Miami-Dade County

After #StartCounting didn’t work, Miami-Dade group sues Elections Dept.

Members of An Accountable Miami-Dade held a press conference at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center Tuesday morning to announce a lawsuit against Miami-Dade to force a quick count of the signatures on the petitions gathered to put new restrictions on campaign cash on the November ballot. From L-R are Monica Russo, co-chair of An Accountable Miami-Dade; spokesman Christian Ulvert; and Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, former vice-mayor of Doral and co-chair of the group.
Members of An Accountable Miami-Dade held a press conference at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center Tuesday morning to announce a lawsuit against Miami-Dade to force a quick count of the signatures on the petitions gathered to put new restrictions on campaign cash on the November ballot. From L-R are Monica Russo, co-chair of An Accountable Miami-Dade; spokesman Christian Ulvert; and Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, former vice-mayor of Doral and co-chair of the group. emichot@miamiherald.com

The push to get campaign-cash restrictions before Miami-Dade voters in November moved to the courts Tuesday, with an advocacy group unveiling a lawsuit demanding the county start counting about 127,000 signatures on a petition backing the ballot item.

“The petitions are collecting dust,” said Monica Russo, president of the local SEIU union and a chair of Accountable Miami-Dade, which organized the petition drive to ban campaign donations from county lobbyists and vendors. “Democracy delayed is democracy denied.”

At issue is timing, with the Accountable Miami-Dade group insisting the county can complete a count quickly enough for printing ballots in September. County officials say there isn’t enough time after the Aug. 2 delivery of 1,273 boxes of petition forms in the midst of a primary election and the coming scramble to get ready for November’s presidential election.

The lawsuit asks a judge to require either the 13-member County Commission or Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to instruct election administrators to start counting the petitions. The commission called a special meeting last week to order the count, but could not get a quorum. No regular commission meeting is scheduled until mid-September.

In the lawsuit, Accountable Miami-Dade says Gimenez’s recess authority gives him the power to act without the commission, but county lawyers issued an opinion over the weekend saying he does not. Gimenez said he wants voters to decide the issue in November but that he cannot step in and start the count.

“Mayor Gimenez is supportive of this issue going before the Board of County Commissioners for immediate action,” spokesman Michael Hernández said. “However, it requires board action.”

The petition drive is supported by top players on the liberal side of Miami-Dade’s political spectrum. Labor money is helping back the group, and Christian Ulvert, a leading consultant for local Democratic candidates, is running the effort. Supporters have used the #StartCounting hashtag to criticize commissioners and Gimenez for not intervening with Elections.

Restrictions on lobbyist and vendor money, along with the lower limits, could be an advantage to labor unions, which rely on smaller contributions from members to support favored candidates. The rules also would hit a core source of campaign cash for incumbents.

Russo joined Ulvert and Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a former Doral vice mayor, for a County Hall press conference to unveil the suit, which was filed near midnight Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Rodriguez Aguilera recalled her days in elected office to argue against donations from businesses with interests before the government.

“When you are up there and you have to vote for something,” she said, “and the people who are giving you the money are the people you’re voting on, it’s a conflict of interest.”

Critics of the measure privately say they expect it would pass in November, but that it would be vulnerable to a court challenge over freedom to participate in the political process. The donation ban covers not just owners and top executives of companies doing business with the county, but also their spouses and children.

Abigail Price-Williams, Miami-Dade’s lead attorney, has not issued an opinion on the proposal but Gimenez said Sunday he expected her to say “there are problems” with the ballot language.

Along with banning vendor and lobbyist donations to county campaigns, the proposed item would lower the cap on all donations from $1,000 to $250. As proposed, the measure would also ban vendors and lobbyists from donations to some county-level political committees, but not impact the state committees or “electioneering” groups that candidates often tap as fund-raising vehicles.

Since the county charter requires commissioners to order a petition count within 30 days of submission, a judge may rule there is no issue until that Sept. 2 deadline passes. The Accountable Miami-Dade suit argues that because no commission meeting is scheduled in August, intervention is required.

County elections chief Christina White, a Gimenez appointee and a defendant in the suit, has said November ballots must be ready to print by the first week in September in order to be ready for mailing overseas by Sept. 24. Early voting began Monday for the Aug. 30 primary, where Gimenez and three county commissioners face reelection votes. Term limits bar the candidates from running for reelection again.

If Accountable Miami-Dade fails to get the item on the November ballot, the group could force a special election in early 2017. That would be triggered if the final signature count represents at least 8 percent of the county’s 1.3 million registered voters — about 105,000 signatures. If not, it would be placed on the ballot for the next scheduled countywide election, currently the August 2018 primary.

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