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Indian River Shores voters face Jan. 24 deadline to weigh in on ballot questions

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of January 12, 2023)

Registered voters in Indian River Shores have less than two weeks left to consider 11 yes or no questions about proposed changes to the town charter, and return their mail-in ballots.

The deadline for receipt of the ballot is Jan. 24, and that is not a postmark deadline. Voters may hand in the ballot at the Election Office in-person should they wait until the last minute.

“Voters may either mail their ballot via the USPS, FedEX, etc. or deliver their ballot in person to the Elections Office by 7 p.m. on January 24, 2023 (Election Day),” Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan said.

As of Monday afternoon, about one eighth of the distributed ballots have been returned. “Our Quick Turnout View is posted on the homepage of our website and is updated daily.  We mailed 4,109 ballots and to date we have received back 531 voted ballots 12.9 percent turnout,” Swan said on Monday.

The town is prohibited from spending taxpayer dollars to promote any certain outcome in the voting on the 11 charter amendments, but voters had been asking town officials for more information, so former members of the Charter Review Commission hosted an informal meeting to explain why they proposed the various amendments and what the local impact would be. A small crowd showed up for this event.

Former Shores Councilman Mike Ochsner served on the Charter Review Committee which spent four months reviewing the town’s governing documents and pointing out changes needed to bring them in line with state law, or to protect the town and its residents. Town Attorney Pete Sweeney and Town Manager Jim Harpring worked with the committee to bring the charter into the 2020s.

“The whole goal was to just clean it up and simplify it. It was a serious discussion and review,” Ochsner said.

The committee had a number of well-written and recently updated charters from similar-size towns to look at as part of the process. “If we saw something in those that we thought we had missed, we put that in,” he said.

Looking down the list, the fourth question addresses who reports to whom at Town Hall. Currently the town has three charter officers – the town manager, town attorney and town clerk – who report only to the five elected council members. In consideration of the tiny town staff, the proposed change would place Town Clerk Janice Rutan and all future town clerks under the direct supervision of the town manager, currently Jim Harpring. This would take some duties like the town clerk’s annual performance review off the council’s plate. Rutan was hired with full knowledge that this change was being proposed.

The ballot question which might raise the most eyebrows is the fifth one prohibiting the taking of private property for a private economic development project. Ochsner said, “There was this case in Connecticut where the town took people’s land. Certainly nothing like that is antivipated here, but we wanted to make it clear --just wanted to make sure it would never happen.”

The proposed charter amendment states that if land must be taken for a public purpose, the property owner must be fully compensated.

The sixth ballot question about giving the town council the ability to pass emergency legislation arose because Indian River Shores is a coastal Florida community that is occasionally part of an evacuation zone. “That would help out in a hurricane,” Ochsner said.

The seventh ballot question, if approved, would take the matter of the town joining any special taxing district directly to the voters instead of to the town council.

More than half  the proposed charter amendments are “housekeeping” type matters. The first one simply moves a section describing the town boundaries to an appendix of reference documents. Should the ballot questions be approved, some of the specific numbers of state statutes would be taken out so if the state changes revises, repeals or replaces that statute, the town charter would still refer broadly to state statutes.

The ninth and 10th ballot questions deal with future charter reviews and amendments, providing for the charter to be inspected for improvements every 10 years, and allowing for the town council or the town citizens by petition, to place a charter referendum on the ballot.

There is no minimum number of ballots that must be returned to make the election valid.

“For each referendum question, whichever get the most votes, yes or no, will reflect if the referendum passes or fails,” Swan said. “The election results will be posted on our website at”

A mail-in ballot cannot be used if candidates are up for election, so the practice is rare, or maybe even unprecedented in Indian River County – at least in recent memory.

“I know that I have never conducted a mail-in ballot election. I have not come across any information about any prior mail-in ballot elections,” Swan said.  “I cannot say for sure.”