Vote may not have been nice, but was legal
By BILL VARIAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001
TAMPA -- It's wrong for a commissioner to vote against a rezoning request because they don't like the developer, according to the county's attorney, but it poses no liability for the commissioner or the county.
The opinion by County Attorney Emeline Acton was written after Commissioner Ronda Storms questioned Commissioner Jan Platt's rationale in voting against a rezoning request.
Developer Sam Rashid, an influential businessman and supporter of Storms, asked commissioners April 10 to rezone a piece of property in Brandon for a two-story commercial building. Commissioners granted the request 5-1, with Platt dissenting.
A few days later, Platt was paraphrased in the St. Petersburg Times as saying she wasn't opposed to the project so much as she was opposed to Rashid. That prompted Storms to fire off a memo to Acton, asking whether the statement created a legal or ethical problem for Platt or the commission.
Acton spent most of her time on the legal question in her delicately worded response. In short, she says, the issue is moot because Rashid got a favorable vote.
But even had he lost, Acton said, she didn't think comments by a commissioner outside the board room would be grounds for a reversal in court.
"You are correct when you say that a commissioner should not vote in a land-use matter to benefit a political friend or to punish a political enemy," Acton wrote. But citing case law, she added, "However, in the absence of a claim of fraud, an individual commissioner's motive for voting a particular way is "irrelevant.' "
In the last paragraph of the three-page memo, Acton said she doesn't think Platt's statement constitutes an ethical violation. That's because state ethics law generally pertains to the person who uses his or her political position for some gain, as opposed to using it for retribution.
"Of course, the courts and the Ethics Commission would be the ultimate judge of these matters," Acton concluded.
Platt declined comment Monday, saying she thought Acton's memo spoke for itself.
Storms said she still has a problem with Platt's stated reason for voting against the rezoning request.
"It is equally unethical and offensive to democracy for people with power to punish their political enemies as it is offensive when politicians feather their own nests," said Storms. "To me, it doesn't turn on whether the person was damaged."
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