CRESTVIEW — The City Council voted 4-1 on Monday to add a charter review to the May 8 meeting agenda, a victory for supporters of the initiative to change the municipal government’s structure.
City Councilman Joe Blocker cast the lone dissenting vote, stating the city should have time to educate residents on what the current structure is and what a potential change could look like.
The decision was reached after hearing from several residents and guest speakers from neighboring cities. The workshop, typically held at City Hall, was moved to Warriors Hall to accommodate a larger-than-normal attendance.
Presentations were made by Mary Esther Mayor Chris Stein, Niceville Councilman Dan Henkel and Fort Walton Beach City Manager Michael Beedie. Each speaker discussed their respective city’s government structure — all of which employ a city manager — and how they operated under that system.
Improved consistency, communication and efficiency were positives discussed by all three guest speakers. Having a manager allows the city council to focus on legislative actions and directs resident issues and day-to-day operations to a manager who is often a trained, educated professional, Beedie added.
Stein and Beedie noted as a con that having a manager reduces regulatory powers of the city council and mayor. However, a manager can be fired with a simple majority of council votes if city officials believe their performance is poor, Beedie pointed out.
“We need a professional leading the city,” resident and former Crestview Councilman Tom Gordon said. “A city manager would help to direct and steer [the city].”
Gordon was on the council the last time a government restructure was looked at and he advised current officials to present each point of a possible city charter revision as individual voting points, rather than a single “yes or no” option.
In addition to changes to government structure, possible charter adjustments could be opting to have an appointed city clerk as opposed to an elected one, for example.
“[Fort Walton Beach] was afraid of voter fatigue by adding seven questions on our last charter reform,” Beedie said. Adding his city “learned from Crestview” that if you roll them into one voting issue then people might vote no if they disagree with a single aspect, despite agreeing with all other parts.
A major civic voice in recent weeks has been a group called “Crestview Citizens for Change,” which has amassed nearly 900 members on its Facebook page. The group promotes constructive conversation pertaining to local government and keeps members informed of upcoming city meetings.
The group was started after a low voter turnout in Crestview’s March elections — approximately 3 percent.
“I was put off by low election turnout and that’s partially a community failure in lack of involvement,” Matt Gates, not to be confused with Congressman Matt Gaetz, said. Gates is an administrator on the Facebook page and spoke on the group's behalf during Monday’s meeting.
Gates supported a shift to a city manager style of government but also called on the city to help further educate and inform residents about what is happening in local politics and the effects certain changes can have.
An admitted lack of education on government affairs and workings was a reoccurring theme throughout the evening.
Council President J.B. Whitten offered to meet with Gates and work together on finding solutions for how to further educate residents, keep them informed and boost engagement. Gates said he was open to such discussions.
DESIRE FOR REFORM
Whitten, along with some of his fellow council members and Mayor David Cadle, has expressed a need for change in the current government structure.
Crestview is one of a handful of cities in Florida operating under its current structure and is one of the largest by population. However, all members of the council — and the mayor — have committed themselves to following the recommendations of their constituents.
Monday’s showing of support for change was enough to convince the city council to take the next step in a possible reform.
The council could create a charter review commission, pending majority approval at its next meeting. If a commission is created, it would explore the various options for restructuring and how the issue would appear on a ballot.
“It’s all up to you,” Councilman Doug Faircloth said. If the measure reaches a ballot form, it will be up to voters to decide if they want to see a change and what that change will look like."
Further details about what the May 8 City Council meeting agenda will be and how a review commission might look will be announced in the coming days and weeks, according to Whitten.