Miami-Dade County

Campaign-finance changes blocked from November ballot but legal fight continues

Joe Geller, a Democratic member of the Florida House and lawyer for a group pushing new campaign-finance rules, addresses Miami-Dade commissioners during a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. At the other lectern is Juan Cuba, executive director of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Behind them, also waiting to speak in favor of the rules, is Gihan Perera, head of New Florida Majority.
Joe Geller, a Democratic member of the Florida House and lawyer for a group pushing new campaign-finance rules, addresses Miami-Dade commissioners during a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. At the other lectern is Juan Cuba, executive director of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Behind them, also waiting to speak in favor of the rules, is Gihan Perera, head of New Florida Majority. dhanks@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade commissioners on Wednesday rejected a proposed ballot item imposing new restrictions on campaign contributions, saying the union-backed plan contained misleading language and applied limits unevenly.

The 4-9 vote against sending the question to voters in November marked a political setback for organizers of the restrictions, which would ban vendors, their lobbyists and family members from contributing to county candidates. But proponents plan to press their case in court, with a hearing set for Thursday morning to challenge the commission’s action.

Organizers delivered 127,000 signatures last month to start the process for winning a ballot slot, but faced opposition from lobbyists and some commissioners. Opponents seized on the effort’s backing by a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Every Voice, that funded much of the petition drive and helped draft the proposed legislation.

“There is nothing grass-roots about this,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz.

Advocates saw the measure, which lowers maximum campaign contributions from $1,000 to $250 and beefs up an existing public-financing option for candidates, as a way to cut down on a prime source of donations for county office holders: lobbyists and vendors. They argued the corporate dollars crowd out any efforts by ordinary citizens to participate in local politics.

“People don’t vote and don’t get involved because they think the system is rigged and corrupt,” said Gihan Perera, head of New Florida Majority, an organizing group that helps “progressive” candidates and has been working against Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Critics questioned why developers and unions weren’t included in the rules, since both play large roles in local politics and campaign funding. The smaller donation limits would be particularly helpful for unions, which can steer thousands of members’ donations to favored candidates.

County attorneys said the measure contained too many legal flaws to be sent to voters, including telling voters the donation restrictions applied to “large” county vendors even though limit was a relatively modest $250,000 contract.

A majority of commissioners agreed, voting 9-4 to declare the item and accompanying ordinance legally insufficient for the ballot. Voting against the declaration were the same four commissioners who supported putting it on the ballot a few minutes earlier: Chairman Jean Monestime, Barbara Jordan, Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez.

Even before the final agenda was published for Wednesday’s commission meeting, lawyers on both sides were readying for a court fight. Advocates formed the political committee called An Accountable Miami-Dade to manage the the petition drive, and the group filed suit against the county to try and force the measure onto the Nov. 8 ballot.

At the 10 a.m. hearing before Judge William Thomas, Accountable Miami-Dade lawyer Joe Geller said he’ll argue commissioners lack the authority to block a ballot item once the Elections Department verifies it has the required signatures. A

fter a two-week count, election administrators announced the group crossed the required 52,000-signature threshold — 4 percent of the county’s registered voters — with 56,000 valid signatures. County officials also revealed that, despite a $900,000 cost estimate for counting the signatures, the emergency operation ended up requiring only $400,000.

Geller, a Democratic member of the Florida House, urged commissioners to forward the question to voters and let any legal challenges come from opponents. “Tens of thousands of voters in Miami-Dade want to see this come to a vote,” he said. “These kinds of legal questions can be hashed out if somebody sues.”

Commissioner Sally Heyman, a lawyer who was one of nine votes against approving the ballot item, said that approach made no sense. “We have a duty,” she said, “not to put forward flawed legislation.”

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