changes to Wellington’s governing document.
Former County Commissioner Ken Adams chairs the Wellington Charter Review Task Force. Adams also headed Wellington’s original charter committee. He thanked members of the Wellington Village Council, who all were present, for initiating a charter review.
“Thank you very much, and I mean this, for having the courage to establish this task force,” Adams said. “I saw Palm Beach County do an exercise of this nature, and people didn’t like much of anything that they were doing, and it ended in chaos. It really takes courage for elected officials to ask members of the public to evaluate their job and make suggestions for changes.”
Village Attorney Laurie Cohen reviewed alterations the committee had recommended.
“We went through the charter,” Cohen said. “There are a lot of items that were actually discussed even though you don’t see them recommended as being revised. That does not mean the task force did not discuss them.”
She explained that the original charter was approved by a special act of the state legislature in 1995.
Cohen said the task force discussed the governmental structure under Section 4 and whether to go from a council-manager to a strong mayor form of government, but did not recommend any changes of that nature.
Under Section 5, which specifies how the council conducts business, the task force recommended that council compensation be increased by a simple majority vote rather than a super-majority, and that compensation be reviewed every five years.
“Currently, the council compensation is $800 per month, and when you compare that to other municipalities, it’s woefully inadequate for the amount of work and the responsibilities that council members have,” Cohen said.
The panel also recommended that council member vacancies be filled in the same manner as mayoral ones, and that the 72-hour public notice period for special council meetings be removed.
“That is not to say that they would not give notice, but the Florida statute does provide for ‘reasonable notice,’ and reasonable under the circumstances may be more or less than 72 hours,” Cohen said.
The task force extensively discussed Section 8, which sets forth election rules, and made recommendations for runoff elections; the composition of the canvassing board, which is currently council members not running for re-election and the village clerk; the timing of certification of election results; and the practicality of referendum provisions.
“They discussed the timing of certification of election results,” Cohen said. “That was an issue that created a little bit of a hiccup for us in the 2012 election. They discussed the practicality of the referendum provisions that are contained in the charter, and ultimately they recommended removal of the provisions giving the referendum power to the electors when the adopted millage rate exceeds 5 mills. They determined that this provision was essentially unenforceable, and the adoption of the millage rate and timing of a referendum would make the referendum moot.”
The task force recommended deleting a provision in Section 10, which requires a referendum as a precondition of the village creating its own police and fire departments. “One of the primary reasons for that recommendation is that it may impede our ability to negotiate a contract with the sheriff’s office and for fire protection,” Cohen said.
The task force recommended the creation of a new section addressing the Equestrian Preserve Area to insure its perpetual protection.
“They asked that my office come up with some language to try to ensure that was put into the charter,” Cohen said. “One of the things that was important to them was that the council be able to add properties and bring them into the Equestrian Preserve Area, but not remove them without a voter referendum.”
During public comments, Valerie McKinley, who served on the original charter committee, agreed with the creation of a new section protecting the Equestrian Preserve Area, which did not exist when the original charter was written.
“I served on the original citizens’ committee responsible for the charter’s development, and I then served on the 10-person Charter Review Committee,” McKinley said. “I came when I knew you were specifically going to address two issues that are very important to me.”
She asserted that the Equestrian Preserve Area should be protected.
“The charter specifically says that incorporation will serve to preserve and protect the distinctive characteristics of the individual communities within the village,” she said. “Therefore, I support the idea of defining its boundaries and going forward with the process that you have for annexing property into it or taking land from it.”
McKinley said the task force needed to go further and create an equestrian master plan. “It has needed one for a long time,” she said. “A comprehensive master plan would give the standards and abilities to set and to codify what they want their neighborhood to be.”
She pointed out that there are currently no standards set for commercial equestrian uses.
However, McKinley criticized the recommendation for removing the requirement for a referendum for a change in public safety.
“If you look at that at its very essence, what it really says is those people in positions of power do not trust this electorate to make good decisions,” she said. “I’m sorry, people here are very smart. They are very eager, and not only is this body supposed to govern, it’s also supposed to listen, so taking out that part about the referendum may not be your wisest choice.”
Resident Bruce Tumin recommended that the electorate rather than the council be able to fill council vacancies, and that council elections be changed from March to November to coincide with state and national elections.
“It will cost the taxpayers less money for elections, and more people will vote,” he said. “In the last election, we barely got 10 percent of our neighbors voting.”
Equestrian Preserve Committee Chair Linda Elie questioned the removal of the 72-hour public notice for special council meetings.
“Not everybody has access to social media,” Elie said. “Some people choose not to; some just don’t because they don’t know how to use the technology.”
Elie favored a referendum be provided for the removal of portions of the Equestrian Preserve Area. “You may want to include something for the safety of horses, as well,” she said.
Elie also suggested that the charter include a provision for an equestrian committee to protect the area from future councils that may not be pro-equestrian.
Equestrian Preserve Committee Vice Chair Michael Whitlow agreed with the concept of having a permanent equestrian committee included in the charter because he had seen council members in the past who wanted to remove all committees.
Former Mayor Tom Wenham agreed with keeping the council-manager form of government.
“When we incorporated, that’s what we went with, and I think you’d find if a study was done that a majority of communities our size, some larger, some smaller, are still maintaining a council-manager form of government,” he said. “Our mayors are a single voting member on the council, and I think that is important.”
He agreed with comments that the charter should have provisions to protect the Equestrian Preserve Area.
Wenham strongly favored keeping Wellington under the protection of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue — a decision that dates back to when the village incorporated.
“There was talk at one time of possibly creating our own police department here,” he said. “It didn’t meet with good success. We couldn’t supply everything the sheriff has.”
Suggestions from the task force will need approval by the council before being sent to the voters for a referendum, currently planned for March 2016.
No charter changes can be made without the approval of a voter referendum.