It sounded like a good idea. In 1988, the authors of the Orange County Charter created a provision that gives voters a tool to petition for change.
Since that time, there have been several attempts, but no one met the requirements to put an issue on the ballot until this year.
That’s when a group of activists under the name Citizens for a Greater Orange County wrote a ballot question that would force local businesses — with more than 15 employees — to provide earned sick time to their workers.
Across the country, the push for mandatory sick leave is gaining momentum. In 2007, San Francisco became the first city to require that employers give employees paid sick leave. Seattle, and the state of Connecticut, have since followed suit. Similar campaigns are underway in other states.
The Orange County citizens’ group followed the procedures laid out in the county’s charter. They spent thousands of hours knocking on doors to gather the 50,000 signatures needed to put the initiative on the November ballot — or so they thought.
What ensued was one gigantic manipulation to thwart the process. Powerful business leaders got a chamber-friendly commissioner to try to add a countermeasure to the ballot, barring any regulation of employer-employee relations.
When that didn’t work, the Orange County Commission voted to delay the citizen initiative, saying the ballot language was “confusing,” even though 50,000 voters had signed off on it. Commissioners knew the delay would push the referendum past the deadline to print the November ballot, denying citizens their chance to be heard.
After an emergency hearing last week, a three-judge panel said the measure should be on the November ballot, but gave the commission 20 days to respond — effectively ensuring the measure would miss the ballot deadline.
It is unfortunate that Orange County’s charter says commissioners must approve any referendum for the ballot, even those where organizers have gathered the required signatures — a roadblock that should be eliminated.
And commissioners should be ashamed of themselves for trying to subvert the petition process.
While many voters believe that businesses should do the right thing and give employees paid sick time, others are not sure if businesses should be forced to shoulder the cost. Still, the process is designed to let the voters debate and decide.
This fiasco made everyone look bad. Powerful business leaders look like selfish bullies. County commissioners appear to be in the pockets of special interests. The political committee looked like it was rushing the initiative, though it was only following rules that lack a firm deadline for petition signatures and an automatic legal review.
Who is at fault? The 15 authors of the Orange County charter and every review commission in the years since who had an opportunity to fix these oversights, but chose not to. At a state level, citizen initiatives face a strict timeline and an automatic legal review once they reach 10 percent of the needed signatures. The same should happen at the county level.
Orange County voters, commissioners, business leaders and judges learned a hard lesson, and other counties should pay close attention. Of the 20 Florida counties with charters, only seven specify a time frame or special election for citizen-led referendums. None requires a legal review to ensure the language is clear.
Florida counties should learn from the fiasco in Orange and guarantee a process that allows citizens to orderly — and confidently — petition their government for change.
For in Orange County, the citizens’ trust is shattered.
Susan Clary is a former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and Orlando Sentinel.