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County, cities brace for a charter fight

Published September 8, 2006

CLEARWATER - The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday allocated $150,000 for a public relations campaign that could help determine the shape of the county charter.

The money will pay for direct mailings and print advertisements meant to counter an expected offensive by Pinellas cities in advance of the Nov. 7 election.

"There is a great deal of misinformation out there," Commissioner Ronnie Duncan said before the vote. "We've got to educate."

In late August, 21 cities filed a lawsuit demanding that proposed changes to the county charter - a document that outlines the duties and powers of Pinellas government - be stricken from the Nov. 7 ballot.

The suit named the Charter Review Commission, the Supervisor of Elections Office and the County Commission.

The review commission is composed mostly of volunteer citizens and a smattering of elected officials. The County Commission appoints the members. In April, after nearly two years of meetings, the group recommended several charter changes.

The proposals that have drawn the most ire from cities are ones that would make it more difficult for municipalities to annex commercial property, as well as an amendment to eliminate what's called the dual referendum provision.

The dual referendum provision allows municipalities to opt out of certain kinds of countywide ordinances and policies if their voters reject them. For many city leaders, the provision is a guarantee of home rule.

Supporters of the charter changes have pointed out that the county charter is the only one in Florida that has a dual referendum requirement and that it's a potential hurdle to policies that may be in the collective welfare of county residents.

In addition to the lawsuit, cities recently created a political action committee called Pinellas Cities for Home Rule to help aid their public campaign. Some who advocate changes to the charter said they've heard the PAC hopes to raise $300,000.

"There is clearly a huge budget that the cities have allocated," said Alan Bomstein, president of a Clearwater construction firm and chairman of the review commission. "I'm afraid a barrage is going to come down on us."

But Beth Rawlins, a consultant representing some of the cities involved, said the $300,000 figure is inflated. The PAC now has about $250 in its coffers, Rawlins said.

Not all county commissioners supported spending on the education effort. Board member Bob Stewart said it would only inflame tensions between the county and cities.

Also, he said, the charter review issues are not particularly flashy and more than $150,000 would be needed to make voters pay attention.

He was joined by Commissioner Karen Seel in voting against the expenditure.

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 06:01:59]

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