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Tug of war between county, charities ends

Pinellas has scaled back its law requiring charities to get a permit before doing business in the county.

Published September 1, 2004

Pinellas County has fended off a challenge to its ordinance requiring charities to get a county permit before doing business locally.

But over the course of a three-year legal battle, county officials scaled back the law. They dropped a requirement that all charities soliciting funds over the Internet must register with the county.

Officials also amended the ordinance after a federal judge ruled it unconstitutionally gave a county official too much discretion in considering permit applications.

Now the ordinance demands less information from charities and limits how long local officials can take to consider a permit application.

"We got to keep our ordinance in place," senior assistant county attorney Carl Brody said Tuesday. "That's a win for me. We had to make some minor changes, and we can live with those."

Last week, county commissioners voted to pay $130,000 of their opponents' attorneys' fees in the case. The suit was filed as a civil rights case, and the plaintiffs won several points, allowing them to seek legal fees from the county.

The plaintiffs included Public Citizen, Greenpeace and other nonprofit groups that solicit donations for various causes. They filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tampa in 2001, contending that the county's requirements violated their free-speech rights.

Among other things, the charities said they were already regulated by the IRS and most states. Pinellas demanded too much information it didn't have a right to, they said, ranging from the drivers' license numbers and addresses of charities' officers to scripts for telephone solicitations.

The lead attorney for the nonprofit groups said the suit ended up easing the burden that Pinellas had placed on charities.

"We would have preferred that there would be no charitable solicitation law," said Washington, D.C., attorney Bonnie I. Robin-Vergeer. But, she said, the one that exists now creates "a much simpler process" than it did three years ago and has more reasonable registration requirements.

More than 700 charities and professional solicitation groups are registered with the county. To get a permit, each had to fill out an application providing a variety of information about itself, its officers, its fundraising activities and how it used the money.

The county's consumer protection department keeps the information on file and also has a searchable data base on the county's Web site, that shows whether the charity is registered and what portion of the donations go to charitable work.

In May, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday concluded that the ordinance served a substantial government interest but gave the director of the county Department of Justice and Consumer Services too much leeway in deciding what information to demand on the permit application.

The department director could require application forms "that request an expansive and forbidding quantity of information not authorized by the ordinance," Merryday wrote in a 65-page court order.

The director also had too much discretion in making a decision on a charity's permit application, the judge ruled. Thus, the county could delay a charity's activities indefinitely and unconstitutionally.

Brody said county commissioners amended the ordinance in July to address those concerns. County officials dropped the registration requirement for charities soliciting over the Internet before Merryday's ruling.

The goal, he said, remains letting citizens know who is asking for their money.

"Just look down at where the hurricane just hit and all the charities popping up to try to take advantage" of a crisis, Brody said. "That's what the ordinance is in place for, and it does that job well. We can at least be sure that you are a legitimate charity."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:09:34]

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