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Our Views: An empty vote
Gainesville residents have approved nonbinding plan to elect mayor, but change is a long way off
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It's been nearly two years since state Rep. Carl Rogers says he started looking at the possibility of revamping the Gainesville city government to provide for a mayor elected specifically for that position.

Despite voter approval of the concept in a nonbinding referendum last year, action on such a plan seems to be going nowhere fast.

Earlier this month, Rogers said it could be two more years before a legislative effort to change the way the city operates is undertaken. That leaves us wondering why an initiative that seemed to have some urgency a year ago suddenly seems to have none at all now.

The voters who cast a ballot for change likely are wondering the same thing, but that's one of the realities of a nonbinding referendum. Such votes truly are nothing more than an opinion poll and have no mandate for action.

When Rogers first floated the idea, city officials weren't keen on making a change, but once the concept won voter approval in November 2009, they stepped forward with a proposal for a new city charter to incorporate an elected mayor.

The mayor's position currently rotates among members of the city council, with no one specifically elected to the chief executive's position.

Last December, the council presented its proposal for a new government form for consideration by state legislators. The proposal called for retaining five council wards from which council members are elected, and adding a mayor who could reside anywhere in the city and would be elected as though to an at-large post.

At the same time, city residents voted against the idea of creating an elected school board chairman.

After that proposal was presented, the issue seemed to quietly go away.

Or maybe it hasn't. Rogers says he's still working on changing the city government, but that nothing is likely to happen until the state goes through the reapportionment process of drawing new election lines based on data from the 2010 census.

That would likely mean postponing action until the 2013 legislative session, which, given the time it takes to make changes affecting election cycles, could mean a full five years or more could pass from the time of the referendum before anything changes.

Considering that on the national level we've seen entire presidential administrations come and go in less than five years, and likely will again, that's a long time for a relatively minor governmental change.

What does seem obvious is that no conversation is taking place between legislators and the city about how, when and if to implement a revamped city charter.

When the issue was put to voters last year, we endorsed the idea of change and still think it is a good one. Gainesville is one of a very few cities in the state without an elected chief official who is directly responsible to all the people of the city for the position of mayor.

That said, the pending threat of a change at some point in the future shouldn't hang over the head of the city government like an ax poised to drop whenever legislators feel the need to do so. Lawmakers need to commit to getting it done, or admit they have no plans for pursuing the idea for now.

When voters were asked for their position on electing a mayor, a majority of those who bothered to cast a ballot in favor thought it was a good idea. Now they have to wonder why anyone bothered to ask what they thought after all.

The result is an inherent weakness in the concept of nonbinding votes.

In 2008, Hall County voters taking part in another nonbinding vote expressed their approval of the idea of paying their county property tax bills in two installments. They favored doing so, but because of potential penalties for late payment a change was never made.

This year, they were asked the same question again, voted in favor again, and Hall County commissioners on Thursday voted to approve the measure.

So, the nonbinding vote eventually led to action, but the process was long.

When elected officials wonder why so many people seem disenchanted with the political process in general, they would do well to consider whether asking voters to participate in nonbinding votes might not be part of the problem.

It doesn't take many instances of having your vote counted, and then ignored for long periods of time, to make voters leery of the entire process.

With today's modern technologies and the sophisticated options available for measuring public opinion, keeping nonbinding questions off the ballot may be a way to restore some credibility to the voting process. 

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