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Ballistic ballots

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  • | 8:40 p.m. August 27, 2009
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Amendment 4, the Hometown Democracy 'vote on everything' amendment to the state constitution, goes to voters in November 2010. If it passes, voters may may regret the weighty future ballots.

Imagine standing in line to vote for an hour or more because those ahead of you are reading page after page of jargon-filled, 75-word proposed amendments to the local comprehensive plan. And then having to wait longer while the ballot box is being emptied to make room for your ballot and you have to read through it all.

That is what many think Florida Hometown Democracy (FHD) has in store for voters after backers paid signature gatherers for several years to get about 680,000 petitions needed to put it on the November 2010 ballot.

It's no wonder the lead opposition group calls state constitutional Amendment 4 “The Vote on Everything Amendment.”

Constitutional amendments require 60% approval, but one supporter was quoted recently saying polls show about 70% in favor. Opponents, fearing economic Armageddon, are raising millions of dollars to fight it.

Kathy Dent, supervisor of elections for Sarasota County, who dealt with an undervote controversy in 2006, is concerned how voters will respond to lengthy ballots should Amendment 4 pass.

Undervotes are what happen when people vote on some election issues, such as president or mayor, but not on smaller issues, often because they are unfamiliar with them. Dent and Sharon Harrington, Lee County's supervisor of election, both say that undervoting will skyrocket with Amendment 4.

The ballot title reads: “Referenda required for adoption and amendment of local government comprehensive land use plans.” And that may be all most voters ever read. The summary that follows is 56 words long. The actual amendment to Article II, Section 7 is even longer without counting the four definitions that follow that, and those definitions are part of the current controversy.

Land use attorney Jeff Bercow suggested in an Aug. 6 opinion piece in the Miami Herald that the amendment “could easily apply to zoning approvals unrelated to comprehensive plan amendments.” Herald editors titled it, “Amendment 4 an invitation to chaos.”

45-page ballot?
Referred to pleasantly as the “Hometown Democracy” amendment, the confusingly worded citizens' initiative is getting heavy attention more than a year before voters weigh-in.

“This is not a well-crafted piece of work,” says Linda Shelley, former secretary of Florida's department of community affairs and now a Fowler, White, Boggs attorney. “The purpose of the state oversight of local government is eliminated by this amendment.”

The reference to “land use plans” suggests that the amendment only applies to a single piece of local comprehensive plans, the land use chapter. But it's now becoming clear that it is much broader.

These plans, often inches thick, guide local governments in everyday decision-making about roads, water, sewers, the economy, the environment, housing and historic preservation, to name a few. Besides goals, objectives, policies and strategies, local “comp plans” are filled with maps, tables, charts, appendices and acronyms and planner jargon that people not in the industry often do not understand.

The reality is, however, that Amendment 4 applies to every single change to a comprehensive plan — from full re-writes to typos. But you'd never know that just by reading through the FHD Web site. The Web site disputes the “vote on everything” claim this way: “you will vote ONLY on comprehensive plan amendments approved by your local government.”

However, amendments resulting from Orange City's evaluation of its plan in 2005 involved 478 separately distinct changes to the plan that the city and state approved.

It's unclear whether each item must be voted on separately. Tallahassee Attorney Ross Burnaman, one of the chief architects and litigators for FHD, says whatever number of votes a local governing body takes is how many times voters would vote. Floridians for Smarter Growth is so unsure of that position that they hired consultants to put Orange City's amendments into ballot form.

It's 45 pages long.

A 45-page ballot costs $.30 a page for Dent, so with 267,000 registered voters, printing the ballot alone would cost $3.6 million. Extra scanners and ballot boxes means another $3 million.

And what happens if a state-mandated change gets voted down? No one seems to know the answer to that either. Courts will be busy sorting all this out, which means more cost and more slow-downs.

Oh, and taxpayers would be paying for legal expenses, ads by local governments wanting to get the ones they initiate passed, plus possibly tripled budgets for supervisor of elections' offices. But FHD's Web site says costs will be
“Negligible. A little extra ink on the already scheduled ballot.”

Tell that to St. Pete Beach residents who have spent more than $500,000 (and counting) defending a comp plan amendment they adopted under their own mini-hometown democracy regulations that barely passed in 2006.

Litigating against St. Pete Beach's 57% voter-approved community redevelopment district is none other than Burnaman, a major architect of FHD. He just lost a state administrative appeal Aug. 11. He filed that appeal after all the allegations were rejected by an administrative law judge last February. On Aug. 21, Burnaman filed an appeal of the Aug. 11 decision, this time with the First District Court of Appeals.

More nightmares
Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat is a veteran among the state's supervisors. Asked how Amendment 4 might affect his operations, he says, “If you had a couple of extra elections a year you're looking at some big numbers. I could see where you could increase your budget threefold and maybe more.”

