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Now is the time
March 30, 2017

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For the first time in more than two decades, the Cape Coral municipal ballot will not include an incumbent in the mayor's race.

Citing the desire to concentrate on her marketing company, Mayor Marni Sawicki told constituents last week that she will not seek a second term.

Mayor Sawicki said her hope, as the city moves into this year's election cycle, is for forward-thinking leadership that wants to "improve our city and grow it to its full potential."

That is our hope as well.

Which is why, after careful consideration and research, we believe the city of Cape Coral should move to restructure its elected board by eliminating the position of elected mayor and replacing it with a chair appointed annually from within the remaining seven-member council.

We urge the change to our city charter for a number of reasons.

First, there is ample precedent on a city, state and national level attesting to the structure's effectiveness.

Let us point out that here in Cape Coral, our founding charter established a seven-member council that appointed from its ranks a mayor who picked up the added duty of chairing the council meetings.

Paul Fickinger served as the city's first mayor from December 1970 to January 1973. He also was the District 2 council member until November 1976. Chandler Burton, the District 3 council member from December 1970 to November 1974, was the city's second mayor, wielding the gavel from January 1973 to May 1974.

We get that that was a long time and multiple charter amendments ago.

But the city's first structure - council capped with an appointed chair or mayor, rather than a directly elected mayor -is neither a unique nor an untried format. It is, in fact, the most prevalent system nationally within the council/commission-manager form of government.

Locally, the city of Sanibel's mayor is tapped from among its elected board members. So is the mayor of Fort Myers Beach.

In terms of cities with larger populations, the mayors of both North Port and Sarasota are appointed from within the council or commission ranks.

As are the chairs of the Lee County Board of County Commissioners and the Lee County School Board.

Second, the advantages are many:

* The structure is leaner. It's cleaner. And here in the Cape, it would be cheaper to boot.

- A seven-member board would eliminate deadlocks and tie votes; the current eight-member configuration stems from a previous charter amendment that added a directly-elected mayor to the original mix.

- According to Cape Coral's governing document, the position of mayor is that of an at-large member of council vested with the additional duties of chairing the board's meetings and signing documents on its behalf. The mostly ceremonial title, unfortunately, leads to confusion about the role resulting in petty power struggles between the ostensible "head of the city" and other members of Council. Between a mayor, who has no administrative authority, and the city's hired manager, who does. Between a mayor who believes the title means greater authority and a weak manager who kowtows accordingly. A rotating position better defines exactly what the city's mayor is intended to be - a member of council and its acting chair.

- Not only does reducing the number of council members to an odd number re-establish a tie-breaker model, the de facto "reduction-in-force" saves the cost of the position - salary, annual annuity or insurance, office, travel, per diem and more. It's not a whole lot, but it is enough to note.

* It develops leadership and establishes leadership continuity. A sharing of the role also fosters consensus building.

The elected board can tap its most experienced or effective member to chair meetings. And there is always someone at the ready to seamlessly step in, if needed.

* Properly structured, an appointive mayoral chairmanship provides flexibility.

Note that we are suggesting a council-appointed mayor, not a strictly "rotating" chair where everyone "gets their turn." Council members carrying the flag for a major project or initiative may - and should - be reappointed.

Which brings us to the primary criticism in the directly elected/board-appointed debate.

Some argue that a lack of continuity in the "top" title can be distracting to those looking to do business with the city.

It's hard to give that even a maybe.

But we'll give it a perhaps, sometimes.

If so, the city of Cape Coral has not had "continuity" in the mayor's seat since Roger Butler served as the last mayor to be re-elected to a second term back in 1996.

That's right, the next five - mayors Arnold Kempe, Eric Feichthaler, Jim Burch, John Sullivan and now Marni Sawicki - for reasons ranging from resignation to seek another seat to defeat at the polls to Ms. Sawicki's thank you, but no, have been one-and-dones. Or less.

We, as a city, can do better - and we, as voters and constituents, deserve better.

Now. This election.

With no incumbent in the game, the discussion can focus on the position, not the person, on what is best for the city not on whose ox seems to be getting gored.

We strongly urge Council to quickly bring a simple and clear charter amendment to the public, first through public meetings, then via the ballot in November.

If Council does not, well, a grass-roots citizen petition-drive would certainly accomplish the same goal.

Understand: There would, of course, be no impact on this year's mayoral race.

But four years down the road Cape Coral may well have a better form of government for the many, many years to come.

-Breeze editorial

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