County's charter, cities' thorn

Published July 2, 2006

As if hurricanes and brush fires were not enough to fear during Florida's long, hot summers, there are some people in Pinellas County cities talking about staging a revolt.

They say that city residents are about to be denied their inalienable rights by an oppressive big government. One particularly wound-up city resident told me last month that the fight brewing here can be compared to the Boston Tea Party, where American colonists fed up with the heavy hand of England and wanting to determine their own destiny tossed shipments of English tea into Boston Harbor.

The dispute in Pinellas isn't about tea, but it is about self-determination. What's ironic is that both sides are fighting for the same right, for the same reason.

To understand the issue, you need to know some local history.

Until 1980, the state dictated the powers and functions of Pinellas County government, as it still does in most counties. But Pinellas residents wanted to customize their government to fit the county's unique needs. In other words, they wanted "home rule," so they started a movement to create a home rule charter.

However, state officials apparently believed Pinellas residents were not capable of writing their own charter. Legislators wrote it for them and then submitted the document to Pinellas voters for approval in 1980.

Many voters no doubt thought they were getting home rule when they voted "yes," but they weren't. They were getting limited home rule. The legislators had inserted language requiring the county to get approval of the Pinellas legislative delegation and the Florida Legislature before making significant charter changes. Pinellas residents still were not in charge of their own county government.

The 1998 citizens' Charter Review Commission decided to ask voters if they wanted to throw off the leash the Legislature had on Pinellas. The group also agreed to ask voters if charter changes proposed by future charter review commissions should go directly on the ballot, without having to be approved first by any other layer of government.

Some Pinellas city officials didn't want charter changes to be that easy. A city official or officials - Seminole Mayor Dottie Reeder's name is attached to the effort, though she doesn't claim full responsibility - asked the Pinellas legislative delegation to insulate the city governments from the impact of true county home rule.

The legislative delegation quietly amended the referendum question so that any future charter amendment that would change the function, service, power or regulatory authority of the county or cities would have to be approved in a countywide vote and by the voters in cities - a so-called dual referendum.

This amended question received little media attention before the November 1999 referendum, because everyone was focusing on bigger news on the ballot: a charter amendment that would expand the County Commission to seven members. Voters approved both amendments, perhaps unknowingly placing a unique limitation on Pinellas' charter. No other Florida charter county has to win a difficult dual vote to create an ordinance or policy that will prevail countywide.

On Nov. 7, Pinellas voters will be asked whether they want to eliminate the dual vote requirement so that with only one vote, Pinellas electors, including those living in cities and unincorporated areas, can accept or reject proposed countywide ordinances or policies - for example, something like a countywide sign code or environmental protection ordinance.

City officials are lining up against the elimination of the dual vote, saying that the cities' right to self-determination would be reduced. There have been threats to sue to block the referendum - an interesting tactic because the cities would be using the courts to deny their own residents as well as those who live in unincorporated areas their "inalienable" right to vote on their county charter.

The 25 local governments in Pinellas are always sparring about something. It's enough to make you wish for consolidated government just to get some peace.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for North Pinellas editions of the Times.