Thursday, November 27, 2008

Guest Column: Appoint charter commission

Guest Column: Appoint charter commission

St. Augustine
Publication Date: 10/14/07

Is a proposed St. Johns County "starter charter" (a/k/a "stealth" or "vanilla Charter"), a "Trojan Horse?" Do look this "gift horse" in the mouth.

Why not the best? Let's appoint a proper Florida County Charter Commission (with no legislators or commissioners), with 11-15 members Ñ independent, diverse, without fear or favor of politicians or special interests. There's a crisis of confidence.

People reasonably expect that any county charter must achieve real reform, or else it's not worth passing.

We need checks and balances. Let's work together to transform county government as we know it Ñ expecting democracy, protecting liberty, curbing eminent domain, and declaring war on waste, fraud, abuse, misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance.

Let's elect our county attorney. Let's have an inspector general, an ombudsman, police review board, creating true "checks and balances" and "separation of powers."

Don't settle for empty rhetoric.

The draft county charter is written in legalese. Read it for yourself.

From this day forward, any charter drafts (and other government documents) need to be written in plain English.

A fair charter must guarantee one-person, one-vote, restore seven single-member commission districts and establish nonpartisan elections for all county offices.

This Trojan Horse charter is more loony lemon loophole than law, exempting from campaign finance reform, nondiscrimination and other charter provisions the sheriff, clerk of courts, tax collector, property appraiser and supervisor of elections. No person is above the law. Those seeking exemptions must justify them. Any deals must be disclosed. No deal is above discussion.

The proposed charter concentrates power in a few hands Ñ five commissioners and five constitutional officers Ñ every single one of whom today is a registered Republican.

If the proposed charter is not substantially re-written Ñ if it doesn't accomplish real reform Ñ St. Johns Countians, please reject/defeat it. Be prepared to walk away. Other counties (and our own) have rejected charters in the past.

The draft ensconces power in partisan-elected commissioners and in five charter-free constitutional officers. Some want a "starter charter" so "we" can propose a stronger charter later. That's like used car dealers saying, "buy this beauty sitting on four concrete blocks and we'll fix it later."

Passing a defective charter is not pragmatism. Who is "we?" There is no principled reason for a "leap of faith" off a cliff.

The draft charter is like the Emperor's New Clothes.

"We" need unselfish decisions on the charter (rejecting term limits and establishing nonpartisan elections in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives).

U.S. Rep. John Mica helped several counties develop charters before becoming a congressman. Charters can sometimes hurt small town and rural life and further diminish minority rights.

We don't need yet another debacle (like Tallahassee's election legislation denying Floridians our National Convention votes). We need open, honest public debate, without intimidation.

We don't need commissioners yelling at citizens expressing their opinions about the charter.

We need whistleblower protections and a county-wide human rights ordinance and a guarantee of county employee rights to collective bargaining.

We must embrace and creatively implement limited government.

We must strengthen transparency, public access and government accountability. We don't need big bills for receiving documents we've already paid for, or threats of arrest for attempting to learn about the people's business.

We need open records law fee waivers as under the Freedom of Information Act and punishment for officials obstructing records requests.

We must enact true campaign finance "reform," conflict of interest disclosure and post-employment restrictions, with disclosure of all investors in limited liability companies (LLCs), including foreign real estate speculators contributing to campaigns and seeking zoning favors.

Reject phony "reform" (reducing maximum contributions from $500 to $250, making it tougher for people-powered candidates to raise money from more people in order to campaign against candidates funded by dozens of LLCs at the same speculators' addresses).

Our American founders warned us to protect people from government. Always be vigilant.

We should adopt a thoughtful progressive, liberty-respecting charter we all will be proud of; reject anything less.

St. Johns Countians neither desire nor require any half-baked, half-hearted attempts at passing any Ôole charter just to be passing one.

No "vanilla" or "stealth" charter, please.

Ed Slavin is a frequent public speaker before local governments and a frequent letter writer to The Record.

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