By Rich Pollack
Voters will weigh in on five proposed changes to the town’s charter March 8, all of which could impact the way Highland Beach operates for many years to come.
“The charter is a road map forward for the town similar to the Constitution on a national level,” says John Ross, the founder of the Committee to Save Highland Beach, which is often critical of the Town Commission’s policy decisions. “This is supposed to have a lasting impact for decades.”
Ross, through his political action committee by the same name, has been campaigning against four of the five issues that will be before voters. He has done email blasts, distributed signs and launched direct mail campaigns asking residents to defeat the proposals.
“I’m fighting this because it’s giving too much power to the commission and taking too much power from the public,” he said.
Highland Beach commissioners and members of the town’s Charter Review Committee say the proposed revisions reflect issues that haven’t been addressed for decades as the town grew and evolved. The changes, they say, will help ensure the town is run efficiently in the future.
Commissioners at their March 1 meeting voiced concern about many of the points included in letters and brochures sent out by Ross’ organization, including an implication that passage of some of the referendum questions would lead to tax increases.
“I find a lot of these statements to be insulting, quite frankly,” Commissioner Evalyn David said. “It diminishes all the good work that we do.”
Following a discussion in which commissioners described some of Ross’ comments as “outright lies,” they agreed to email a “clarification” countering the “misinformation and rumors.”
Ross said he was disappointed by the commission’s reaction but believes it could work to his advantage.
“The best thing they can do for my side is to focus on me and the Committee to Save Highland Beach,” he said. “The issues are with their proposals, not with my emails, our posts or our letters.”
The proposal that is drawing perhaps the most attention would increase the town’s spending cap from $350,000 per project to about 5% of the town’s overall budget — which currently amounts to just over $1 million — before a referendum is required.
Town leaders point out that the cap has not been increased since 1991. They also note that they know of no other communities in Florida with a spending cap limiting commissioners.
“The cap is a unique spending limit that hasn’t been touched in 30 years,” said Town Manager Marshall Labadie.
Ross says the problem with the proposal is that it includes loopholes the town could use to find ways to avoid a referendum.
Town officials disagree and say raising the spending cap will let them keep up with the needs of the community without having to rely on a costly referendum. They point out that Highland Beach has grown significantly in the last three decades and has expanded critical services, including in the areas of public safety, water treatment and at the town’s library.
Also on the ballot is a proposal that would adjust commission term limits by allowing a third three-year term instead of just two in a single seat while limiting commissioners to a total of 12 consecutive years in any elected position.
Ross believes that is too long; he also opposes a proposal that would allow commissioners to increase their pay up to 5% a year by ordinance. Currently, any increase in commission salaries must be taken to the voters.
Commissioners point out that the commission has not received a raise since 2004. Commissioners currently receive $12,000 a year, while the mayor gets $15,000 per year.
Ross says he’s concerned with that question because while the increases can be only 5% a year, the ballot item doesn’t specify what the initial increase could be.
Another ballot item would remove a provision that requires elected officials to sign town checks. While commissioners say the provision is cumbersome and obsolete given modern technology, Ross says the measure further removes checks and balances in the system.
The final issue on the ballot is one that both sides agree on and one that Ross says gives more power to the voters. The proposal would require a referendum should the town consider outsourcing its police department, fire department or water treatment services to another agency or organization.
Labadie said the measure, if approved, doesn’t prevent the town from outsourcing services if voters are in favor of the decision.
“It doesn’t take outsourcing off the table,” he said. “It just puts it in the hands of the residents because it’s long-term quality of service implications.”
As the referendum vote gets closer and residents mark their mail-in ballots, Ross continues to speak out against the four issues while town commissioners have raised concerns about the veracity of some of his contentions.
To help residents understand the items, the town has set up a web page, www.highlandbeach.us/Vote2022. It includes the ballot language and the town’s reasoning for bringing each question before residents.