Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Florida Hometown Democracy: voters trampled by the State Supreme Court, too? ... by gimleteye

This morning I read the news about the US Supreme Court tying campaign largess to judicial bias, and thought: it is not just federal judges who are influenced by big campaign contributors. The State Supreme Court in Florida, appointed by the Governor, is right there, too.

Florida's appointed justices have deep connections to the business elite that runs the state, and especially the Growth Machine that funds political campaigns.

Exhibit A: Florida Hometown Democracy.

Florida Hometown Democracy is a grass roots drive to change the Florida Constitution, fiercely opposed by development interests. If passed, the Florida constitution would be amended to require changes to local growth plans be put to popular vote within local jurisdictions. FHD opponents, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Realtors, and Associated Industries claim the measure would create "a permanent recession", without addressing the fact that these interests created the worst recession since the Depression with the frenzied greed of an unsustainable housing boom built from mountains of debt.

Floridians are disgusted with zoning and permitting decisions by local municipalities and counties that have wrecked neighborhoods, the environment, and our quality of life-- not to mention economic opportunity. The responsibility belongs squarely on the interests that fomented this crisis. They are using mirrors to deflect attention from themselves.

Florida Hometown Democracy has amassed hundreds of thousands of petitions to qualify for the ballot. FHD would have qualified for the 2008 ballot, but for one road block after another thrown in its way by the Growth Machine. The most outrageous: the 2006 constitutional amendment that provides referendums to change the Florida constitution must pass by 60 percent and not a simple majority-- a law that only exists in Florida and nowhere else in the nation.

Patiently but ploddingly, Florida Hometown Democracy has moved forward but now faces an entity that has proven hostile to its goal already: the Florida Supreme Court. In December 2008, in a 4-3 decision, appointees of the Supreme Court astoundingly approved a Chamber of Commerce-drive poison pill (mis-named Floridians for Smarter Growth). The copycat referendum from the Commerce claims it would also give people the power to vote on local land use changes but only if ten percent of the electorate physically marches into to the local jurisdiction's office of elections and signs a petition in the presence of an election officer. In a press statement at the time, FHD wrote, "Florida Supreme Court Justice Lewis wrote a powerful dissent that identifies some of the extraordinary difficulties many Floridians will face just trying to sign a petition, but the entire Florida Supreme Court completely overlooked the absolute bar the Chamber-backed amendment establishes for thousands of deployed military, National Guard and disabled Florida voters."

Now the Florida Supreme Court is sitting on a decision whether or not to certify Florida Hometown Democracy for the 2010 election. The referendum organizers claim to have met the threshold number of signatures, but unless the Supreme Court rules by June 22, many of those signatures will be contested as being out-of-date, requiring further contortions for FHD to struggle to the ballot.

Last week Florida Governor Charlie Crist signed a terrible new law, dubbed the "Growth Anywhere Act", to please campaign contributors and especially Republicans voting in the 2010 primary. Floridians need no additional evidence that the Growth Machine will do anything-- anything-- to maintain its chokehold on the state, even in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In fact the Growth Machine has pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to defeat the measure at the ballot box.

Even though the state has more than 300,000 foreclosures, in the past two years local jurisdictions have approved zoning and permitting for an additional 600,000 homes. It will take a hurricane, or, Florida Hometown Democracy to change the equation.

Jun 8, 6:35 PM EDT

Fla. planning amendment nearing ballot

Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A petition drive that would give voters a say in the development of their communities may lose even if sponsors win a favorable Florida Supreme Court ruling - if the justices don't act soon.

To prevent that from happening, Florida Hometown Democracy asked the high court Monday to expedite a decision on a new law that lets signers take back their signatures. The case has been before the justices for more than a year.

Unofficially, the group has enough signatures to put its proposed state constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot if the justices agree with an appellate court and strike down the revocation law.

The Legislature passed the law in 2007 at the urging of business and development interests. They argue that Hometown Democracy, which would require voter approval of changes to local comprehensive plans, would block growth and further stifle Florida's already sagging economy.

The problem for Hometown Democracy is the Florida Constitution gives initiative signatures a four-year shelf life. The group began its petition drive four years ago June 22.

That means Hometown Democracy will begin losing signatures if the Supreme Court delays a decision beyond that date.

"In effect, this court's failure to expeditiously decide this case has the unintended consequence of diminishing a fundamental constitutional right," Hometown Democracy lawyer Ross Burnaman wrote in the group's motion to expedite.

The state plans to file a response Tuesday.

The Division of Elections' unofficial count gives Hometown Democracy 705,176 statewide signatures after subtracting 13,280 revocations collected by opponents. That's more than enough to meet the requirement for 676,811 signatures statewide - equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the last presidential election.

Initiatives, though, also must meet the 8 percent requirement in at least half, or 13, of Florida's 25 congressional districts. Hometown Democracy will be one district short if the Supreme Court lets the revocation law stand.

If it is stuck down and revoked signatures are counted, the amendment would meet that criteria in one more district - the 7th - and it could be certified for the ballot.

The math, though, changes if the court rules after June 22. Hometown Democracy then would have to collect new signatures to replace those that expire due to the four-year limit.

One of the first signatures that may be erased is that of Hometown Democracy president Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer.

"To add insult to injury, I cannot legally sign the Florida Hometown Democracy petition again even if it has become invalid solely by the passage of time," Blackner wrote in a sworn statement. The same goes for other signatures that expire.

If the Supreme Court should uphold the revocation law, things would get even worse for Hometown Democracy.

Instead of certifying the amendment as soon as it meets the signature threshold, the challenged law would delay possible certification until Feb. 1, 2010.

Besides losing the signatures currently revoked, opponents would have until then to seek additional revocations and more signatures would expire under the four-year time limit. Burnaman said he was unsure how many would be lost under that scenario.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand Leslie's comment. Do you mean that if I sign a petition and then my petition becomes invalid by the passing of time, I cannot go out and sign another petition? How can this be right? This essentially gives government the power to silence my voice by denying me the right to petition. Regardless of FHTD, this is the bigger issue here. Do I understand her correctly? I think this is a good topic for 60 minutes. Also, I believe our governor is showing his colors. While he signed SB 360, he has declined addressing anti petition initiatives. His passion for voter's rights is coming into question for me. I am dissappointed in him, and he has lost my vote.

South Florida Lawyers said...

What's interesting about the Supreme Court opinion is that the majority basically invites the states to come up with a reasonable monetary figure over which a judge's ethics could reasonably be questioned in terms of contributions as part of a judicial election campaign.

The bad news -- this would require action from our state legislature.

Jill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.