A judge Friday ordered that Miami-Dade voters get a chance to decide on new rules for campaign donations, reversing a decision by county commissioners to keep the measure off the November ballot because of alleged legal flaws.
Circuit Court Judge William Thomas ruled the union-backed group behind the proposal to ban county contractors and their lobbyists from donating to county candidates followed all the required steps to secure a ballot slot.
County lawyers promptly appealed Thomas’ decision, setting up a showdown next week before the Third District Court of Appeal in western Miami-Dade.
An Accountable Miami-Dade, a new political committee, gathered nearly 130,000 signatures after presenting the proposal to commissioners in a spring public hearing. On Wednesday, commissioners voted 9 to 4 to accept the advice of county lawyers and rule the proposed ballot question legally insufficient for what the attorneys called misleading and over-reaching language.
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County lawyers appealed the ruling within hours after the decision was announced.
Thomas did not address the question of legality in his ruling, issued a day after a two-hour hearing Thursday. But he ruled the elected commissioners, whose reelection efforts thrive on lobbyist and vendor donations, could not block the petition drive’s path to the November election over objections to the wording.
“Finding the Board of County Commission has discretion or veto power over the language of the initiative petition would show a complete indifference to the Home rule Charter’s empowerment of the voters,” Thomas wrote.
The proposal would ban vendors, their lobbyists and immediate relatives from giving to most candidates for county offices, and reduce the allowable maximum contribution for all donors from $1,000 to $250. Critics say the changes would benefit unions, which favor candidates with hundreds of smaller donations from individual members. Proponents see the plan as a sensible way to chip away at the conflicts of interest that arise when elected officials rely on campaign money from companies that depend on favorable decisions from those officials.
Miami-Dade’s lawyers appealed Thomas’ decision to the Third DCA, saying the measure will deceive voters if left on the ballot. Among the complaints cited by the county: The ballot item says the new rules would only apply to “large” contractors, even though the accompanying ordinance imposes the restrictions on businesses with even a modest $250,000 contract with the county. The ballot language also talks about the perception of “impropriety” from contractors supporting county officials, a description the Miami-Dade lawyers said was too loaded.
“If allowed to remain on the ballot, the voters of Miami-Dade County will be affirmatively misled into voting to adopt an unconstitutional ordinance,” read the county’s appeal.
County lawyers argued the filing to the higher court requires an instant stay of the Thomas decision, which would at least temporarily leave the question off the ballot as attorneys on both sides prepare their cases. Accountable Miami-Dade can ask for a stay to be lifted before arguments begin, which would occur Thursday under the timetable laid out in the county’s appeal.
Election administrators said they must send the November ballots to the printers by Sept. 17 in order to make the required Sept. 24 mailing to overseas voters.
The appeal raises the stakes for Miami-Dade’s election administrators, who said they must send the November ballots to the printers by Sept. 17 in order to make the required Sept. 24 mailing to overseas voters. The appeals court could rule immediately after arguments, giving the elections department about two days to get the language finalized.
At the moment, it’s not entirely clear what the ballot language should say. A flaw county attorneys cited was that the question’s title contains 16 words, one more word than state law allows. Thomas agreed, but said the minor error wasn’t enough to disqualify the ballot item “considering how easy it would be to correct the oversight.” In his order, Thomas instructed the county to “begin the process” of putting the campaign-finance item on the ballot, but he did not prescribe a fix of his own for the extra word.
Christina White, Miami-Dade’s elections supervisor, said she wanted final ballot language by Sept. 1 in order to prepare the dozens of ballot versions required to accommodate all congressional and local elections throughout Miami-Dade. The appeal would put her about two weeks past that deadline.
Joe Geller, the Democratic member of the Florida House who represented Accountable Miami-Dade, said he didn’t have an immediate workaround for the flawed title. But he cheered Thomas’ broad decision as validating the sequence the plaintiffs had urged for adopting an ordinance by petition: Gather the required signatures, then deal with any legal challenges only if voters opt to enact it into law.
“If you get the signatures, you put it on the ballot,” he said. “It’s a mandatory duty.”