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Cities file suit to preserve charter

If the suit fails, the cities will launch a public relations campaign to influence voters against amending the county charter.

Published August 13, 2006

Seminole, Pinellas Park and Kenneth City may have their differences, but they agree that the county charter should not be changed.

The three city councils voted last week to join 21 other Pinellas cities in a lawsuit designed to keep proposed charter changes away from the voters. If the suit doesn't succeed, the three cities have said they'll join a public relations campaign by the Florida League of Cities designed to persuade voters to turn down two of the proposed amendments.

One amendment would eliminate the need for dual referendums to change the regulatory authority of municipal officers and their departments, such as fire and police. Eliminating the dual referendum would mean that a countywide vote would be all that's required to make cities use county-proposed rules. Currently, such proposals must be adopted by both the county's voters and the voters in the city that would be affected by the new regulations.

Seminole Mayor Dottie Reeder said eliminating the dual referendum would take power away from the cities and allow the county to force things, such as countywide fire service, onto unwilling municipalities.

The cities also oppose changes to annexation rules.

"We have a lot to lose if these amendments go through," Reeder said last Tuesday.

"Every city will have the same theme throughout the county," Reeder said.

Seminole pledged $12,000 to the public relations campaign. Kenneth City pledged $5,000. It is unclear how much Pinellas Park is willing to kick in.

Those amounts are aside from any legal fees the cities will have to pay for their attorneys to wage the war.

The cities oppose two of the amendments, but say they must ask a judge to keep all the initiatives off the ballot because they think votes were cast illegally during the final meeting of the Charter Review Committee.

Two of the members, Pinellas County Sheriff Bill Coats and Lou Kwall, participated by telephone, which the cities say violates the state public meetings laws.

Several opinions of the state attorney general would seem to back them up. Those opinions, as set forth in one written in 2003, say a board member can participate by phone when a quorum is in the room and the "absence is due to extraordinary circumstances such as illness."

Coats and Kwall apparently were not ill, but their participation - by phone - was crucial because eight votes were needed to pass the proposals.

The vote on the dual referendum was 8-4. Coats and Kwall voted in favor. Had they not voted by phone, the motion would have failed because they were not in the room.

Several proposals were passed related to annexation. One would require cities to wait seven years before trying again to annex an area after a referendum has failed. The vote was 9-2, with Coats and Kwall in favor. Again, without their votes, the issue would have died.

Another proposal would require, among other things, for referendum annexations to have the approval of 67 percent of the voters instead of 51 percent as is required now. Kwall's phone call was lost during the vote, which passed 9-2. Moments later, Kwall came back on the line, was told of the vote and added his, after the fact, resulting in a 10-2 vote.

[Last modified August 12, 2006, 11:11:57]

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