County Commission dumps extended-term limits, non-voting countywide mayor

Following a contentious four-hour discussion on workforce and affordable housing, worn down Palm Beach County Commissioners quickly and unanimously dismissed any talk to contemplate extending their term limits. The commissioners agreed that it’s not a good time to be asking voters to extend County Commissioners’ term limits. With Mayor Weinroth as the tie-breaker, the Board of County Commissioners did, however, agree to open up discussion on a countywide non-voting mayor proposal at their workshop meeting Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Perhaps priorities had changed since November 2021, when the Board of County Commissioners directed staff to research a charter amendment that would allow county commissioners to serve twelve years instead of the eight-year terms they are limited to now. It is also likely that priorities were changed immediately in the preceding hours when heated discussions on workforce housing led to finger-pointing, frustrations, and disgust, with Commissioner Mack Bernard exclaiming, “I think that’s completely horse crap.” Bernard accused county staff, Jonathan Brown Housing, and Economic Development Director, of wasting county money and removing housing units instead of creating them.

It was past 5 p.m. when the agenda item for extending term limits was heard. Commissioner Melissa McKinlay was the first to say that it was not an ideal time to be asking voters to extend term limits. At the same time, the rest of the commissioners quickly agreed with no further discussion. Mayor Weinroth concluded with a comment to “suspend the conversation” about extended term limits. It is unclear if and when county commissioners may revisit this topic. Still, time is dwindling to meet the deadlines required by the supervisor of elections for questions to be added to the ballot for the upcoming August and November elections. Ultimately, voters would have the final say on this on their election ballots.

Schedule for ballot election language

The Board of County Commissioners did agree to proceed with a presentation and discussion on a new proposal for an elected, non-voting county mayor position. Commissioners Sachs, Marino, and Vice Mayor Weiss all rejected the idea of proceeding with a presentation but were outnumbered. Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron reminded the commissioners that back in November of 2021, The Board of County Commissioners directed staff to research amending the county charter to create an elected non-voting countywide ceremonial mayor position.

The title of Mayor was first created in 2012. It was used instead of the previous title of Board Chair, with the title rotating yearly among county commissioners who chose amongst themselves who would bear that title and role. According to Mr. Bonlarron’s presentation, “This proposed concept of an elected countywide Mayor would add an eighth member to the legislative body but could limit the voting authority of that new member.”

Commissioner Marino rejected the idea of adding an additional position in light of the earlier discussions from the workshop that revolved around potentially raising taxes for residents to support a $200 million bond for housing initiatives if the county decides to proceed with that as well as additional costs in the budget for staff, operations, and maintenance. Additionally, “Another layer of bureaucracy is not something that we need,” said Commissioner Marino, with Commissioner Sachs also echoing the same sentiments.

Admitting that he first proposed the idea years ago, Commissioner Mack Bernard did not support the currently proposed idea because the mayor would be unable to vote on matters. Bernard felt that voters should be able to get a chance to elect a mayor and decide who is accountable to represent them.

Both Commissioners McKinlay and Bernard mentioned that members of the public who were in the audience were unhappy when Dave Kerner was mayor during the pandemic and making decisions for the entire county but only elected by District 3 residents.  However, members of the public never asked for a countywide elected mayor and were there to oppose the proposal, but some were denied an opportunity to speak when the agenda was split.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dave Kerner received criticism from other commissioners for making decisions without the consultation of the rest of The Board of County Commissioners during lockdowns when the board did not meet.  Kerner initially asked the Governor for the re-opening of Palm Beach County to be separate from the State’s reopening plan as part of his role on Governor DeSantis’ reopening task force. The perpetual state of emergency also gave Kerner, the mayor at the time, greater authority to make decisions without the board and instead with members of the emergency management team which consisted of the unelected county administrator and other unelected county staff. Now, Kerner is the only commissioner who voiced a desire to explore still adding a position of an elected mayor.

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Related: Self-interest, handcuffs, and the Palm Beach County Commission

Related: Palm Beach County Commission to workshop extending their terms

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