The election for two Apalachicola city commissioners and the mayor will go ahead as scheduled in September, although victors in those elections could be in office for just one year before again having to face voters to earn full four-year terms.
The commissioners on Tuesday night chose not to OK an ordinance championed by Mayor Van Johnson, which would have saved the city money by moving municipal elections immediately to November of even-numbered years, to 2020 and 2022, to coincide with the county, state and national elections run by the county supervisor of elections.
In taking no action, the commissioners ensured that any move in 2019 to cancel elections and extend the terms of existing officeholders - a move objected to vigorously by several local residents over the past several weeks - would not happen.
Johnson was absent from the meeting, away on a city-related business trip to Alabama and Mississippi to examine improvements made there since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the communities.
Criticism from voters to changing the elections had been brewing in recent weeks. Two local residents, Kevin Begos and Despina George, on Tuesday each asked commissioners to declare their positions on the matter and to act swiftly to kill the proposal for extending the terms.
“Somebody make a motion and say ‘We’re not going to do this and say let’s be done with it,’” said George.
She said her research into what happened in another Florida city, Cape Coral, indicated that despite apparent widespread support among citizens for a similar change, as evidenced in a newspaper poll, city officials there did not go through with the plan because they didn’t feel it was the right thing to do to grant themselves an additional year in office.
The move in Cape Coral, with a population of about 180,000, would have saved $400,000 every two years, far more than the estimated $6,000 the move to even-numbered, county-run elections would save in Apalachicola.
“There’s probably overwhelming opposition (in Apalachicola),” George said. “They would probably tell you no in strong terms.”
Commissioner Jimmy Elliott secured unanimous approval for a motion to hold city elections at their traditional time in 2019, and includes a provision that commissioners take up a proposal at their June meeting to make these three terms last just one year.
If passed, the change would mean that whoever wins for the mayor’s seat, and that of Commissioners Mitchell Bartley and Elliott, would have to face city voters again in 2020 for full four-year terms. All three men have indicated that they do not plan to seek re-election this September.
In public comments, resident Edward Michaels urged the commissioners to adopt the shorter terms, and to move towards aligning the city elections with county balloting. “(The one-year terms) will give them motivation to do a good job,” he said.
In their motion, commissioners made no mention of how they plan to address the length of the terms for Commissioners Anita Grove and Brenda Ash, both of whom were elected in 2017 to four-year terms ending in 2021.
Based on Florida Attorney General opinions dating back to 2003, city commissioners have a right to change the date of elections by ordinance, and do not have to subject the rulemaking to a referendum by voters.
Carrabelle commissioners changed their election calendar several months ago, nixing the 2019 elections, and extending by one year the terms of Mayor Brenda La Paz and Commissioners Frank Mathes and Keith Walden, so that they will be held in concert with the 2020 county elections.
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Apalachicola commissioners unanimously voted in favor of a mayoral proclamation, which sets city elections for Tuesday, Sept. 3, with Sept. 17 the date of a run-off if it is needed.
Qualification week will run from Monday through Friday, June 24 through 28, with City Clerk Deborah Guillotte handling the election process from city offices at 192 Coach Wagoner Boulevard, the city complex on the site of the former Apalachicola High School.
The deadline to register as a voter is Monday, Aug. 5 for the Sept. 3 general election, and Aug. 19 for the possible Sept. 17 runoff, with that task handled by the supervisor of elections office at 47 Avenue F. The supervisor’s office will also be where early voting takes place between Aug. 26 and 31. Balloting on Election Day will take place at the Fort Coombs Armory, 66 Fourth Street.
So far, Apalachicola resident Amy Hersey has moved forward with concrete plans to run for mayor, and George has said, in remarks at a recent city commission meeting, that she is leaning towards running for a commission seat.
Nothing is definite yet, but Commissioner Anita Grove has shared her possible intentions to seek the mayor’s post, as has former Commissioner Valentina Webb. Downtown businessman George Mahr has floated word that he too may run for the top post.
In addition, there has been a movement among several city leaders to round up candidates to their liking. One name that had surfaced, former Mayor Alan Pierce, took himself out of the running after being approached on the matter late last year.