Term-limit message didn't apply to West Palm Beach commissioner Bill Moss

Voters sent a mixed message to city officials on Tuesday by overwhelmingly re-electing Commissioner Bill Moss to a seventh term but voting in term limits by an even larger margin and refusing to extend commission terms from two years to three.

Moss, in office since the Joel Daves administration in 2000, was a prime target in Tuesday's election. He raised about $68,000 in this latest bid for re-election. After nervously watching returns at Roxy's Pub Tuesday night, he ultimately wound up with a 16-point victory over attorney Dodger Arp.

Though voters put the longtime commissioner back in office, they also said yes to a term limit of eight consecutive years in office - by a 47-point margin -- and said no to longer commission terms, by 13 points.

"I think people are comfortable with the commission and they have confidence in us, yet they looked at each individual ballot question and voted individually," Moss said. "Term limits are very attractive to voters, and given the opportunity, they almost always vote for term limits."

Dean Turney, a member of the city's charter review committee that recommended most of the eight referendum questions on Tuesday's ballot, said he wasn't surprised at the outcome.

"That's very common, where people support term limits in concept but when it comes to their representative, they vote that person in for life," Turney said.

Turney said he's also not surprised that longer commission terms were voted down, although a similar measure passed in Riviera Beach.

"I think, at the local level more so than even the state or national level, voters want the ability to re-evaluate their elected officials as often as possible," Turney said.

"There is kind of an anti-incumbent sentiment, although that wasn't reflected in these two races," City Commissioner Keith James said. "People saw the two candidates as superior to their competition but people looked philosophically and said they don't want somebody else to be in there 12 years. They want an opportunity to vet a candidate every couple years."

Mayor Jeri Muoio advocated for three-year terms, saying commissioners spend too much time campaigning.

"I think voters just didn't see that it was broken and they felt it was working fine," Muoio said. "It's more of an issue for the actual commissioners, because it's hard to run every other year. It's costly and it's difficult."

Moss said that two-year terms force the commissioners "to be continually engaged with the public, understand what they want, and you have to do it citywide."

Commissioners did score a mild victory, as voters gave them the ability to summon department heads to public meetings without approval from the mayor, by a 51-point margin.

While the new provision wouldn't change the dynamics in city hall, because Muoio already accommodates commissioners, it does give some added strength to the commission, she said.

But Moss said it doesn't diminish the mayor's power.

"We still can't give orders to the department heads and we still can't instruct them to do anything," Moss said. "I don't think in any way it diminishes the mayor's power, but it makes the system a lot more transparent."

Turney said that while "it strengthens the commission's ability to make informed decisions, I just don't see how that diminishes the mayor's power."

"It's information that really should be available to the public, and commissioners do represent the public, and by extension we're able to obtain that information," Turney said.

Ira Raab, who chaired the charter review committee, was disappointed that the closest ballot question didn't pass. Residents voted against eliminating runoff elections if the top vote-getter receives at least 40 percent of the vote. That measure failed by just 133 votes.

"I don't really think they understood that, in 14 of the last 15 elections, the person who received the greatest of the plurality won the runoff election," Raab said. "With this, and keeping two-year terms, it will cost the public about $1 million every five years, because of the extra elections and extra runoffs."

But Muoio said she agreed with voters in keeping runoff elections, especially after only about 5,000 of the city's 60,000 registered voters turned out Tuesday.

"You could have gotten elected ... with 40 percent of 5,000, which is what, 2,000?" Muoio said. "You want somebody to win with a good strong majority of people behind them and to have that mandate.