A state lawmaker’s effort to give Gainesville voters a chance to weigh in on the idea of an elected mayor is being resisted by members of the Gainesville City Council, some of which say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, whose district covers most of the city, began talking with his legislative colleagues in December about placing a nonbinding ballot question on this year’s municipal election ballot asking residents if they want to have an elected mayor.
“This is a ballot question,” Rogers said. “It does not facilitate a change to the city charter.”
Rogers envisions that the role of mayor would not change dramatically with the shift, only that the mayor would be elected citywide to the post.
But most council members say they are afraid the elected mayor system could affect how council members are elected as well.
Presently, members of the Gainesville council are elected at-large by wards. Council members rotate the position of mayor every two years, presiding over the council meetings and serving in a mostly ceremonial role.
“We rotate it; no one person gets power for too long,” Councilman George Wangemann said. “I like the at-large system, because we all work together, and we don’t try to just grab money or things for our own little district.”
Electing a mayor could either add a ward or change the distribution of city wards, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner said.
Bruner said the biggest problem with Rogers’ proposal is the timing. Shifting to an elected mayor system would likely mean changes in the city’s wards, one that the 2010 census also may bring.
“To us, it’s better to wait until you get the census numbers and make a change — if you’re going to make a change — at one time, rather than twice,” Bruner said.
Council members say they should be involved in any process that changes the government structure. The council sent a letter Thursday to Rogers and other local representatives to the same effect.
“It’s not just as easy as going out there and electing a mayor,” Councilman Danny Dunagan said. “And we want to make sure we sit down and work all the details out, and that’s all we’re asking.”
Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras said that she is not opposed to the election of a mayor, but does object to state legislators deciding how local governments should be run.
“My opposition is to the state deciding what the city should do,” Figueras said. “It is not up to Carl to decide that. It should be the council who decides whether or not to put it up (on a ballot).”
Wangemann also called Rogers’ efforts a “strong-armed tactic.”
“We don’t feel this is appropriate,” Wangemann said.
Most council members said they would support an elected mayor system if it is what residents want. But Councilman Robert “Bob” Hamrick, who has served on the council for 40 years, said the current system works well and there is no need to change it.
“All I know is the council-manager form of government that we’ve operated under for, I know, over 50 years has worked most satisfactorily — particularly in recent years — and therefore, why change?” Hamrick said. “There hasn’t been any study to say ‘no, it would have been better if we would have had a strong mayor form.’”
Rogers’ referendum, which would require passage of local legislation by the General Assembly, has not been introduced in the state House, and Rogers says time is running out to get the proposal through the legislative process.
On Thursday, the legislature completed the 30th day of its 40-day session. Rogers said it would take five days to get the bill through the General Assembly.