A state appeals court declined Thursday to place a campaign-finance proposal back on the Miami-Dade ballot, handing opponents, including the county itself, a victory in their legal fight against the petition drive to impose new restrictions on campaign donations.
The 2-to-1 ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal declined to reinstate a lower court’s ruling that ordered the question on the ballot. That Sept. 9 decision by Judge William Thomas found the group backing the petition drive had gone through the proper steps needed to win a slot on the ballot, and that county commissioners exceeded their authority last week when they declared the proposal too legally flawed to go before voters.
County lawyers appealed, an action that brought an automatic freeze of Thomas’ order. The group behind the petition, An Accountable Miami-Dade, asked the appeals court to lift the freeze, known as a stay, but Thursday’s decision rejected that request.
Thursday’s brief decree from the appeals court lacked the finality of a full decision, but lawyers fighting the ballot item essentially declared victory and said the decision means the legal fight is over for now.
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“It is obvious the Third District Court of Appeal is going to overturn Judge Thomas,” said J.C. Planas, a lawyer representing lobbyist Eric Zichella in a separate legal challenge of the ballot. “If they were going to affirm him, they would have vacated the stay.”
But Joe Geller, the Democratic Florida lawmaker representing An Accountable Miami-Dade, warned against reading too much into the decision.
“We don’t know what the appellate court is thinking until it rules,” he said. “Trying to read tea leaves from the denial of lifting the stay is not a good idea.”
It is obvious the Third District Court of Appeal is going to overturn Judge Thomas. If they were going to affirm him, they would have vacated the stay.
Lawyer J.C. Planas, representing a lobbyist challenging the ballot item
At issue is a proposed ordinance that would dramatically rewrite Miami-Dade’s campaign-finance laws. Among the changes would be a ban on donations from county vendors, their families and their lobbyists, and a lowering of the maximum contribution from $1,000 to $250. It also would beef up the county’s existing option for public financing of campaigns, with the government providing matching funds for candidates to county offices.
An Accountable Miami-Dade, a union-backed group relying on out-of-town dollars, organized a petition drive for the measure, part of a national effort by progressive groups to impose local campaign-finance rules.
Critics, including local lobbyists, branded the effort a power grab by unions and their Democratic allies, since the donations limit would favor labor groups and the stream of small contributions they steer to candidates from thousands of members. Advocates, who turned in nearly 130,000 signatures in early August to try to secure a ballot spot, touted the rules as a way to restrict the influence of corporate dollars on county politics, where vendors and lobbyists are top donors.
The court will uphold the will of 127,000 Miami-Dade residents who signed the petition.
An Accountable Miami-Dade campaign manager Tony Coppola
In a statement, Zichella, a reliable contributor to county incumbents, called the ruling “a vindication for the county commissioners who took a courageous stand to protect the voters from out-of-town political operatives trying to fraudulently hijack our elections.”
In legal filings, county lawyers Oren Rosenthal and Michael Valdes called the ballot item misleading. The question referred to county officials, though the property appraiser wasn’t included in the new rules, and talked of “large” county vendors even though the restrictions applied to contracts worth as little as $250,000 a year.
Geller defended the language but said legal challenges should wait until after voters had a chance to decide the matter. He likened the process to commissioners passing an ordinance on their own, with court challenges delayed until after the proposal becomes law.
Judge Thomas sided with Geller, saying commissioners were obligated to put the question on the ballot after enough citizens — at least 4 percent of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters — petitioned for a referendum.
The county lawyers had asked for a ruling on the stay by midday Thursday in order to let the Elections Department know the final content for the fall ballots, which must be printed during the next several days in order to be mailed by Sept. 24 for overseas voters.
After the decision, County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams issued a memo to commissioners saying the ballots would be printed without the campaign-finance question.
“The Supervisor of Elections will prepare and print the ballot in accordance with this Board’s decision finding the Initiatory Petition legally insufficient and deficient as to form,” Price-Williams wrote.
Tony Coppola, An Accountable Miami-Dade’s campaign manager, called that move premature. “We expect there to be a ruling before the county prints the ballot,” he said. “The court will uphold the will of 127,000 Miami-Dade residents who signed the petition.”