Hometown Democracy debate heavy on barbs

The proposal would put development issues on the ballot.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007

TAMPA - Since launching a campaign for a constitutional amendment that would limit growth, Lesley Blackner has marveled at the business groups aligned against her.

"This is the power elite of our state," Blackner has said of her opponents.

On Friday, Blackner squared off for the first time against the man who personifies the forces opposing her effort to put Florida Hometown Democracy on the 2008 ballot.

For more than an hour, John Thrasher, a former Republican speaker of the state House who now lobbies for development and business interests, traded barbs with Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer, before 50 people at a Tiger Bay Club of Tampa luncheon.

For such a technical land use topic, the discussion turned negative quickly, underscoring just how passionate this campaign could become next year. Blackner immediately charged that Thrasher lied in a letter his nonprofit group mailed in September to voters. In it, Thrasher stated that Blackner's group represented "big developers" and "special interests" that were tricking voters to "rig the system to put our future in the hands of cronies."

"The letter was full of lies intended to trick the voters," Blackner said. "Because Mr. Thrasher knows voters are desperate for reform and that voters like the idea of Hometown Democracy. ... I challenge him today to come clean, and we'll see what he does."

Thrasher didn't answer Blackner's charge, stating that he's a Vietnam veteran who doesn't need to worry about what others think of him.

He said he was proud to be a lobbyist for Southern Strategy Group, which represents big developer St. Joe Co., and Associated Industries of Florida, which is directing a campaign to scuttle the petition drive to put Florida Hometown Democracy on the ballot.

"I'm not ashamed to say that Associated Industries represents some of the biggest businesses in Florida," Thrasher said. "Businesses that provide jobs for people and keep the economy of Florida going. That's why they're concerned."

Thrasher painted a doomsday scenario if voters pass the measure, which would let voters, not elected officials, give final approval for any changes to long-term use of land.

"I promise, you will see reductions in education spending, reductions in infrastructure, reductions in health care, for many Floridians," Thrasher said.

Blackner told the audience that Thrasher and groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce use scare tactics to confuse voters. The nightmare developers say would come is already here because of rampant, uncontrolled growth, she said.

"We've let the developers build to their hearts' content," she said. "They did. And look what we got now - a debacle. They managed to crash the whole economy and bring the whole state down to recession."

Hometown Democracy needs more than 600,000 signatures by Feb. 1 to get on the November 2008 ballot. Blackner said more than 350,000 have been collected so far.

The discussion didn't change many minds at the lunchtime crowd, split between builders and residents and environmentalists.

"If this passes, it'll be a nuclear winter," said Brad Swanson, government affairs advocate for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

"I'm biased, but Blackner was more convincing," said Bev Griffiths, chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Group of the Sierra Club.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.