Hometown Democracy means war is brewing

By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
Published June 25, 2006

If you could line up all the Florida residents who ever fought a Wal-Mart or a new development on one side, and every city council or county commission member who ever approved one on the other side, you would have one heck of a war.

Well, that war looks like it's coming.

This past Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court approved a voter petition that goes by the nickname of "Hometown Democracy."

Hometown Democracy is the ultimate citizen revolt. It would take power away from Florida's city and county elected officials, and give that power directly to local voters.

How? By requiring voter approval for every change to a city or county's "comprehensive plan," which determines what kinds of things get built where.

Each city and county in Florida has one of these maps, usually called a "comp plan." They are the backbone of each community's decisions about future land use.

Where should the industry go in our town? Where should the stores go? Where should the homes, the parks, the green spaces go?

Imagine such decisions placed directly in the hands of voters, instead of city councils and county commissions!

(Just to be clear: The amendment would not require voter approval for rezonings or building permits. But any zoning decision still has to obey the comprehensive plan.)

Assuming that Hometown Democracy gets enough petition signatures, it will go on the statewide ballot, most likely in 2008.

This proposed amendment to the state Constitution is the result of a tide of resentment against local government that has been building across our state.

We have seen it in fights over big box stores and shopping centers. We see it today in Yankeetown in Levy County, where development issues have divided the people and led to a state investigation.

We see it in our own back yard in Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach, where voters have risen up to try to take decisionmaking away from City Hall. St. Petersburg right now is deciding whether to amend its comp plan at the request of the Sembler Corp.

Now we are likely to see the fight played out across the entire state. This kind of amendment, more than pregnant pigs or choo-choo trains, is why the Legislature and Florida's business community have fought for the past few years to crack down on voter petitions.

But the Supreme Court's ruling was unanimous, a slam-dunk. The court said that:

1) Hometown Democracy does not violate the rule that all proposed amendments must stick to a "single subject."

2) The ballot language of Hometown Democracy is clear and not misleading.

The second part of the ruling was especially important, because the court had thrown an earlier version of Hometown Democracy off the ballot in 2005 on those grounds.

The amendment was opposed by the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida School Boards Association.

The court's ruling not only shot down the cities, counties and school boards, but it also contained encouraging language for future voter petitions.

The court said that once a problem in the language of a petition has been fixed, opponents can't just keep raising new arguments and new challenges.

"Allowing piecemeal attacks on a proposed amendment," the court said, "would not only be fundamentally unfair to the proponent of an amendment, it would be a misuse of the process for approval of citizen initiatives."

What happens now? First, Hometown Democracy's organizers have to get enough signatures. Only 69,000 signatures have been officially verified and they need 611,000. But the backers say they already have more signatures in hand, and experience shows - as the critics of petitions themselves admit - that it is highly likely they can succeed.

Barring some other successful challenge to the amendment, that will leave Florida's cities and counties with one last option:

Prove to the voters that Hometown Democracy is a bad idea.

That will be a fun debate. Local officials will have to defend their track record and make the case as to why they, and not the voters, are better suited to decide what gets built where.

And if Hometown Democracy passes? Then those who want to build things in places in Florida where they weren't originally intended will have to convince the entire community it's a good idea. What a concept!

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