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Municipal Elections Could Change FWB City Charter

Danielle Freeman

This year’s municipal elections are right around the corner, and Ft. Walton Beach’s ballot is overflowing:  the city has seven referenda aimed at changing the city’s charter.

The amendments range from establishing residency requirements for city council members and the mayor, to setting term limits of no more than two full consecutive terms in the mayor’s office. Another item on the ballot will call for a unanimous council vote or public referendum to disband the police and fire departments.

Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections, Paul Lux says other cities in the county, such as Crestview, leave control of law enforcement and first responders up to the mayor. But, he adds that can be a risky proposal, "Right now, they really can do it with a simple majority vote on the council which is actually pretty precarious. Four of those council members could just decide let’s get rid of our police department tomorrow. It’s an expensive proposition if you decide that doesn’t work to reform a police force. Dissolving something that important is a bit of a one way street really and so it probably does deserve a little more deliberation than a simple majority of a board."

This particular item stems from a city discussion three years ago to dissolve the police department and possibly contract out with the Sheriff’s department says Ft. Walton City Manager, Michael Beedie. He says there was a pretty big up roar from the citizens about it at the time, but now voters can use their ballot to resolve the issue, "The way it’s written now, city council by majority vote can dissolve any department, including police and fire. But the citizens three years ago basically said, look if this ever comes up again we want to be able to make that decision."

Some of the changes on the ballot pertain to cleaning up the language in the charter to make it more gender specific and renumbering it to make it more consistent, "Well a lot of times you end up with some obsolete things in your charter. And, sometimes it’s just out and out typographical errors and things that should never have been there in the first place."

For a good example of what it means to clean up a city’s charter, Lux again turns to the City of Crestview. He says he has a little more insight into how the charter revision process works in Crestview because it’s been tried before and could be helpful to Ft. Walton Beach residents, "Their charter still calls to have a city medical examiner, a coroner. They don’t have a city coroner; they haven’t had a city coroner in Crestview for fifty years. But, the charter still says they have one."

Ft. Walton Beach City Manager, Michael Beedie says the last time the charter was reviewed was about seven to eight years ago. Beedie says this election is significant because there are a few key changes on the ballot, like requiring candidates to run for open city council seats without specifically picking a seat number, "Candidates can choose which seat they want to run for, so they can kind of strategically pick, if they don’t see anyone running for a certain seat they can pick that seat. For example, this time we have five seats up for grabs. Two of the seats were actually unopposed but we have fourteen candidates running. In seat one we have four candidates, in seat two we have six candidates, seats three and four were unopposed and seat five only has two candidates. If the charter changes approved by the voters, it will be a truly at large election to where if there are five seats up and fourteen candidates running the top five vote getters will get elected."

Other additions to the ballot include establishing how meeting dates and times can be set and allowing the city council to increase or decrease the number of meetings as needed. Also, there’s an amendment to remove the current 50 dollar limit on filing fees.

Paul Lux says regardless of what specific referendum you’re interested in; he encourages everyone to get out and exercise their right to vote. He points to the fact that an average voter turnout for municipal elections in Ft. Walton Beach and Crestview tends to be between 10-15 percent, which is less than two thousand people in cities with over twelve thousand voters, "The local races are the most important ones. We have huge turn outs for presidential election years, everybody likes to vote for president, everyone wants to pick the guy who’s sitting in the White House. But the reality is that the guy that really has his hand on your wallet, or girl, is your local city council members, your local county commissioners, your local school board members. Those are really the important races."

Early voting for the March 10th municipal election begins today, February 23rd through the 27th and March 2nd through the 6th.  More information is available at the Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections office website at GoVoteOkaloosa.com or, at the city of Ft. Walton Beach’s website