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Hometown Democracy Fight

Florida Hometown Democracy

By Gina Jordan

Tallahassee, FL – Florida voters will decide on Amendment 4 in November. The proposal establishes that, instead of local government leaders pushing through new development, citizens must have the final say on all land use changes. A new study suggests Amendment 4 would shed jobs in Florida. But an organization called Florida Hometown Democracy, which led a petition drive to get the measure on the ballot, says the opposition is just upset that citizens will have the power to determine how growth is handled in their communities.

Amendment 4 is nicknamed "hometown democracy." The newly formed "Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy" held a news conference in Tallahassee to release a study that they say is proof of the damage the measure will do to Florida. Economist Tony Villamil is with the Washington Economics Group, the organization that conducted the study.

"Bottom line, and I think most economists in Florida would agree with me, this is a jobs killer," said Villamil, finding that more than a quarter million jobs potentially could be lost. "The impact of Amendment 4 is quite negative to our economy. It will result in a total economic impact of around $34-billion per year."

Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, says Amendment 4 sends a clear signal that Florida is closed for business. He offered this scenario: what if a company is looking to expand in a new state and add 300 jobs?

"Under Amendment 4, choosing Florida would mean that you need to navigate our state's existing land use bureaucracy, and that could take one to two years currently. Next, you would have to wait as long as two more years for the next election. You would have to hire political consultants, produce television ads, send direct mail, and run high priced political campaigns."

The former mayor of St. Pete Beach, Ward Friszolowski, says his hometown passed a similar measure in 2006 and has paid for it ever since. He says residents who wanted to update the town's comprehensive plan got four land use changes on the ballot, and all were easily passed.

"Within 24 hours of that election, wealthy Amendment 4 backers in St. Pete Beach filed a lawsuit to overturn the results. The same folks that promised people a voice in growth were the same ones that filed over a half dozen lawsuits and as many administrative challenges aimed at delaying, defying and overturning the express will of the voters of St. Pete Beach."

Friszolowski says the legal bills for the town's taxpayers are at a half million dollars and climbing. But John Hedrick, an attorney and spokesman for Florida Hometown Democracy, says there's more to the story. He says the local referendum in St. Pete Beach was really quite different from Amendment 4, and there were legitimate reasons for those lawsuits.

"It's where they shortcut all the other requirements that are required under state law or the local ordinance, or they didn't advertise, or they didn't let people know what was going on, where they just basically barreled in and came to the city and said hey, stick this on the ballot,' and no one knew anything about it."

Hedrick says there have been no lawsuits in the town regarding referendums that were carried out correctly. As for the study showing that Florida's economic growth potential would be permanently impacted under Amendment 4, he says, "The study that was done, frankly, what can you say? It was bought and paid for by their side. You can have five economists in a room and have five different views."

A big deal has been made of the fact that the opposition has widespread support, with labor leaders joining politicians and business interests to fight it. Yet Hedrick says his side has union support, too, and as for the amendment being a jobs killer, he says, "Who already killed the economy? It was this rampant overbuilding that the developers engaged in, and Florida's going to be a lot longer at recovering from the economy because they overbuilt so much. They already crashed the economy. They've already been the jobs killer."

Hedrick says there is an oversupply of land that is already set up for new business ventures. Companies that want to develop in compliance with a community's comprehensive plan would not need a vote of the electorate to proceed. He has more convincing to do, however. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, calls the proposal a horrible idea. At a meeting of Associated Press editors at the Capitol, Sink said she would be speaking against it on the campaign trail.

"People will be asking me about all sorts of amendments, of course, and I am going to be loud and vociferous about the impact of the possible passage of an amendment which would just tie our hands behind our back."

The folks behind Florida Hometown Democracy say right now, polls show Amendment 4 will pass. That will take at least 60-percent of the vote.