Miami-Dade County

Suit coming to force campaign-cash rules on Miami-Dade ballot

Christian Ulvert (far right) and a group of activists from An Accountable Miami-Dade gathered in front of the Miami Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral on Tuesday August 2, 2016, to deliver two truck loads of petitions asking that new restrictions for campaign donations be placed on the November ballot.
Christian Ulvert (far right) and a group of activists from An Accountable Miami-Dade gathered in front of the Miami Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral on Tuesday August 2, 2016, to deliver two truck loads of petitions asking that new restrictions for campaign donations be placed on the November ballot. pportal@miamiherald.com

Backers of proposed campaign-cash rules said Monday they would sue Miami-Dade County to force the petition count needed to place their proposal on the November ballot.

An organizer of the petition drive, funded in part by union dollars, said his group plans to ask a judge Tuesday to instruct Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to order a count of about 127,000 signatures delivered to Elections Headquarters in two U-Haul trucks on Aug. 2.

The proposed rules would ban campaign donations from lobbyists and government vendors, and lower the cap on individual gifts from $1,000 to $250. It also would expand Miami-Dade’s little-used public-financing option for candidates.

“The County’s failure to act not only goes against the will of the people, but it’s a failure to comply with county law,” Accountable Miami-Dade, a group led in part by a local union chief , said in a statement Monday. “The Mayor should be leading the effort to ensure that the voices of over 127,000 voters are heard, not hiding behind others.”

The petition delivery sparked a legal fight over the next steps. Miami-Dade’s charter says the County Commission “shall within 30 days order” a count of the petitions to make sure there are enough of them to win a spot on the ballot. But commissioners failed to muster a quorum at a special meeting last week, and another commission meeting is not scheduled this month.

In order for the measure to make the Nov. 8 ballot, the signatures must be verified and counted by the first week in September. Otherwise, the next opportunity for a countywide vote that wouldn’t require an expensive special election isn’t until 2018.

County lawyers issued a brief memo Friday declaring Gimenez does not have the authority to step in and order the count himself.

“I want those petitions to be counted. I want to get it on the November ballot,” Gimenez said Sunday during a televised debate with challenger Raquel Regalado on WPLG-ABC 10’s “This Week in South Florida.” “Unfortunately I don’t have that power.”

At issue is a set of rules that would upend how incumbents in Miami-Dade fund their campaigns, where lobbyists and vendors tend to be significant sources of cash. Unions are, too, and the rules could give the labor groups an edge since they rely on smaller donations from members to help preferred candidates.

Another big source of incumbent donations, developers, would not be impacted by the rules. The new law wouldn’t affect candidates’ electioneering committees, either. Those organizations have some spending restrictions in terms of directly helping candidates, but no cap on donations.

Christian Ulvert, a campaign consultant for local Democratic Party candidates and spokesman of the Accountable Miami-Dade political committee, said the suit would likely name three defendants: Gimenez, the 13-member County Commission and Christina White, the county’s elections supervisor and an Gimenez appointee. Ulvert declined to comment beyond the group’s statement.

Accountable Miami-Dade lists as one of its co-chairs Monica Russo, president of the SEIU Florida union, and the labor group donated $35,000 of the $306,000 cash the political committee reported raising through early August.

Abigail Price-Williams, Miami-Dade’s county attorney and a commission appointee, wrote in a Saturday email that even with commissioners on a summer recess the mayor can’t step in and order election officials to start counting. Advocates of the drive say Price is misinterpreting the charter, which they say gives the mayor broad authority to act during a recess.

Behind the scenes, election administrators see a steep challenge in a crash count of nearly 130,000 signatures as they manage a countywide primary — early voting started Monday — and then the quick turnaround needed to get ballots ready for a presidential year. The November ballots must be mailed overseas in late September, and White says all ballot items must be decided by the first week in September.

Joe Geller, a Democratic member of the Florida House and an elections lawyer with Greenspoon Marder, said Miami-Dade has an obligation to make an extra effort to get the petitions counted, despite pressures that 2016 brings with it.

“I personally believe they can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “If they need a little bit of extra staff, then for God’s sake spend the money.”

Miami-Dade’s charter only requires about 52,000 signatures to get on the ballot — 4 percent of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters — and it’s not clear if the Elections Department could stop counting (or “canvassing”) once that total is reached. Election officials have not issued a public estimate of how much time they’d need for a canvass, but last Tuesday’s scratched commission meeting had White declaring that she did not “see a scenario where this is going to make the November ballot.”

A missed deadline for the November elections would bump the ballot item into a future election. The charter requires a special election for a petition drive with signatures from at least 8 percent of the county’s registered voters — roughly 105,000, leaving Accountable Miami-Dade a cushion of about 22,000 names. That election would take place 120 days after the petitions are certified, making early 2017 the likely landing spot. That could be a costly move: in 2013, Miami-Dade estimated a countywide special election to consider a higher hotel tax would cost $5 million.

Regalado, a School Board member and a former practicing attorney, challenged Gimenez to take action. “I think you can make a very good case for the mayor’s ability to bring this to the elections department,” she said. “I think this is an opportunity for him to go a little beyond what the county attorney is doing.”

Whatever the result of the lawsuit, the county attorney is likely to play a large role in the next step. Critics of the proposal see it as unconstitutional for limiting lobbyists and others from participating fully in campaigns, and Price-Williams is expected to say the language itself wouldn’t survive a legal challenge.

“The county attorney has never opined on it,” Gimenez, who is running for a final four-year term, said in an interview. “I believe that the county attorney will opine that there are problems with the language itself.”

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