What's also beginning to concern elections supervisors is how their equipment will be able to handle large ballots. The ballot boxes are integrated with the machines typically, so a bigger ballot box means getting new machines or having to empty out machines while voting is going on.

It's a nightmare scenario that elections supervisor Dent doesn't want to contemplate. She's terrified of the appearance to voters of shuffling ballots around while they're trying to vote, and the delays involved, or having to get new machines certified to handle larger ballots.

Dent is already expecting to have ballots twice as big in 2012 because new census data is expected to result in having to print ballots in both Spanish and English. Harrington already has bilingual ballots; Miami-Dade has tri-lingual.

If ballots go ballistic something has to give. Either ballot boxes, which typically only handle up to 4,000 ballots, have to be emptied out perhaps several times, increasing the chance for error, or bigger machines will have to be certified and purchased to handle them.

Amendment supporters say local governments can keep costs down by only holding votes on plan amendments as part of general elections every two years. Special elections add significant costs. But waiting for even-numbered years to come around creates other problems.

For projects that might be an economic boon and bring tax revenue to a region, they might have to wait two years if they just missed a ballot deadline. And infrequent votes on plan amendments only make the ballots thicker.

Minority rule
Private sector-initiated amendments will need a lot of popular support or have huge potential investment returns to be worth risking the time and expense.

It is expected by Dent that private sector amendments will have to be paid for by petitioners. That will limit special elections because of the huge cost, but there could still be big expenses for petitioners in general elections due to costs for ballot printing and sample ballots.

Another concern not much discussed is how to deal with plan amendments that require maps to show areas affected. Supervisors say there are no mechanisms for including maps on ballots and don't see how they could be included in sample ballots if not on the official ballot.

As it is, advertised plan amendments are often summarized in more than 75 words with accompanying maps. A summary for a 2007 Hillsborough County land use plan amendment was 139 words.

Getting to the polls seems to be a struggle for many. The turnout for the 2008 primary was less than 18% statewide and only 10.2% for Hillsborough County. Pasco and Pinellas weren't much better each with a 12.5% turnout.

If Amendment 4 passes, city of Sarasota voters may be the first to vote on plan amendments. They have a city commission election in the spring of 2011. This past spring, the city had only 5,125 ballots cast to elect two commissioners, less than a 16% turnout.

With 14 months to go it's hard to handicap Amendment 4, but the odds seemed stacked in favor of FHD if you believe their 70% polling figure. Nevertheless, the business community seems united and has been able to attract broader support.

The bill has bridged the gap between businesses and environmentalists, as groups in both camps are banding together with planners and cities to oppose it.

The bad economy works in favor of the opposition, and the latest population figures showing declines for the first time in decades defuses out-of-control growth mantra of many backers.

Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, with tight ties to the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, sees the overkill in the amendment, likening it to killing a fly with a waffle iron. Sarasota County, however, is not on the list of opponents. Only two counties are on it, Escambia and Seminole, plus 23 cities including Palmetto, Fort Myers and Bonita Springs.

Unfamiliar sounding plan amendments could become a big turnoff for those whose hobby is not looking over the shoulder of planning commissioners at midnight on Thursdays.

But that may be what Amendment 4 supporters hope will happen. With fewer voters marching to the polls, the small minority who do will surely be the most rabidly opposed to development. If recent history in the region is any indication, the anti-growth crowd will do better at getting their minions out, particularly when complimented by the NIMBY crowd.


Some of the 148 groups opposing Amendment 4:

1000 Friends of Florida

Broward League of Cities

City of Bonita Springs

City of Fort Myers

City of Palmetto

Escambia County Commission

Florida Association of District School Superintendents

Florida Association of School Boards

Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association

Florida Forestry Association

Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association

Florida Health Care Association

Florida League of Cities

Florida Solar Energy Industry Association

Seminole County Commission

Tampa Bay Partnership

Tri-County League of Cities

Volusia County League of Cities

When Hometown supports don't get their way

In a bittersweet irony in St. Pete Beach, Amendment 4 supporters have filed lawsuits to overturn the very election that their “mini-hometown democracy” amendment required be held for a plan amendment.

The amendment passed with 57% support, has survived two rounds of expensive litigation brought by Hometown Democracy advocates, and is now facing another appeal. This is how the 75-word ballot read:

Ordinance 2008-10 transmits to the state a Comprehensive Plan Amendment designating a Community Redevelopment District providing goals, objectives, policies, permitted uses, densities, intensities, and height standards that encourage commercial and temporary lodging uses; provides green standards for redevelopment promoting energy efficiency and conservation, public beach access, evacuation requirements, and enables impact fees. After state review, the City Commission may adopt, reject, or change the Amendment to comply with state law. Should Ordinance 2008-10 be adopted?


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