Miami-Dade County

Fight to limit campaign cash in Miami-Dade now rests with a judge

Members of An Accountable Miami-Dade delivered about 127,000 petitions to the Miami-Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral on Aug. 2.
Members of An Accountable Miami-Dade delivered about 127,000 petitions to the Miami-Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral on Aug. 2. pportal@miamiherald.com

A day after Miami-Dade commissioners declared a campaign-finance ballot item too flawed to go to voters in November, a judge questioned why that legal decision didn’t come early enough for the petitioners to fix the problem.

“How did we get to this point where everything has been done, and then the legal eagles get hold of this and say: ‘Oh no, sorry. Can’t approve it,’ Judge William Thomas said in opening a Circuit Court hearing to weigh a lawsuit by petition organizers against Miami-Dade. “Now they’re out of time. Because they can’t undo it because everything waited until the very end.”

Thomas’s opening line of questioning gave hope to advocates of the proposed rewrite of Miami-Dade’s campaign-finance rules, which would ban county vendors, their lobbyists and family members from donating to candidates for county offices. But his second wave of queries attacked a central premise of the petition group’s argument: that Thomas could order the item on the ballot and then strike it down later if the county prevailed in having it declared illegal.

“What you are saying to me makes absolutely no sense,” Thomas said to Joe Geller, the Democratic member of the Florida House representing petition organizers’ political committee, An Accountable Miami-Dade. “You give [voters] a mess, and then a judge takes it away?”

Proponents of the measure say it will help strip corporate dollars from their outsized role in county politics, with vendors and lobbyists serving as prime donors to incumbents. Critics say the rules favor the small donations that come from unions, which backed the petition drive.

Thomas didn’t make a ruling after the nearly two-hour hearing. He’s facing a time crunch, with election administrators saying they need to send ballot language to the printers at the end of next week. If the judge rules he wants more time to consider the legal issues — or sends the item back to the County Commission to redo some steps — the question could roll over into the next county election, currently scheduled for August 2018.

The petition’s backers want the heavy turnout of November’s election to win passage, and have the new rules in effect as incumbents on the commission gear up for the 2018 elections. Opponents see an advantage in a delay: the 2018 contests would be the last time any current incumbent needs to raise money at the county level before they’re forced to leave office from term-limit rules.

Geller described a system largely geared against reform. That includes what he called a deliberately uphill path in Miami-Dade for citizens to get laws passed by ordinance — a process that requires notarized signatures from 4 percent of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters. Accountable Miami-Dade gathered nearly 130,000 signatures and delivered them in moving trucks to the Elections Department in early August. While the petition qualified, more than half of the signatures were declared invalid by county canvassers.

Accountable Miami-Dade presented its proposed petition to commissioners at a spring hearing, before heading out to collect signatures. Geller questioned why county lawyers didn’t raise objections then. “Certainly nothing prevented the county, the county attorney’s office, county commissioners or anyone else to say: ‘Listen now that you’re here for a public hearing, they could have given a heads up that there may be a problem here,’ ” Geller said.

The county’s legal department announced its opinion after the petitions were filed, calling the ballot language misleading for, among other things, saying the rules applied only to “large” county vendors while any contract worth more than $250,000 would be subject to the new rules. In a 9 to 4 vote Wednesday, county commissioners accepted their attorneys’ verdict, a decision that at least temporarily ended the process to get the item before voters in November.

I really don’t care if the people who work for the elections supervisor don’t get to sleep. That’s their job.

Judge William Thomas

Oren Rosenthal, the assistant county attorney representing Miami-Dade, said charter rules used to require the county’s legal staff to screen petition language early in the process, but that voters approved changes eliminating that step more than 10 years ago.

Proponents of the measure say it will help strip corporate dollars from their outsized role in county politics, with vendors and lobbyists serving as prime donors to incumbents. Critics say the rules favor the small but more numerous donations that come from members of unions, which backed the petition drive.

Thomas suggested a ruling could come before the weekend. Rosenthal emphasized the timing of the November election. State law requires Miami-Dade to mail overseas ballots by Sept. 24, and county elections chief Christina White said the ballots — more than 100 versions of them, to accommodate various congressional districts and local elections — must go to the printers by Sept. 17.

Rosenthal said Elections had wanted final ballot language by Sept. 1 to allow for two weeks of testing and proofreading, and that last-minute additions threaten to disrupt Miami-Dade’s role in the presidential election — a chronic sore spot for the largest county in the swing state of Florida. Even a speedy decision will mean delay, given the certainty of an appeal if Thomas orders the item on the ballot.

“It’s my duty to tell you that every moment we delay is a moment that’s lost to reliability and accuracy,” Rosenthal said. “Can it possibly be done? Yes. The errors that have the potential to arise are tremendous.”

Thomas said he has a duty to the local residents who signed the petition, regardless of how much disruption it might cause a county agency.

“You’re asking me to suppress the voice of the people who are in support of this initiative because of the potential jeopardizing of a larger issue,” he said. “If I find you should be on the ballot, I really don’t care if the people who work for the elections supervisor don’t get to sleep. That’s their job.”

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