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For their own good
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In petition drive, $3.02 talks
By TIM NICKENS, Deputy Editor of Editorials
Published November 11, 2007
Mark Wilson has a simple but effective strategy for fighting a constitutional amendment that would require voters to approve land-use changes often needed by big developers and routinely granted by county commissions.
If you can't beat 'em, outbid 'em.
Wilson is the executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The chamber and other business groups hate the amendment backed by Florida Hometown Democracy, which is fanning the antigrowth flames and gathering signatures to put its amendment on the November 2008 ballot. In fact, the chamber calls it "the hometown scam" on its Web site.
Business groups fear the amendment will get the required 60 percent approval if it makes it on the ballot. So they have formed their own organizations to fight back under misleading names such as Floridians for Smarter Growth and Save Our Constitution. While most Floridians have something else on their minds (like property taxes and homeowners insurance), the combat over the Hometown amendment is raging.
Here's just one snapshot: Wilson said Floridians for Smarter Growth recently reviewed Hometown Democracy's public expense reports and identified Hometown's top 60 paid petition gatherers, who were being paid $1.10 per signature. Floridians for Smarter Growth invited those 60 to a meeting and offered $3.02 per signature for its competing amendment.
You can guess what happened. The business group lured away 40 of those 60 signature gatherers. And Wilson said he has issued standing orders to always pay 50 cents more per signature than Hometown Democracy. Yet it's clear he's far more interested in blocking the amendment he opposes than getting his own on the ballot.
Ruthless, but effective.
"Doesn't that tell you something about the people you are talking to?" said Lesley Blackner, president of Hometown Democracy. "If we don't get to the ballot, they'll go away. They don't want their initiative either....They don't have any principles except maintaining their power."
That's just one example of the seedy side of amending the Constitution. It is a quaint notion that Florida voters can tackle an important issue when their elected officials won't by gathering signatures and placing constitutional amendments on the ballot. It boils down to special interest verses special interest, just as it has in past fights involving doctors and lawyers, or casinos, or sugar. The stakes are high, the costs are higher and the maneuvering repulses many voters.
I've talked to some of them. A couple of recent callers weren't too happy about receiving an outrageous letter from former House Speaker John Thrasher. Writing on behalf of Save Our Constitution, he warned voters who had recently signed petitions for Hometown Democracy that the amendment is backed by "big developers" and would put "electors" in charge of land use.
Electors would be the voters. And if anybody represents big developers it's Thrasher, whose lobbying firm has clients such as Disney and St. Joe Co. The letter was part of an effort to use a new state law allowing voters who signed amendment petitions to revoke their signatures.
All that law has done is further confuse voters. Some who received Thrasher's letter were intimidated and afraid they had done something wrong. Now petition gatherers are holding on to petitions until the last minute so there won't be time for their opponents to try to get the signatures revoked. That's bad news for elections supervisors who have to verify the signatures before Feb. 1.
Wilson, who said he was "embarrassed" by the Thrasher letter, said he isn't interested in battling deadlines to get petition signatures revoked. He'll stick with outbidding Hometown Democracy.
If there's a silver lining in this mess, it's that Hometown Democracy has helped force Tallahassee and the prodevelopment crowd to recognize there is a problem. "We had better plan better and grow better," Wilson told the Times editorial board. "Unbridled growth is just as bad as no growth."
The best hope for smart change probably rests with Tom Pelham, secretary of the state Department of Community Affairs. He calls the Hometown Democracy approach "an extreme, draconian approach to a very real problem.... But we cannot ignore what's driving this." With any luck, Pelham can sell the Legislature on a middle ground that might require voter approval for land-use changes only of a certain size and scope.
Blackner praises Pelham for acknowledging the problem but has little hope that the Legislature would do anything to slow down influential developers.
"We're going to try to get on the ballot," she said. "I wouldn't stake my son's life on it, but we're going to try."
If all her signature gatherers aren't bought off first.