By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach voters will have a chance to learn more about five proposed charter changes — all of which could have a long-term impact on how the town operates — prior to casting their ballots on March 8.
A food truck event at Town Hall on Jan. 6 will kick off an educational campaign designed to ensure voters are aware of the proposed changes and have an opportunity to ask questions of town leaders.
Voters who go to the polls will weigh in on issues ranging from increasing the town’s spending cap from $350,000 to slightly over $1 million to allowing commissioners to increase their salaries by no more than 5% a year, rather than leaving that decision up to residents.
Voters also will be deciding on a proposal that would adjust commission term limits by allowing a third three-year term instead of just two in a single seat and limiting commissioners to a total of 12 consecutive years in any elected position.
In what amounts to a housekeeping issue, voters will also be asked to eliminate a clause in the Town Charter that requires a commissioner signature on every town check.
Another key issue on the ballot will give voters the ability to accept or reject changes in managerial control of the police department, proposed new fire department or water facility to another government agency.
In essence that measure would make it impossible for a town commission to turn over operation of the new fire department, for example, to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue without approval from voters.
During a meeting last month commissioners had a lengthy discussion about the proposed change allowing commission salaries to be changed by ordinance rather than by referendum. While they all agreed to put the issue on the ballot, the discussion centered on whether there should be a cap and just how much that cap should be.
“We have to put in a number but remember we’re dealing with salaries of $1,000 a month,” said Commissioner John Shoemaker.
Commissioners are paid $12,000 a year, while the mayor receives $15,000 a year — rates that haven’t changed since 2004.
Mayor Doug Hillman pointed out that any changes would not just affect the current commission but would apply to future commissions until the issue was brought back to voters.
Hillman also reminded commissioners that “we have to come up with a number that we believe the voters will approve.”
In the end, commissioners agreed to ask voters to let commissions determine their salaries but with an increase of no more than 5% a year.
Their decision to bring the issue to the voters comes after a volunteer charter review board recommended adjusting salaries by ordinance rather than by a vote of residents.
“While there was concern about a future ‘rogue’ commission overstepping reasonable salary limits, the majority of the board felt the electorate would have enough control at the ballot box to serve as a restraint against such actions,” said Barry Donaldson, who chaired the committee.
“So, in the end we recommended the commissioners be trusted to set their own salaries by ordinance, answerable to the sentiment of the voters during elections.”
He said the committee felt the issue of a cap would be better addressed by commissioners.
Earlier in 2021, commissioners approved a recommendation from the town’s Financial Advisory Board that would have increased the salaries commissioners receive by 20% and then added annual cost-of-living increases.
Before that could take effect, however, the town discovered that changes to commission salaries currently must be approved by voters. That led to bringing the issue before the charter review board, the commission and ultimately the voters.
While the commission was unanimous in agreeing to the 5% annual limit, it did not reach full agreement on language centered on raising the spending cap.
While four members agreed to raise the spending limit by 5% of the town’s total budget, Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman dissented, saying she felt a cap based on a “hard” number would have a better chance of getting voter approval.
“I truly believe residents will not understand the 5%,” she said.
Recognizing that the issues may be complicated, commissioners plan to send out six mailings before election day, including one on each issue as well as a voter guide.
Commissioners will also be available at a second food truck event on Feb. 10, and a “Coffee With the Mayor” will be held on Jan. 18.
The town will have a separate page on its website devoted to the proposed charter changes with additional information on each of the events.