Challengers to seated Longboat Town Commissioners are often hard to come by.
This election season was, like every other since 2018, finished before it began.
Since that March nearly four years ago, when Ed Zunz, Ken Schneier and Irwin Pastor won contested Town Commission races, no one else has needed to mount a campaign, buy an election sign or stand at a podium for a candidate forum.
Elections have been decided before election day in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
The same will be true for 2022.
In the most recent round of filings, incumbents Mike Haycock, BJ Bishop and Maureen Merrigan were declared commissioners-elect when no one else filed by the Nov. 15 deadline.
Still, though, using the town’s citizen survey as a guide, residents seem happy with how things are going. And the town will save money. Elections can cost the town up to $28,000 to conduct, according to Town Clerk Trish Shinkle.
Haycock, though, said he wishes it were otherwise, but he has no issues with his six co-commissioners, none of whom are paid for their town service.
“I get concerned that no one’s running anymore,” he said. “I wish more people would want to be involved, but we’ve got great commissioners, and I’m thrilled that the two are going to be back serving with me.”
Running a successful campaign in a contested race requires time, effort and money with no guarantee of success, town leaders say. With Longboat Key’s status as a haven for white-collar professionals, retired or otherwise, often the motivation just isn’t there.
“It’s a lot of work being on the commission,” Schneier said. “I think, people who move here, they’re either working, or they’ve worked very hard, and now they’re not working.
“And although they want to do things, they don’t necessarily want to have another full-time job.”
Beyond the twice-monthly commission meetings and monthly workshops, commissioners typically sit on boards beyond town limits, such as those devoted to transportation needs, tourism and business development.
Then there are the ceremonial duties, such as groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings.
Schneier said former Longboat Key Mayor Terry Gans told him being a commissioner was like a part-time job while being the mayor is like having a full-time job.
“I would corroborate that,” he said.
Gans said contentious topics have faded of late, ones that often drew out those with different takes.
“When I ran, there were some hot-button issues at the time, and there were different opinions of which direction that the town should go in,” Gans said. “People had specific issues they wanted to pursue.
“You don’t have that same level at the current moment.”
Town Manager Tom Harmer pointed to favorable responses in the annual citizen survey as an indication that change isn’t something that residents are clamoring for.
“The residents will, I think, vote for people that they feel comfortable that are leading them in the right direction as a community,” Harmer said. “Oftentimes when incumbents run and get elected, then that’s just another sign that the general direction of the city or the county or the town must be acceptable to those voters.”
Although there hasn’t been a contested election in years, three people filed to fill the vacancy left by former District 5 Commissioner Ed Zunz earlier this year.
In April, commissioners appointed Maureen Merrigan to fill the District 5 seat vacancy over former Commissioner Gene Jaleski and campaign consultant Christopher Carman.
The town does not pay its commissioners, though it suspends meetings from early July until September, a perk not seen in every city or town. Several other nearby municipalities pay commissioners or similar governing bodies.
For an example, Bradenton Beach pays its commissioners $400 a month, and its elected mayor gets twice that.
Town leaders aren’t so sure a monthly salary equivalent to the price of a top-of-the-line golf driver is the answer.
Gans said he didn’t think paying commissioners would make a difference to encourage more people to run.
“I don’t think you could ever come upon a compensation that would really reflect the time and the thought and the engagement that people serving on the commission put into the job,” Gans said.
Former District 4 Commissioner Jack Daly said he would fly between Florida and Connecticut to make sure he made it back to attend Longboat Key Town Commission meetings while splitting time between two homes.
“I think, perhaps, some modest form of compensation might make a slight difference to candidates, but I don’t think a big difference at all,” Daly said.
Daly suggested the possibility of extending the commission’s summer recess.
“The only downside that I saw, and I really enjoyed my six years as a commissioner, was that the timing of the meetings and particularly the short vacation period here really impinged personally a bit on my situation,” Daly said.
However, Schneier and Gans cautioned against expanding the commission’s recess.
“I don’t think we could afford a longer recess because we come back from now what’s really six or eights weeks, and the pile is high,” Schneier said of the loaded agenda for the first September meeting back.
Gans made clear that it’s only the elected officials who take summer weeks off.
“The commission goes on recess, but if you turn the tap for the water, the water still comes out,” Gans said.
Bishop went a step further.
“If it were up to me, there would not be a summer recess because government doesn’t stop just because a lot of people go north,” Bishop said.
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