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In county vs. cities, voters will weigh in

A judge refuses to pull proposed charter questions from the Nov. 7 ballot.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published October 26, 2006


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A judge ruled Wednesday that Pinellas County voters will consider  charter amendments pitting nearly every city in Pinellas against the county government.

The dispute involves whether the county should have more authority. It is focused on seven proposed changes to the county’s charter.

Twenty-one of Pinellas’ 24 cities have gone to court in an attempt to block the vote on Nov. 7. Both sides have spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to influence voters before the general election.

On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Robert E. Beach cleared the way for the  ballot questions to proceed, saying the cities failed to prove they would be irreparably harmed if the charter changes appeared on the ballot.

But even with Beach’s ruling, the election might not end the controversy. That’s because the cities’ lawsuit will go forward if voters approve any of the most   divisive changes.

Each side found something to like in Beach’s decision.

“I’m glad the voters and not the courts are going to make the decision here,” said Clearwater businessman Alan Bomstein, chairman of the Charter Review Commission.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said he expects voters to support cities at the polls.

And if they don’t, he said, “I think we are still on solid legal ground.”

Beach ruled that pulling proposed amendments from the ballot would jeopardize the integrity of the election.
Still, his 10-page ruling didn’t discuss the merits of the cities’ arguments.

City officials have argued that some of the proposed amendments are ambiguous and inconsistent with state law. They also contend the county Charter Review Commission, an appointed group, violated certain procedures and Florida’s Sunshine Law while developing the proposed amendments.

The county denies those allegations.

Beach wrote that “all issues as to the validity of the proposed charter amendments shall be reserved until after the election.” Moreover, he added that his ruling does not indicate how he would rule on later decisions in the case.

The cities say the amendments are aimed at usurping their power.

Most controversial are proposals that would make it more difficult for municipalities to annex commercial property, and an amendment to eliminate what is known as the “dual referendum” provision.

The dual referendum provision allows municipalities to opt out of certain kinds of countywide policies if city residents reject them.

In his ruling, Beach put a lot of weight on testimony by Judge Patrick Caddell, chairman of the Pinellas County Canvassing Board. Caddell testified that it would be impossible to eliminate the amendments from the ballot prior to the election. And that to do so could interfere with the board’s ability to certify the results.

Beach said it was “of the utmost importance” to make sure that the Nov. 7 election is “held in accordance with state and federal laws, and no unnecessary action, legal or otherwise, be taken that would cast suspicion on the integrity of the election process.”

- Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 26, 2006, 06:27:31]


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