Cities file suit against county

Twenty-one municipalities sue Pinellas to keep all proposed changes to its charter off the Nov. 7 ballot.

Published August 25, 2006

In a virtually unheard of move, 21 cities sued Pinellas County on Thursday to block a referendum that city officials contend would weaken them while strengthening the county.

The cities' 40-page lawsuit seeks to have all proposed amendments to the county charter removed from the Nov. 7 ballot.

Among other things, the cities contend that the county's charter review commission violated Florida's Sunshine Law and crafted language that is "unclear, ambiguous and confusing."

"When the mistakes are that clear, then it's really easy to get united behind a cause," Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said.

For months, city leaders have voiced concerns about proposed charter changes that they thought would usurp their power.

"Cities want to be able maintain their character and maintain the right for citizens to decide that character, and this basically undermines that," said Hibbard, who is president of the county's Mayors Council.

For example, the cities argue that three proposed amendments regarding annexations would place constraints on them that go beyond requirements set by state law. The county's charter says all of its powers of government should be consistent with general law, the cities said.

One of the annexation amendments concerns the annexation of commercial land. It would require consent from 67 percent of the property owners rather than the current 51 percent.

Another key complaint in the cities' case concerns the right of municipalities to opt out of certain countywide regulations.

Currently, proposed charter amendments that would change the function, service, power or regulatory authority of the county or cities have to be approved in a countywide vote and by the voters in cities - a dual referendum. A dual referendum has not been used since it was implemented in 1999.

In the suit, the cities also contend that the ballot language in a question eliminating a dual vote fails to specify that voters and municipalities would lose control.

"The net effect" is that "it strips voters of their power," Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin said.

That fear is unfounded, charter review commission chairman Alan Bomstein said.

"Ultimately, the people are the ones who will vote on any shift of power," said Bomstein, chief executive officer of Creative Contractors in Clearwater.

The alleged Sunshine Law violations center around two key issues, the suit says.

Two members of the charter review commission, Sheriff Jim Coats and lawyer Louis Kwall, appeared and voted by telephone at a June 19 charter review commission meeting.

"The failure of Kwall and Coats to appear in person at the final meeting violated the Sunshine Law and voided their telephonic votes," the suit says.

A 2003 Florida attorney general's opinion says absences should be because of extraordinary circumstances such as illness.

There were extraordinary circumstances, County Attorney Susan Churuti said.

Coats, she said, was attending a national meeting of sheriffs, and Kwall was at an environmental seminar.

The cities' lawsuit also complains that Bomstein was given authority to work with the County Attorney's Office and a consultant to change the language of the proposed amendments after the charter review commission voted on them, but those changes were not made at a public meeting.

In response, Churuti said the changes were minor and that there was no Sunshine Law violation.

Largo City Attorney Alan Zimmet said words were added to the dual vote question.

The suit also says the charter review commission violated charter procedures because it did not vote on the wording of the ballot questions or finalize a report on the charter revisions at its final public hearing June 8.

Instead, a vote was held June 19, when no additional public comment was accepted.

Churuti said commission members didn't shirk procedure - they simply deferred action until the next meeting.

Indian Rocks Beach, Dunedin and Redington Beach did not participate in the lawsuit.

But Redington Beach and Dunedin have agreed to participate in a campaign to educate voters about the proposed amendments to the charter.

"I don't think we're taking a stance that's contrary to the other cities," Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth said. "It just seemed there was no interest, after determining that we were going to participate in the information campaign, that we were going to partake in the more confrontational, legal realm."

Times staff writer Vanessa de la Torre contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or 727 445-4155.