Winter Park council rejects potential change to governing system
Voters won’t get to decide whether to directly elect mayor
On Tuesday evening, a divided Winter Park town council discussed the possible merits and pitfalls of asking voters whether they would like to directly elect the mayor in the future, but ultimately decided against it.
The town’s original charter lays out a council-manager system of government, where seven council members are elected by the public to two-year terms and work with a designated full-time town manager to implement policies.
Under this system, the elected council members appoint a mayor and mayor pro-tem from their ranks. Tuesday’s discussion revolved around whether or not to allow the town to decide if they wanted to change that and instead, directly elect the mayor.
“If you wish to amend the charter to allow for the direct election of the mayor, it would require the town council to approve a resolution to put the language on a ballot,” Town Manager Keith Riesberg explained. “The powers and duties of the mayor as they are currently outlined in the charter would remain unchanged.”
Council member Chris Seeman said during the discussion that he felt this was a decision that would help move the town government forward and prepare for the future.
“As this town is growing, it’s better governance to have the mayor elected as the mayor,” Seeman said. “My point is we’re not deciding to change it right now, we’re deciding to let the voters tell us if they want to change it.”
According to data compiled by Riesberg for the discussion on 21 other comparable communities, only two towns and a city – Vail, Avon and Steamboat Springs, respectively – have the council appoint their mayor.
Seeman added that the decision was best left up to the voters, which fellow council member Art Ferrari echoed in his comments. Ferrari said there was basically no downside to letting the voters decide because any risks associated with a change in mayor would be balanced by the council.
Another potential benefit of switching up the system is that it could allow for more diversity on the council, argued council member Nick Kutrumbos.
“The challenge that we have and have discussed is diversity on the board here and I think at some point we have to take a step forward to ensure that you’re going to get diversity,” Kutrumbos said.
However, opposing council members cited the functionality and benefits of the current system as reasons not to change.
Mayor Jimmy Lahrman raised concerns about how a directly elected mayor could upset the stability of the existing governance. He highlighted how, in his mind, the current system helps cultivate strong council relationships that promote cooperation.
“We’ve had a very stable environment for the last 10 to 12 years and I think that’s allowed us to accomplish a lot of what we have accomplished because we work well together and respected each other,” Lahrman said. “I think you could start to see a dynamic that could arise where someone comes in and says well, I was elected by the people so I’m going to push this forward and start to create instability.”
Council member Jim Myers agreed and said he felt the timing wasn’t right due to a multitude of factors, including the fact that the council is currently working on a large public works facility upgrade, as well as his concern that “somebody could come in with an agenda.”
Other concerns included a perceived lack of public interest in the discussion and how, if the council had moved forward with the change, the question would be presented to voters in an off-year with few other questions on the ballot.
During public comment, only one citizen engaged in the discussion, but stated his support for taking the question to the people.
In the end, the town council voted four to three against moving forward with presenting voters with the question of whether to directly elect the mayor, with council members Mike Periolat, Chuck Banks, Myers and Mayor Lahrman opposing and council members Seeman, Ferrari and Kutrumbos in favor.
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