Wellington Plans Two August Ballot Questions

The Wellington Village Council.

The Wellington Village Council discussed plans Tuesday, April 12 to place two election-related ballot questions on the Aug. 23 primary ballot.

Also at the meeting, the council approved a new contract for Village Attorney Laurie Cohen and appointed Councilman Michael Drahos to serve as vice mayor over the next year.

The first of two ballot questions would clarify the village’s definition of term limits to specify that while a sitting council member can be elected mayor, a mayor cannot be elected to a council seat without first taking at least one year off the dais. The second question would allow the village to designate the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board to serve as the Wellington Canvassing Board after municipal elections.

While Wellington’s charter sets a term limit of two four-year terms for the mayor and council members, Cohen has interpreted the charter wording to mean that a council member can serve all or part of two terms, and then serve two terms as mayor, and then immediately run again for a council seat.

Several council members frowned upon this idea, calling it “playing the seats.” Mayor Anne Gerwig, who was a sitting council member when she was elected mayor, is now nearing her two-term limit as mayor. She has dubbed this ballot question “the Anne Gerwig referendum.”

“I’m not saying that this is specifically directed at me, but it does affect me uniquely,” Gerwig said, as she announced that she would not be supporting the change.

Drahos said that he did not see it that way, noting that any one of the sitting council members could find themselves in Gerwig’s situation several years down the road.

“What we are trying to do here is to comply with the will of the residents, which was to invoke term limits,” Drahos said. “I do not see this as a correction. I see it as a clarification.”

The issue came up when Gerwig asked for a legal opinion on if she could run for a council seat in 2024, and Cohen interpreted that the current rules would allow her to. Gerwig was elected to the council in 2010, re-elected in 2014 and then elected mayor in 2016. Her second term as mayor will be up in 2024.

The term limits ballot question was approved on its first reading by a vote of 4-1 with Gerwig dissenting. The second and final reading will be on Tuesday, April 26.

Regarding the second ballot question, Wellington is one of the few municipalities that still runs its own canvassing board, which audits the results after municipal elections and makes decisions on whether to accept or reject provisional ballots, or ballots with signature issues or other discrepancies.

Most municipalities have designated the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board for the role, a change that has been encouraged by the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office to streamline the process.

“There is pretty much a standard that you go by, and we can, like any member of the public, still observe the process,” Gerwig said. “Having watched it, I feel confident that this would not affect the outcome of any election.”

The ballot question does not require the use of the county’s canvassing board. The village could still designate its own canvassing board if it wishes to, with a decision to be made before each election. The council approved the first reading unanimously.

In other business:

• Councilman Michael Napoleone was appointed as the council’s representative to negotiate a new contract with Cohen, who has been the village attorney for the past nine years. Her current contract expires at the end of April.

After some negotiation, Cohen and Napoleone agreed to a three-year term contract extension with her compensation unchanged. Changes were made to Cohen’s severance agreement to comply with state law and merit increases were capped at 3 percent. There was also a small increase to her retirement benefits.

There was considerable discussion about exactly when Cohen would receive merit increases, and the council ended up changing the wording to allow them to withhold the merit increase under certain circumstances.

The contract extension was approved unanimously.

• The council also unanimously appointed Drahos as the village’s new vice mayor. The vice mayor appointment is made annually by the council based on a rotation. Drahos previously served as vice mayor from 2018 to 2019 and was once again in line for the largely ceremonial position. Drahos replaced Councilman John McGovern as vice mayor. McGovern has served in the role over the past year.