Committee, Task Force Support Charter Protections For Equestrians

Wellington’s Charter Review Task Force and Equestrian Preserve Committee held a joint meeting Monday to discuss the inclusion of the Equestrian Preserve Area and the Equestrian Preserve Committee in the village’s charter.

Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said consideration had been given to adding language to the charter to protect the Equestrian Preserve Area, and asked members of the committee to tell members of the task force what they considered most important.

“The task force has been through the entire charter, and they have considered all of the provisions. They’ve come up with a fairly limited number of things that they would like to recommend, and they finalized some of that discussion tonight,” Cohen said, explaining that the council will discuss the proposed changes, and possibly consider things that the task force has not considered.

If a supermajority of the council agrees to send the changes to the voters, they will likely be on the ballot next March.

Ken Adams, who chairs the task force, said an issue that got much interest at the public forum on charter changes was the equestrian preserve.

“I didn’t sense that there was a lot of unanimity between people in terms of what the equestrian preserve is, but they certainly are on your side,” Adams told Equestrian Preserve Committee members.

In possible changes not related to the equestrian preserve, the task force had considered a proposal to increasing council compensation, which is currently $300 a month, to $800 a month, but decided unanimously Monday not to carry that question forward. The task force did sent a change to the council that would reduce the requirement to raise compensation from a supermajority of four council members to a simple majority.

The task force also discussed filling council vacancies, and decided to recommend a policy similar to provisions for filling a mayoral vacancy. If the remaining term is less than 180 days, the vacancy would not be filled, or if the mayor’s seat is open, the vice mayor would fill in for that time. If the remaining time is greater than 180 days, a special election would be held.

The next recommendation would change the public notice requirement for special meetings. Cohen pointed out that the charter currently requires a 72-hour notice for meetings, but Florida Statutes only call for “reasonable notice,” and the task force is proposing that the 72-hour notice be removed in favor of the state law.

Another question pertains to a charter call for a referendum if the village is to levy an ad valorem tax higher than 5 mills.

The task force had a lengthy discussion about the question, and task force member and former Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz maintained that the village’s ad valorem tax rate is already higher than 5 mills if law enforcement and fire-rescue funding is factored in.

“The original intent was that the village would not exceed 5 mills, and if it ever exceeded 5 mills, the voters would have a right to initiate a referendum and vote on that issue,” Cohen said. “As a practical matter, it is virtually impossible to comply with that. It doesn’t really accomplish what it was intended to accomplish.”

Cohen explained that there are numerous provisions in the way the budget is prepared and the millage rate set that provide the ability for the public to weigh in, so the recommendation to the council would be to remove that provision.

The task force is also recommending the removal of language that referred to the transition of the village from a special district to a municipality because it is no longer needed.

The task force also discussed whether to remove the charter requirement for a referendum if the village wants to establish its own police or fire department, initially because committee members thought the requirement would weaken the village’s position when negotiating with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue.

However, negative comments at the public forum caused the task force to back down.

“Initially, there was support for that measure to pass that on for the council to consider, but as of today, there is no support to make that recommendation,” Cohen said.

She added that the task force had discussed removing provisions for special taxing units in the village because they were not necessary but had decided not to carry that proposal forward.

“Today, the decision was that they are not really hurting anything being there, so leave them in,” Cohen said.

The final question regards giving the Equestrian Preserve Area protection under the charter. The question proposed was whether the preserve could be expanded by application, but reduced only by referendum.

“The language that was originally contemplated left some people wondering whether land could be brought in involuntarily into the equestrian preserve,” Cohen said, explaining that the task force wanted to get input on that question from the committee members before voting on the question.

Equestrian advocate Victoria McCullough, vice chair of the task force, said she considered the equestrian preserve the “jewel of Wellington” and that it was important to protect it with charter provisions.

Equestrian Preserve Committee Member Houston Meigs agreed and favored future expansion of the equestrian preserve. He asked whether two properties along Flying Cow Road might be included at some point. They are surrounded by the equestrian preserve and commonly believed to be part of it but are not.

“That’s a curious anomaly because it creates an island that might have uses that are not compatible,” Meigs said, adding that he thought any charter amendments should be backed up with zoning and land use regulations.

Cohen said that during the public hearing, there was a misunderstanding that property could be added involuntarily, and explained that in the proposed version, the overlay could be expanded by application but property cannot be removed except by referendum.

Equestrian Preserve Committee Vice Chair Michael Whitlow said he liked the proposed charter amendment.

“I think what Ms. Cohen proposed is a very good suggestion,” Whitlow said. “This charter revision is to be an equestrian bill of rights. I would like to see that in the charter.”

Whitlow added that he would like to see a charter provision protecting the Equestrian Preserve Committee itself, explaining that he has heard council members advocate eliminating advisory committees.