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Council to continue discussion on compensation referendum

With voter OK, proposed charter amendment would allow board to set its own pay

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Apr 11, 2024

Cape Coral City Council will continue its discussion on whether to place a charter amendment dealing with council compensation on the November ballot.

The proposed change, which would allow Council to set its salaries via an ordinance, received mixed results from board members Wednesday, with some saying the proposal, as presented, was unlikely to pass.

Others said the clock is ticking and the voters should be given an opportunity to decide.

“If we don’t start this now– 2026 we can do it again. I don’t see any harm in putting that to a referendum and put it back to the voters hands. There wasn’t much public input into the decision made with the stipend. This will provide that opportunity to the public and add more transparency,” Councilmember Robert Welsh said.

Welsh worked up a proposed charter change with City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner.

“I tried to accomplish this in the best possible way to get a broad understanding throughout the state of Florida to have a sufficient frame of reference for proposed language,” Boksner said at looking at other municipalities.

He said in reviewing all the identified cities, City Council compensation was predominately done by resolution or ordinance through a budgetary process.

“What is being proposed in this charter is really not a recreation of the wheel — a mirror of others and best practices through other jurisdictions,” Boksner said.

The proposal is limited to 75 words, which is legally required for ballot language.

“I have made it a little stricter controlled in a sense in identifying the total salary and compensation that must be done by ordinance,” he said. “It shall not take effect until two years later. Adopted in 2024, not become effective until November 2026. It limits the ability to alter that and take benefit from it. It’s a cooling off period — that two-year period of time. Yes, some of you will be able to benefit from it and some will not. It’s not to provide an immediate gratification on those sitting on the council,” Boksner said.

The change would require a vote from Cape voters.

He requested a more in-depth discussion at a workshop from Council.

“I am up against a deadline. Today is probably the day to get an understanding of where you want to see this go,” he said. “For the ability to get something together today is a critical point in time to get before electorate in November.”

As tendered, the referendum language for the city charter amendment to the compensation of the mayor and city council members states: “This proposal amends the Cape Coral City Charter by eliminating payment for expenses and requiring the City Council to establish, by ordinance, the total annual salary and compensation for the Mayor and Councilmembers. The ordinance shall not be effective until the date of commencement of the terms of the Councilmembers elected at the next regular election, provided that the election date is at least six months after the date of adoption of the ordinance. Shall the above-described amendment to the Charter be adopted?”

Councilmember Jessica Cosden said she thought more control was going to be given to the voters when the idea was first discussed.

“The perception takes away control,” she said adding that it will cause confusion and discourse. “It wouldn’t pass, it’s basically similar to what we can do now. Right now, with the climate, it is not the time to be talking about it at all. Right now, I don’t think it is a good idea. I think if we do this kind of thing in the future, there needs to be a public input session, not just us making decisions. It’s a really big decision.”

Councilmember Tom Hayden said he is a firm believer in letting the voters decide on critical issues like this, as it is their city.

“The referendum right now is too ambiguous and not clear. It has to be as clear as possible. If it is not as clear as possible it presents some challenges for the electorate. We have to be very careful of that. I can’t support something that is unclear as what this referendum is,” he said.

Hayden said considering the temperature in the city over the stipend, the referendum should include a not-to-exceed amount, or an amount based on voter registration, or population — a cap on what the salary might, or might not be.

Many other council members shared the same sentiments that they were not in favor of the language — that it needed to be clearer — possibly adding a cap on compensation.

“I don’t agree with this. I don’t think it has a chance in passing,” Councilmember Richard Carr said.

Mayor John Gunter agreed that the community would not support the referendum the way it was written as it is too ambiguous.

“Some people in the community didn’t like the process and we kind of dictated what our salaries are. If that is motivation here — in order to try to stipulate what are salaries are — this referendum doesn’t do that,” he said. “If anything, it gets us back to where we are already.”

The followup discussion will take place at Council’s April 14 workshop.