Miami-Dade County

Legal showdown looming on campaign-cash petitions

Christian Ulvert (far right) and supporters of the Accountable Miami-Dade political committee delivered two trucks loaded with more than 100,000 signed petitions to the county elections office on Aug. 2.
Christian Ulvert (far right) and supporters of the Accountable Miami-Dade political committee delivered two trucks loaded with more than 100,000 signed petitions to the county elections office on Aug. 2. pportal@miamiherald.com

Even as Miami-Dade commissioners prepare to reconvene Monday over a stalled petition drive for new campaign-finance rules, advocates expect a legal challenge that could once again paralyze the effort.

A political committee scored a victory this week when seven county commissioners agreed to call an emergency meeting at 10 a.m. Monday to consider authorizing a count of the signatures needed to put the petition item on the November ballot. But Accountable Miami-Dade leaders say they’re expecting a legal challenge, likely from county lawyers, questioning the language of the proposed ballot item that would ban lobbyist donations to county races and put other restrictions on corporate dollars.

“I intend to have a response to what we’ve heard are various areas of concern,” said Ben Kuhne, an elections lawyer representing Accountable Miami-Dade, a political committee backed in part with union funding. The group filed suit Monday demanding county staff start tallying the two truckloads of petition boxes dropped off at Elections headquarters on Aug. 2 as early voting for the Aug. 30 primary began.

At issue is a proposed county ordinance that would ban lobbyists and Miami-Dade contractors, along with their spouses and children, from backing candidates for county office. The law would also shrink the maximum $1,000 individual donation to $250 and beef-up the county’s public-finance option for candidates.

Opponents, including many lobbyists, see the new rules benefiting unions, which can steer hundreds of members’ individual donations to favored candidates. Proponents see the law diluting corporate influence on incumbents, who rely on businesses with county contracts for significant chunks of their reelection war chests.

The 13-seat commission stalled the petition drive on Aug. 9, when the board fell one short of the required seven-member quorum needed for an emergency meeting. Miami-Dade’s charter gives the commission 30 days to authorize the petition count, but the signatures were delivered during the board’s August recess.

With seven commissioners once again agreeing to convene, Accountable Miami-Dade expects a fight Monday even if it manages to secure a quorum. County lawyers have reportedly pointed out that the 16-word title of the proposed ballot item violates a state cap of 15 words, and that certain terms in the language don’t comply with rules on how issues should be presented to voters.

The County Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Sunday that Miami-Dade lawyers have already concluded the ballot language won’t pass legal muster. Kuhne said that he thinks the ballot language complies with the appropriate rules, but that commissioners can fix minor issues once the count begins.

“Nothing can — and should — stop the count,” he said. “If there is a language problem, it can be addressed later.”

Election chief Christina White says her staff must have the November ballot set immediately after the Aug. 30 primary in order to be ready for a late-September mailing to overseas voters. Accountable Miami-Dade says it submitted 127,000 signatures, and White said after the Aug. 9 meeting was canceled she couldn’t see a scenario where the item made it on the November ballot.

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